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Can Running Shoes Become Sustainable?

Companies are coming up with innovative solutions to make the running shoe industry more eco-conscious.

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Until recently, the lifecycle of a running sneaker has been pretty linear: A company gets the raw materials it needs, uses those materials to develop finished products (like the midsole or the upper), assembles those products into a shoe, then sells that shoe to a customer, who wears it until it breaks down and then throws it out. Running shoes are not particularly sustainable.

What if, instead of tossing your shoes and leaving them to rot in a landfill somewhere for the next hundred years, you could send them back to the company knowing that a) your used kicks will be recycled into a fresh pair, and b) you get a fresh pair in exchange?

That’s the idea behind On Running’s Cyclon shoe, which will launch this year. Instead of a flat fee, buyers pay $29.99 a month and can exchange their sneakers twice a year (On says they last up to 600 kilometers, or six to nine months). That works out to around $180 per pair—a similar price to performance shoes like the Adidas Ultraboost 21 or the Nike ZoomX Invincible Run (it is a jump above the average sneaker retail price of $121.10, according to March 2021 data from RunRepeat.com).

When the new pair arrives, you can send the old sneakers back in the same box; On will then repurpose the raw materials to create new Cyclon running shoes. Typical running shoe materials (like synthetic rubber, nylon, and textile dyes) have to be trashed, but the Cyclon is fully recyclable: The single-unit upper is made from an undyed 100 percent recyclable bio-based yarn derived from castor beans, while the bottom unit is made of PEBAX, a thermoplastic elastomer, and belongs to the same material family as the upper, which allows the whole shoe to be recycled without having to separate the pieces.

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“With Cyclon, we’re taking our first steps in challenging the wasteful nature of linear life cycles by taking responsibility for our products even when they’re out of our hands,” explains Francois-Xavier Dosne, head of innovation business strategy at On Running. “It’s an active responsibility but it’s also an innovation opportunity. In a circular system, products are designed to be reused instead of ending up in a landfill. A circular system keeps material in use for as long as possible.”

This business model will eventually extend to other pairs of shoes from the company, says Dosne. “As a young brand, On is in the unique position to rethink current business models and inspire competitors and consumers alike with modern solutions,” he explains. “It’s invigorating to channel our athletic spirit in the race towards a more sustainable future.”

And a race it is: While the Cyclon may be the first “subscription” shoe, On wasn’t actually the first brand to debut a recyclable sneaker. In April 2021, Salomon released the Index.01, a unisex road shoe that uses recycled polyester in the upper and a foam that can be ground into tiny pieces and recycled when the shoe reaches the end of its life. Index.01 owners print a free return shipping label from the company’s website and send the used shoes to the closest collection center, where they will be recycled through regional programs and reused in future products.

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Similarly, in 2019, Adidas unveiled FUTURECRAFT.LOOP, a fully recyclable running shoe prototype made from a single material—100 percent reusable thermoplastic polyurethane—and no glue, explains Kimia Yaraghchian, a product manager with a focus on sustainable initiatives, projects, and products at Adidas Running. Consumers scan a QR code on the product to access and print a pre-paid return postage label to send the worn shoes back; then, Adidas can wash them, grind them to pellets, and upcycle the components into the next generation of shoes.

The “Made to Be Remade” Ultraboost, the first commercialized version of the prototype, is available now for consumers, who shouldn’t notice a difference between the sustainable and traditional versions of the shoe. “We test and measure all our sustainable content and products against our normal testing standards, and there’s no way we would launch a product that doesn’t pass the standards of a similar shoe,” says Yaraghchian. “Sustainability cannot be a sacrifice to anything else, otherwise consumers won’t trust the product—and then we won’t be able to implement that bigger change.”

Embracing a holistic approach to sustainability—responsible sourcing, waste elimination, carbon footprint reduction—is the real key, which is why some brands are focusing not on developing an entirely new shoe, but rather adapting their most popular running shoes into more environmentally friendly (and, eventually, fully recyclable) versions.

This past summer, Brooks, for example, turned the Ghost 14 into the brand’s first carbon-neutral shoe. Carbon neutral doesn’t equal recyclable, but it’s the first step toward a more circular business model, says David Kemp, senior manager of corporate responsibility at Brooks. “We’ve got a whole road map on how to reduce our carbon emissions in line with climate science, and one of the best examples of how we’re starting to do that is by transitioning to materials made from recycled content,” he explains.

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Almost all the shoe’s upper textiles have been converted to contain a minimum of 30 percent recycled polyester, and many are 100 percent recycled polyester—including the sock liner, top cloth, tongue lining, toe box reinforcement, and more, Kemp says. To lay the groundwork for even more recycling in the future, the brand plans to launch a take-back program as early as 2022, and “we have a commitment to launch our first circular performance running footwear by 2030,” says Kemp.

As committed as these brands (and more) are to sustainability, there’s one element of the circular business model they can’t control: getting consumers to send back the shoes. That requires a shift in product purchase behavior on the part of the consumers (i.e., you).

“It’s so important that we make sure we create this mindset for the consumer to understand that every product they purchase is something valuable,” says Kimia. “Even at the end of its life, it can be reused—it’s not trash.”