With the reveal of their newest Air VaporMax – the aptly-named 2021 model – Nike continues to push its sustainable agenda at a time where the issue, both within the sneaker industry and in a much broader sense, is more important and more mainstream than ever.
The new silhouette, which dropped earlier this summer, marks just the latest move in what the world's number one sneaker brand refers to as an ongoing “Move to Zero”: a noble ambition, setting a goal of zero carbon and zero waste.
It’s a mission that the brand has been dedicated to for some time – Nike Air soles have been made from 50% recycled manufacturing waste since as early as 2008 and, as of 2020, Nike recycles 680,000 kilograms of cotton each year.
adidas, too, have made similar commitments: an end to virgin polyester in favour of 100% recycled materials and a moratorium on plastic waste entirely. In fact, in a post on the adidas website, Gameplan A, the brand even goes so far as to provide concrete dates for its sustainability plans: 50% recycled materials in all products by 2020, the elimination of virgin polyester by 2024, a 30% reduction of its carbon footprint by 2030, and – finally – complete climate neutrality in Germany by 2050.
All these numbers are impressive. But what does it mean for sneakers, in real terms?
When it comes to sustainability the truth is that – until fairly recently, at least in the grand scheme of things – as an idea, it hasn’t been connected in the minds of consumers with aesthetics. Not good ones, anyway.
Outmoded as these notions are, when topics like plant-based and recycled materials come up, they conjure the smell of incense and the unflattering sight of baggy hemp trousers. Of bare feet, rather than fresh creps.
But brands have been working hard to challenge these perceptions and to reposition sustainability as something that both looks and feels good. In apparel, labels like PANGAIA have been pushing forward with well-designed and ethically produced clothing that people not only want to wear but are happy to be seen in.
And the same goes for footwear, too.
While critics have noted that the 40% recycled materials that make-up the Air VaporMax 2021 are 10% less than the 2020 model, it’s important to note just what a difference it makes to mainstream thinking to assimilate sustainable materials into mainstream footwear. The numbers may feel like a step in the wrong direction, but the continued push under the prestigious VaporMax name is even more significant.
The same goes for adidas, whose Earth Day collaboration with Sean Wotherspoon – made without animal products and with 100% recycled polyester lining, reused Ortholite sock liners, natural rubber composed outsoles, paper laces and vegan glues and paper-made laces – gives the iconic Superstar silhouette a sustainable edge. More than this, though, the SUPEREARTH offers something often lacking in ethically-minded products: a much-needed sense of fun – bright colours, bold patterns, and intricate detailing making for a joyful reminder of what we have, not just what we stand to lose.
A break from the doom, gloom, and creeping dread that so often accompanies eco-conscious branding, Wotherspoon effectively set a new standard for sustainable sneakers, creating something desirable, wearable and on-message. Which is exactly what the cause and the industry need.
That sense of fun, it seems, will come to be the defining characteristic of sustainable footwear moving forward: Yes, the plant-based Air Max 95 revealed earlier this month, with their cork construction and natural dyes, do come with all the requisite eco-friendly credentials. But these shoes are so easily outshone by other, more captivating releases. Not least of all the just-dropped pineapple leather iterations of a slew of Nike’s key silhouettes, complete with audaciously upbeat “Happy Pineapple” branding.
Beyond the realm of the Swoosh and the Three Stripes, other household names are catching up too. Where once Stella McCartney dominated the ethical luxury sector as a lifelong vegan brand committed to pushing forward on sustainability issues, challenges are beginning to come in from other labels.
Always unafraid to be ostentatious, Gucci’s contribution to the sustainability market is conspicuously well-timed: seemingly unwilling to dilute their brand with negative message, the rise of the “eco positive” sneaker has effectively paved the way for the Italian house to try its hand with little-to-no risk. In reinterpreting its Rhydon, Basket and New Ace footwear with Demetra – a wholly new, 77% raw plant-based material – the label has not only brought sustainable sneakers to high-end luxury without comprising its own DNA, but made a significant contribution to how the industry approaches conscious clothing in the future.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that there are already brands out there – McCartney aside – whose entire USP and mission statement is tied to their sustainability and conscious credentials: the likes of Allbirds, Veja, and Nothing New have thrown their entire brand behind planet-friendly progress.
But it’s also important to remember that these brands, in the broader sense, are fairly niche. Their work is invaluable, but a key part of that is in putting pressure on bigger names – brands with power to genuinely affect change – and push them harder and faster toward sustainable goals.
In 2021, we’ve still got a long way to go in making the changes that we need. But the steady rise of sustainable sneakers that people actually want to wear is a big step in the right direction.