It’s been two years since we first published a Good Gear profile about Swiss footwear company On and the brand’s sustainability initiatives, which included the introduction of the industry’s first-ever fully recyclable running shoe. Since then, the brand has seen significant change and is now a publicly traded company. With 1,700 employees globally and shoes available in 60 countries (compared to just 700 employees and 50 countries in 2021), we wondered how the fast-growing brand is doing on its eco-driven quest to make “high-performance products with the lowest possible footprint.” In part two of this Good Gear series, we dive into the latest of On’s green innovations and the collaborations behind them.
One day, in the summer of 2018, On co-founder Caspar Coppetti had a thought: Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make our Cloud shoes out of clouds? By “clouds,” Coppetti didn’t mean using actual clouds–those billowing white pillows of water droplets and ice crystals in the sky–but the nebulous carbon dioxide emissions we never see and that are rapidly warming our planet to dangerous temperatures. After five years of hard-won development, On’s innovation team realized Coppetti’s dream with the launch of CleanCloudTM, an ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) foam made out of carbon waste. In September 2022, On released the Cloudprime, which features a CleanCloud midsole and is considered the industry’s first shoe made from carbon emissions.
Founded in 2010, On has always prided itself on decoupling technology-forward footwear from petroleum-based resources. On’s signature shoe line, the Cloud, has been revolutionary thanks to CloudTec, its patented cushioning system with a unique scallop-edged sole. (A new version of CloudTec will be included in the updated Cloudsurfer, available at REI later this spring, and all future Cloud models.) But the Cloud, especially its earliest generations that were largely made from a combination of fossil fuel-derived polyesters and foam, was hardly a poster child for On’s Earth-first business ethos.
Over the years, the company has diligently chipped away at its sustainability goals. The comparatively low-hanging fruit came first: Reducing water usage, transitioning to using recycled polyamides and recycled polyesters, converting its labs in Zurich to run on renewable energy, making the brand’s packaging 100% recyclable, and eliminating use of polyfluorinated chemicals. But the ultimate, yet more complicated, goal of creating a shoe that was made entirely from bio-based materials took the brand the better part of a decade to achieve. In 2020, the brand launched the industry’s first circularity program, called Cyclon, which provides subscriptions to the Cloudneo, a fully recyclable high-performance running shoe made entirely of castor beans. At the end of the Cloudneo’s life, consumers return their shoes–which On recycles to make new products–and receive a fresh pair in exchange. The Cyclon program is available in 33 countries nationwide, reflecting a growing consumer interest in the circular economy.
Yet even with all of these strides in improved sustainability, the majority of On’s running shoes are mostly made from petrochemicals, or “fossil feedstock.” That’s because the sole is the most carbon-intensive part of a shoe, says On’s Head of Innovation Ilmarin Heitz. Shoe uppers are marginally easier than shoe soles to make more sustainable by replacing petroleum-derived materials with recycled polyester or organic cotton. But developing a fossil-free alternative for the sole—which receives more wear-and-tear and merits higher performance and durability standards than the upper—isn’t a simple swap of materials. It’s a bit of a mad science experiment and, in the case of the CleanCloudTM, a total reinvention of the supply chain.
“The origin material to make a running shoe’s outsole is currently crude oil,” says Heitz. “Finding a [fossil-free] material that fulfills your needs is great, but…the biggest question was how to overcome the challenge of scaling a promising new technology for mass production. We realized we needed to build a new supply chain. This is quite a big undertaking and long-term investment. It’s not something you can create overnight.”
To achieve this Herculean feat, On needed help, which it eventually found in LanzaTech, Borealis and Technip Energies, some of the most cutting-edge engineering and biotechnology companies in the world. CleanCloudTM foam originates as carbon monoxide, which LanzaTech captures from industrial sources (think steel mills) before the gas enters the atmosphere. LanzaTech then takes those emissions and ferments them in a manner similar to brewing beer. The natural fermentation process turns the carbon into ethanol, which Technip Energies dehydrates to make ethylene. Borealis then polymerizes the ethylene into EVA plastic pellets, which On uses to create its CleanCloudTM foam.
This is not the first time carbon capture and conversion technology has been used to create consumer products. In 2021, activewear brand lululemon and LanzaTech announced they were working in tandem to create the first fabric made from recycled carbon emissions. Car parts, laundry detergent, sunglass lenses, fuel, even diamonds and perfume have been made from recycled carbon. Though this process of crafting carbon waste into products, known as carbon-to-value, is still an emerging industry, there is enormous potential, both for the economy (some estimates indicate a six-trillion dollar global market opportunity) and for CO2 mitigation, an essential piece to curbing climate change.
The announcement of the Cloudprime, which is not yet available for purchase, signals a new chapter in sustainability not just for On but for the fashion industry as a whole. Instead of seeking a patent for the technology behind CleanCloudTM, On is committed to transparency and intends to share their knowledge about the process.
“We believe that On can be an agent for positive change through enabling and accelerating the scale up of sustainable technologies such as CleanCloudTM”, On co-founder Caspar Coppetti said during the Cloudprime launch. “Five years ago, [CleanCloudTM] was barely a dream. Imagine what can happen in the future as we unlock the potential of alternative carbon sources with further research and in collaboration with the best partners.”
That teamwork mentality can be seen in every part of the Cloudprime. The CleanCloudTM outsole incorporates the world’s first chemically upcycled TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) from post-consumer plastic waste, which On and circular start-up Novoloop worked together to develop. For the Cloudprime’s upper, On partnered with French start-up Fairbrics to create a polyester-based textile that is also made from carbon emissions. It will likely be a while before these new carbon-based materials are incorporated into On’s suite of shoes, but Heitz says the company looks forward to bringing the technology “to as many consumers as possible in the near future.”
In the meantime, we can expect big things from On’s innovation team. According to Heitz, the brand currently has over 50 sustainability projects in the works that are all rooted in On’s quest for circularity and ambitious goal to make every one of its products fossil-free. Among these is a fiber-to-fiber recycling partnership with Carbios and an all-star lineup of activewear brands including Patagonia, PUMA, and Salomon. This industry partnership seeks to scale Carbios’ unique bio-recycling technology which, according to Carbios’ site, “uses an enzyme capable of selectively extracting the polyester [and] recovering it to recreate a virgin fiber.”
“The biggest challenge is that there is nearly no experience in this field. We’re all pioneers in our goal to move away from fossil fuels,” says Heitz.
And for On, that means we all must work together.