This March, the major fashion newspaper Business of Fashion released its “Sustainability index” built on more than 5000 data points gathered across 15 top-tier companies. In the sportswear category, Nike was ranked as the most sustainably impactful, with the second highest overall grade of 47/100 against the luxury giant group Kering 49/100 grade. These results are globally showing a positive dynamic for a sustainable sportswear industry in 2021. The giants are moving towards this new model creating a new wave for the industry. However, their greatest efforts and heavy investments do not allow them to reach a 80 or plus overall grade. The sportswear industry is facing challenges to reach sustainability, but our times, and especially since 2020, are showing a fast-moving era full of innovation and desire for change that INMOUV would like to put light on today!
Back to the basics : why sportswear is cool but not eco-friendly in essence?
Fashion in general is known for its unsustainable impact on the environment. It is the second most polluting industry after agriculture, making up more than 4% of the global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2018 according to the McKinsey “Fashion on climate” report ! Unfortunately the sportswear category is one of the major actor in terms of pollution impact. That trending market will know a strong growth this coming decade that will not help to reach the 2015 Paris Agreements goals needed to reach a 1.5 degree of global warming temperature compared to pre-industrial time. Just for activewear, the $355 billion market is estimated to reach $440 billion in 6 years! That would mean more consumers, more production, and obviously, increasing green-gas emissions.
Statista activewear market prevision
McKinsey “Fashion on climate” report, emission abatement scenarios
But why is sportswear this harmful to the environment ?
Fabrics is the quick answer ! The most used fabrics in that specific category are Cotton, Polyester, Spandex, Nylon. Cotton needs gigantic amounts of water to be usable (10,000 liters for 1 kilogram of cotton). In addition, that resource is often harvested with fertilisers destructing biodiversity and causing sanitarian crisis in rural regions such as Central Asia. Polyester, Spandex and Nylon are synthetic fabrics derived from petroleum, as we all know, causing large amounts of carbon emissions or harming biodiversity. Those chemical innovations release microfibres which cannot be treated by recycling plants who release them into the sea with dire consequences on the marine environment.
Lets take the example of a pair of sneakers, sportswear’s flagship product :
Sneakers are mainly made of petroleum-derived fabrics (Polyester, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) ) which are the heaviest carbon emitting materials in fashion today. As a result the shoe market in 2020 was responsible of 1% of global carbon emission, an exorbitant digit when the air travel market is responsible of 2.5% of global emissions !
The issue is that sneakers and sportswear in general needs comfortable, breathable and light fabrics that petroleum-derived fabrics offer flawlessly ! Unfortunately these fabrics cannot be fully recycled and treated causing plastic release in the oceans as we mentioned just before.
Thus, plastic and petroleum dependency in the industry is the main challenge today to reach the goal of a sustainable sportswear market responding to the demand without a gigantic impact on carbon emissions leading to climate change. Today, 85% of sneakers are still incarcerated in landfills and only 3% of the sneakers market are eco-friendly shoes (products made with recycled or low-impact fabrics). However things are moving! In 2013, according to the MIT, only 3% of the sneakers market were eco-friendly shoes when today, the market is estimated at 10%. Giant leaders such as Nike and Adidas took the first step to invest in sustainable fabrics and today, smaller actors such as the French brand Veja offer a large range of sneakers made from recycled synthetic fabrics, organic cotton, insuring ethical and sustainable production in Brazil. Nevertheless technologies and recycling processes are not optimal enough to guarantee that an eco-friendly shoe is the optimal solution. Still according to the MIT, an eco-friendly shoe emits 50% less carbon than a regular shoes. Not optimal, but a progress that needs to be emphasised !
MIT Manufacturing-focused Emissions Reductions In Footwear Production’ par Cheah et al. 2013
Despite structural challenges, we are witnessing a time where sportswear is highly investing time and resources to reach sustainable goals.
Sustainability is no longer a simple trend (read our previous article). Scientific, political, and consumer pressure are holding accountable sportswear brands of their actions and product offer. This reshaping market has boosted R&D research towards sustainable technologies which are proving that there are solutions for a future sustainable sportswear industry, and we are only seeing the first small, but impactful results today!
Adidas FUTURECRAFT movement : Bringing circularity to the mass consumption market
In 2019 Adidas introduced their FUTURECRAFT.LOOP project, transforming their business and production model to reach sustainability goals. They first introduced the FUTURECRAFT.LOOP shoe using 100 recycled TPU coming from plastic waste in oceans to create their new shoes. Plus, the FUTURECRAFT project is a statement of change for sportswear consumption and consumer behaviour habits. The project aims to recollect old Adidas shoes, ready to be thrown away by consumers, in order to recycle their materials and create a second generation of shoes, also be recyclable for a third generation shoe.
The Adidas new project is also fighting for a more sustainable and waste friendly way to produce with technology. The firm disclosed their FUTURECRAFT.STRUNG shoe available for 2022, using recyclable 4D printing midsole. The shoe used only one material knited with 1000 threads only placed for a performance purpose, limiting drastically production waste and chemical processes.
FUTURECRAFT program process from generation 1 to 2 shoes
Adidas Strung shoe available for 2022
Lifa infinity pro by Helly Hansen : A textile revolution for the outdoor market
The Norwegian manufacturer has innovated once again for the winter outdoor category with a high-tech and sustainable textile available today on the market. The Lifa Infinitity Pro tech is a major answer to the chemical and unsustainable processes needed for breathable and waterproof garments. This new textile allows water repellency without using perfluorinated carbon or Hydrocarbons (polluting chemicals used for that purpose) and doesn’t absorb moisture naturally like polyester, meaning that there is no need to use chemical processes to break that reaction. On top of that, the fabrics are solution dyed, a process that doesn’t need the enormous amounts of water needed to dye fabrics. High quality and sustainability is an achievable goal that HH proved without any doubt !
