Consider this: The footwear industry produced a record 24.3 billion pairs of shoes globally in 2019. That’s enough for every person in the world to own three pairs of shoes. Now consider this: The footwear industry is responsible for 1.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions annually. Surprising? It shouldn’t be. In 2015, footwear and apparel production accounted for more greenhouse gas emissions than all of 2016’s emissions from international flights and maritime shipping combined. In 2018, footwear and apparel production emissions totaled 2.1 billion tons, more than that of France, Germany and the U.K. combined. The footwear industry depends on nonrenewable resources (like oil) to produce synthetic fibers and chemicals to dye textiles. And it produces a lot of waste. But Swiss footwear company On wants to change that—one shoe at a time.
“Brands should be responsible for the waste they create,” said On’s Head of Sustainability Viviane Gut. “You have to provide the infrastructure to take care of the products you produce,” whether that’s scrap material or an old pair of running shoes, to reduce negative impacts like landfill waste and C02 emissions.
Since its founding in 2010, On has touted sustainability as a core company value, but that undeniably came second to business during the brand’s early years. When On’s Innovation Technology Lead Nils Altrogge joined the team in 2015, On was still considered a startup with about 30 employees. Today, On is a global brand with more than 700 employees. Its shoes—known for the signature scalloped CloudTec® outsole—are stocked in 6,500 stores in 50 countries.
But after years of growth, On is prioritizing sustainability with a sense of urgency. To effectively combat climate change, business for On, and the industry as a whole, cannot continue the way it has. According to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if the apparel and footwear industry changes nothing about its current “take-make-waste” model, by 2050 it will use a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. That number could be a deciding factor in tipping the global temperature above 2 degrees Celsius. Scientists believe that breaching that temperature threshold would lead to continued sea level rise, coral bleaching, biodiversity loss and higher frequencies of natural disasters like wildfires and flooding. Marginalized communities would be among the hardest hit.
What’s bad for the environment is bad for business, too. Many brands’ bottom lines are at risk. According to a 2017 report published by the Global Fashion Agenda, companies who choose not to invest in sustainability could see a decline of up to three percentage points in profit margin by the year 2030. Altrogge said On, like the rest of the industry, is seeing increasing consumer demand for the brand to adopt environmental best practices. Finding sustainable solutions is an obligation for On, not an option.
“On’s founders have always been interested in sustainability,” says Altrogge. “Now that we have the credibility in the performance market as an innovative shoe brand, we’ve shifted to creating more sustainable directions. It’s our responsibility.”
That shift has been guided by one question: How do you make a truly sustainable shoe? The answer is complicated.
A product made from a single material—say, a T-shirt—can be made more sustainable by replacing the original fabric with one that’s recycled or has a lighter footprint. It’s then easy for a company to communicate to consumers how that T-shirt’s sustainability performance has improved, said Amina Razvi, the executive director for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an organization that pioneered the HIGG Index to measure environmental and social impacts in the apparel, footwear and textile industries. But because shoes are made from many materials, it’s not as easy to swap them to create a shoe that is, as a whole, sustainable.
“For most footwear, there’s no easy equivalent,” added Razvi. “You would need to make changes to multiple components to have the same type of impact reduction.”
Shoes have historically been made from a complex blend of natural yarns, glues, man-made filaments, plastics and even metal, a combination of materials that makes it effectively impossible to recycle the shoe. But at On, said Altrogge, research shows that materials can account for 80% of the company’s environmental footprint.
To reduce that, the brand is phasing out virgin polyester and polyamides, polyfluorinated chemicals, and other petroleum-based materials. Eventually, On intends to use only 100%-recycled polyester and recycled polyamides. The company already uses vegan leather and 100%-organic cotton in its products, and is currently testing alternative materials like human-made Cellulosics, plant-based fibers made from dissolved wood pulp. Last year, On rolled out the dye-free Cloudrock Edge Raw hiking boot, one of the first steps the company is taking to reduce the amount of chemicals and water it uses in production.
Additionally, On has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions through allocating carbon budgets for team travel. And in late 2020, On launched its supplier environmental framework, which provides a roadmap and specific targets for On’s suppliers to better manage waste, water, energy and chemicals throughout the production process.
Yet even if On were to drastically decrease its emissions and make every single one of its shoes undyed and 100% recycled, the true crux of becoming a fully sustainable brand is learning how to shift production to a circular model. The circular model is founded on three ideas: keeping products in use for as long as possible, creating products that are designed to have minimal waste and pollution, and using renewable or recyclable materials. For brands like On, that means creating quality products that, when they finally reach the end of their long lives, return to the production cycle. So in September 2020, On created the Cyclon, a new, fully recyclable subscription-based running shoe that could very well prove to set a new industry bar for circularity.
The concept is simple. Consumers pay $29.99 a month to subscribe. They receive a pair of Cyclons, use the running shoes until their end-of-life (On will replace a maximum of two pairs per year and guarantees the shoes will last up to 370 miles), then return it to On in exchange for a new pair. The company then recycles the old pair to make new Cyclons. In keeping with On’s sustainability commitment, the Cyclon is made from a single cut of fabric, meaning there’s no waste. And more than 50% of the shoe is made from bio-based materials derived from castor beans, so everything from the shoe’s sole to the upper can be recycled together. This is circularity at its essence: designing out waste and keeping products, and their materials, in use indefinitely.
Designing circular lifecycles for shoes marks a new chapter in the industry, and On is leading the charge with its subscription model. Adidas has been experimenting with its fully recyclable Futurecraft.Loop shoe and take-back model, but the shoe is still in a testing phase. In September 2020, Salomon also announced a fully recyclable running shoe, the Index.01, which consumers will eventually be able to purchase like any normal running shoe and return for free to be recycled.
“This is the next frontier I would say, not just for footwear but for all consumer products,” said REI Product Sustainability Manager Greg Gausewitz. “How do we begin to optimize the life of a product to minimize what goes in a landfill while recapturing the resources that went into making that product in the first place?”
Whether consumers are ready for a product like Cyclon remains to be seen. The subscription model itself isn’t new. Consumers are already accustomed to paying for streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, said Outdoor Industry Association Sustainable Business Manager Jessie Curry, and we’re used to renting items like cars, bikes, even clothes (a market that continues to grow). Curry said the subscription model has a lot of potential, and also a lot of unknowns.
“Products that consumers already cycle through regularly in their lives are ripe for this kind of subscription model,” she said, “but circularity itself is not something that’s been widely measured and standardized, and that’s a big barrier for companies walking into the circularity space. We don’t know how a subscription service will impact user behavior.”
To date, On has more than 2,000 Cyclon subscribers. It hopes to reach 30,000 by the time the first wave of shoes ship in fall 2021. Gut says the company is well aware that it’s navigating uncharted waters, but she’s hopeful that whatever happens, the knowledge On gains through Cyclon will help advance the footwear industry’s sustainability goals.
“We don’t have time to engineer solutions on paper,” said Gut. “We have to work on solutions today. That is why we launched Cyclon. Circularity is the future of product design, but it comes with many challenges. We have not figured out all of those challenges, but we learn by doing.”
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