Adidas, Parley for the Oceans, and the Future of Sustainable Fashion

In early July 2015 Adidas revealed a trainer made entirely from recycled ocean waste. The one-off design, created to mark the sportswear giant’s collaboration with creative environmentalists Parley for the Oceans, was largely a PR stunt – yet for sustainable fashion, this development was far from simply symbolic.

Sustainable or ethical fashion – ‘fashionable clothes that incorporate fair trade principles with sweatshop-free labour conditions while not harming the environment or workers by using biodegradable and organic cotton ‘1 – seems idealistic. Smaller companies can produce high quality items while minimising their environmental impact; some use entirely recycled materials. High street stores have continuously failed in this field in the face of gargantuan demand: Earth Pledge reports that ‘ at least 8000 chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles (…) causing irreversible damage to people and the environment'; Lewis Renfrew’s Philanthrobeats article displayed the damage sustained in Indonesia and India, with rivers stained and empty from fashion factories.

It might reek of publicity stunt, but ParleyxAdidas can still be welcomed as a much belated attempt to right these wrongs; crucially, the collaboration is physical evidence that big companies can produce sustainable items. Coupled with Adidas’ plan to slice 15% off their carbon footprint by this year, there’s reason to believe sustainable clothing might finally be emerging from the shadows.

Curb your optimism: even if Adidas made their recycled project available to buy, it’s doubtful many could afford it. Either through rising production costs, or as a cynical cash-in, it would be far more costly than a general release. Besides, cutting their climate footprint doesn’t absolve Adidas of other misdeeds. Take their continued sponsorship in the Qatar World Cup, where thousands of migrant construction workers have died on various projects, or the women’s Man Utd replica shirts vilified by fans. And that’s just football, one part of the Adidas empire. There’s a lot of work to be done before the three stripe company can be seriously considered as a progressive organisation.

But let’s say they manage it. It’s 2020, and Adidas (or Nike, or any sportswear brand) have became a beacon of hope. From any good retailer, you can now purchase an eco friendly, sweatshop free product for, say, £67 (the current price of the top selling trainer on the Adidas website). This would undoubtably be a success. However, current findings suggest – despite the stature of sportswear just now – this would do little to convert the general public to a more sustainable outlook. Caitrin Joergen’s study of ethical fashion through focus groups in Germany and the UK found that price and style carried far more currency than environmental or humanitarian impact when it came to choosing clothes. This is unlikely to change; even those who sympathise might not have the funds to pay for sportswear, turning to value groups like Tesco and Primark out of necessity.

ParleyxAdidas may kickstart a trend for sustainable sportswear; it may fade without a whisper. Although the project is applaudable, neither outcome is satisfactory. Until the biggest companies set a precedent for improving operations across the board, from the materials used to the conditions they’re produced in, truly sustainable fashion will not break the mainstream.

All images copyright Adidas group.

1: Joergens, C: ‘Ethical Fashion: Myth or Future Trend?’. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management: An International Journal. Vol 10, Issue 3 (2006) pp360-371 (361)