Helly Hansen Lifa Infinity Pro tech
2021 is also a pivotal time of change in sportswear consumer and producer behaviours, accelerating the transition towards sustainability :
2020 has been a challenge-full year that will not be forgotten in history books. In addition to the pandemic, social movements such as the “Black Lives Matter” movement which spread worldwide in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, the disclosure from NGO’s and journalists of the persecution on the Uyghur people in the Chinese region of Xingjiang, or this March “Stop Asian Hate movement”, are several examples among many today where consumers use many platforms to spread powerful messages and expecting brands to support those movements and use their voice and power to make a change.
Today, Sportswear brands are in the front line when it comes to social movement support and sustainability actions. Generation Z and Millennials (born between 1990 and 2010) are the most sensitive to social change, using social networks to share information, and are also the dominant sportswear consumer mass. For instance in 2020, the EU Parliament member Raphael Glucksmann pointed 83 companies producing their garments in Xinjiang leading a social movement on Instagram with blue squares shared mostly by young consumers supporting boycott of brands such as Nike or Zara if they didn’t change their producing locations.
For this reason, 2021 is a special year where we are witnessing sustainable and ethical actions impulsed by consumers rather than judiciary pressure only. This March, H&M and Nike made the bold move to make a statement explaining their concern about the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang and pledged to not source any fabrics and resources from this region. Those actions took a toll on both brand sales. Alibaba stopped selling H&M clothes, famous brand ambassadors froze their contracts, and many consumers shared on Chinese social networks their dissatisfaction by burning nike shoes. In short, this initiative is a proof of a new time where brands are ready to lose large revenues after being strongly pressured by their young consumers who desire from their favourite brands strong ethical actions.
Nike Statement on Xinjiang
Burned Nike show by a Chinese Customer in March 2021
Manifestation BLM à Washington DC
Ergo, we have never been in such a great period to see eco-friendly sportswear start-ups rise up and gain power in the industry :
Outdoor voices is a great example of a sportswear brand which saw the need of a fashion transition before many brand, back in 2013. The brand that worthed 7,5 million dollars in 2014 to reach more than 100 million today, made different pledges in their business model in order to reach sustainable goals. For the fabrics, all the materials are made to last, with many recycled synthetic fabrics, ethically sourced fabrics, certified by the thorough “Bluesign” label.
Not only the fabrics and packaging are sustainably thought, but their internal functioning too. The firm aims launching a second-hand “take back and repair program”, reaching 50% of bluesign label fabrics, building new shops on sustainable materials and collaborating with organisation such as WWF or CHOOSE to generate funds for education around sustainability.
Outdoor Voices campaign
OV x Rachel Kaitlyn Johnson sourcing report
At a much smaller scale, the small start-up created in 2019 is introducing themselves into the sportswear market with a 100% sustainable model supported by many followers via the crowd funding platform Ulule which helped them to reach +300% of their funding goal. Their products are locally made with a maximum of 4500 km traveling distance for a garment to reach the final customer, compared to the regular 45,000 km. The brand obviously focuses on an ethical and sustainable production (10 certifications including Bluesign or EU ecolabel ) and designed to waste less fabrics).
The brand offers a bike delivery service in Paris that they aim to introduce in other French cities in the future as well as a “take back and repair” program showing that not only billion dollar companies such as Adidas can provide circularity programs efficiently ! This dynamic French start-up is an illustrative example of how the market is evolving and able to build business models on sustainable goals with a consumer enthusiasm proven through their crowdfunding over-expected results.
Not forgetting that in a pandemic-adapting era, new tools are accelerating the transition towards ethical and less impacting consuming habits.
The pandemic catalysed Second Hand market’s growth and particularly in the sportswear sector ! In the global fashion industry, the Second hand market is exploding due to different reasons (digitalization, growing awarness from consumers, trending resale items in the sneakers and streetwear market, and the lowering fashion budget allocation of households). The epitome of the second hand market growth would be the $ 1 billion revaluation of the French unicorn Vestiaire Collective in March 2021, with 5% owned by the luxury giant Kering.
Indeed the pandemic increased this trend not only in the luxury sector but also in sportswear. Consumers gained more time to exercise and mastered e-commerce consumption from the age of 7 to 87 (or more), increasing sportswear and e-shopping demand.
The American resale giant Thred up doubled its resale of clothes coming from the retail sector and expects a 415% growth in retail resale products on the online platform ! Thus, sportswear brands have a new market to focus on, where they can make sure to lower their old stocks, increase their sales, and improve their brand exposure through intern or third party resale platforms.
In 2020 the outerwear category was the second most selling category on Thred up, showing the opportunity for sportswear brands to sell on new attracting second hand clothing platforms. Without forgetting that the rising of the second hand market is explained by the attraction of Gen Z and Millennials consumers, a well known and crucial target for sportswear actors.
Thred Up 2020 annual report
2021 is definitely a pivotal year for a sustainable sportswear industry. Sustainability in this category is now starting to mature with many brands investing time and resources for a new sustainable sportswear strategy. Innovations are now popping up from top leading brands, to small (but ambitious) start-ups building new business models. Despite different structural challenges that the fashion industry is actually facing, we are definitely entering into a new decade where customers are highly sensitive and demanding in terms of sustainability or ethicals behaviours. Greenwashing strategies are weakened both by young educated consumers who are asking for impactful changes, and innovative brands already proving that it is possible to improve the industry with innovation and a little bit of courage!