New From Old: Making Circular Materials Cool and Desirable

171004 October cover web

Last year the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted that, by 2050, there will likely be more plastic in the sea than fish. In light of that alarming environmental warning, it’s good to see companies taking a lead on tackling this enormous global challenge. Working in collaboration with environmental initiative Parley for the Oceans, footwear and apparel brand Adidas unveiled a prototype 3D-printed shoe in 2016 comprised largely from recycled materials, including an upper made from 5% recycled polyester and 95% waste-plastic sourced from the ocean. Following on the heels of its initial commitment to produce one million pairs — with each pair incorporating yarn spun from 11 plastic bottles — Adidas’s UltraBOOST Parley running shoes are now available to buy.

Adidas isn’t the only company tackling the plastics challenge by focusing on more sustainable materials. In fact, it’s not even the only firm doing so within the footwear and apparel sector. Nike broke new ground in this space at last month’s Climate Week NYC, unveiling what it considers a “game-changing” composite material.

It’s called Flyleather, and it’s made from scraps of leather fused together with other materials. This produces a “premium” leather which, according to Nike’s VP of Footwear Innovation, Tony Bignell, “mimics full-grain leathers in everything from fit to touch.” Building on its Flyknit technology, which the company says produces 60% less waste compared to traditional cut-and-sew methods (eliminating 3.5 million pounds of waste since 2012), Flyleather uses the 30% of a cow’s hide that would ordinarily be discarded during the tanning process. In addition to keeping those scraps out of landfills, the material also consumes 90% less water than traditional leather manufacturing, and has an 80% lower carbon footprint. And because it’s produced on a roll, the fused leather creates less waste during the cut-and-sew process. Flyleather shoes are already available online and in a limited number of Nike stores.

Developing new materials, along with the techniques, manufacturing machinery and know-how needed to create these “green products,” takes time and money. So are consumers ponying up the cash to pay for products like these?

Data from our 2016 Future of Supply Chain survey shows that investing in social and environmental responsibility in order to increase sales revenue is one of the least common motivations among respondents, indicating that a direct financial return on investment isn’t necessarily expected to follow. And while expectations of such benefits took a nosedive in our 2011 survey, a more optimistic view has since been growing slowly but surely. Our 2017 survey data (due out later this month) will confirm whether or not this trend continues.

Graph showing motivation to invest in social and environmental responsibility

This low expectation is backed up by another insight from the 2016 survey, with the majority (42%) of companies declaring an investment in green products simply because “it’s the right thing to do.” But the gap is closing, with 37% declaring that they’re also seeing a financial payback.

Survey response for Company Approach to Green Products in the Next 18 Months

So “green” may not boost sales revenue significantly across the board today. Longer term, however, provided that an end-product is desirable and available at a price consumers are prepared to pay, its green credentials may not even matter. In the meantime, the environment will most certainly benefit.

And there’s another, unexpected benefit for supply chain. Just take a look at the yellow line in the chart above, rising steeply from the bottom left to the top right, showing reduced costs and/or increased efficiency. That’s music to every supply chain leader’s ears.

Author Beth Morgan

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