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Exclusive: Adidas’s radical new shoe could change how the world buys sneakers

Futurecraft Loop is an experiment in the circular economy. For Adidas, it could be the beginning of a major shift in how it does business.

Exclusive: Adidas’s radical new shoe could change how the world buys sneakers
[Photo: Adidas]

When it catches the light, the all-white shoe shimmers like a radioactive marshmallow. I know it will never look this pristine again. Not just because it will get inevitably dirty, as all shoes do. But because this shoe will one day be recycled into a new shoe that, somewhere in its weave, will sport evidence of its past life: dirt, grass stains, and even the natural yellowing of time.

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This is Adidas Futurecraft Loop. It’s the first performance running shoe–and one of the first consumer products in general–designed for a circular life cycle. “When you wear out this product, you give it back to us. And we recycle it,” says Tanyaradzwa Sahanga, materials engineer at Adidas. “We can take that recycled output, those ground bits of shoe, and put them into new shoes again.”

The Loop process isn’t 1:1 yet. One old shoe does ot literally create one new shoe. While 100% of every Loop shoe can be recycled, that recycled material can only constitute 10% of the next generation of Loop shoe for the footwear to retain its level of performance. Adidas hopes to improve that ratio rapidly over the coming years, to eventually reach the ideal of 1:1 product circularity.

That’s a large reason the first Loop shoes will be given away–not sold–in a beta of unspecified size beginning this fall, as Adidas figures out how the shoes will be priced, collected, and repurposed from consumers once they’re worn. A wider release isn’t coming until spring or summer of 2021. Why the delay? For Adidas, building Loop was an incredible engineering challenge. But the even bigger question is how Adidas sells consumers on a product it plans to sell to them again . . . and again . . . and again.

[Photo: Adidas]

Creating Futurecraft Loop

Every year, Adidas releases what it dubs a “Futurecraft” shoe–a design that the company openly admits is a minimum viable product that Adidas can generally only produce in limited numbers. But the idea of Futurecraft is to experiment publicly, recruit new industry partners, and keep pushing footwear forward. The initiative has already given us shoes made of ocean waste and 3D-printed soles. But crucially, Adidas strategizes to scale Futurecraft products, and fast. Case in point, the company went from building 7,000 ocean plastic shoes in 2015–because that was literally as many as Adidas could make–to a whopping 11 million this year.

“These are not concept cars, these are statements of intent,” says Paul Gaudio, the global creative director at Adidas, who imagines Adidas could sell tens of millions of Loop shoes within three to five years. “This is where we’re going.”

While Loop is on the cutting edge, it’s actually an idea that Adidas designers have been dreaming about for some time. “I can remember a time 20 to 25 years ago when we kicked around the idea, because the roadblock to recycling footwear is that it’s made of so many materials,” says Gaudio. “There’s glue, chemicals–things you can’t easily separate.”

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The figure Adidas kicks around internally is 12: The average shoe has 12 distinct materials inside. But to be recyclable, to actually be practical to collect and repurpose, a shoe should be designed more like a plastic bottle or corrugated box. It should have one material that can be ground up and melted down; that’s it.

Adidas won’t say when it began to look for the right material for Loop, but the project has likely been under way since 2016. At the time, Adidas was developing its Speedfactory–a new high-tech assembly system–while experimenting with its “Boost” energy-returning polymer foams. Boost was largely responsible for Adidas’s comeback in the consumer market, helping it best Under Armor to take back second place in the global sneaker industry. This prominent outsole became the driving technical aesthetic of footwear. Minimal shoes were out. Giant springs under your feet were in. Even at Nike.

What Adidas realized was that a variant of its Boost polymer was not just recyclable; it could also be turned into a yarn, which was then woven into textiles, laces. Boost could be used to form a torsion bar, a critical component that sits beneath your midfoot, connecting the front of your shoe to the back. Boost-like polymer could, in theory, do it all. And of course all these new Boost materials would be recyclable, too. One Boost shoe could easily be ground up with a pile of other Boost shoes to make a whole new batch.

[Image: Adidas]
Another interesting finding? Using just one material opened up new construction methods for the shoe. Instead of glue and stitching, Adidas realized it could fuse components of the shoe together through heat and pressure alone–which might be stronger than traditional shoe-building methods.

“I can’t say 100% for sure, but my guess is that it’s probably a better bond,” says Gaudio. “It’s essentially like welding two pieces of steel together. It becomes one piece of steel at that point.”

The entire process has taken years, with each component requiring loads of iteration (Loop has touched the hands of 60 people across the organization).”I remember the first time we made one shoe–that was a milestone,” laughs Sahanga. That was in 2017. Technically, Adidas made a batch of 50 shoes worn in what Adidas calls “a protective environment” by its own staff for a few weeks. When wearing was finished, they recycled the shoes into new ones–proving that Loop was possible. “That’s when we said, ‘Wow, this is something,'” says Sahanga.

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Of course, those shoes were far from perfect. There were all sorts of issues around fit–making Boost textiles work with proper flex and support was a trial. But the biggest challenge was shrinkage. The stock size 9 shoe would shrink down to a size 6 over time, as the polymer yarns tightened down. “We can laugh about it now, but at the time we had a lot of [frustration] on that one,” says Amanda Verbeck, footwear developer at Adidas. Developing just the right weaves is a big part of getting Loop textiles right–and in fact, Adidas is still refining its base yarn inside Loop textiles.

[Photo: Adidas]

Developing a point of view

Aside from engineering, Adidas also had to figure out an aesthetic point of view for the shoe. At first glance, its white-on-white design looks something like the highly sought Ultra Boost triple white. In fact, it’s not a single, perfect white. The shoe doesn’t make use of bleach–and its recycled versions won’t, either. The upper in particular has a pearl, or even yellow tinge, and it’s sure to yellow more over time because Boost itself does yellow. Given the various weaves, that yellowing might happen unevenly across the shoe. It might look interesting. It might look terrible.

[Photo: Adidas]
“For this beta phase, we really allowed ourselves to be as vulnerable as possible,” says Sahanga. “Yes, it will yellow. It could happen at varying degrees. But it tells an interesting story.”

That story only begins with Loop generation 1, which was designed to look like a blank canvas. Loop generation 2, or 3, crafted out of old Loop shoes, will continue to change color–its core pigment would be an average of every used, ground-up Loop shoe that had reached the end of its life.

This neutral-colored Futurecraft Loop gives Adidas a baseline of what to expect generation after generation–the small solar red logo is its only nod to color. One could imagine that ending badly, with every Loop shoe eventually reaching a shade of dishwater gray. But its designers imagine that other Loop lines might slowly introduce dyes, too. That means you could watch a blue Loop go from periwinkle to midnight blue over the course of several years and several generations. Or maybe Adidas will choose to combine colors, adding red to the blue mix to make purple. Black Loop shoes would occur naturally over enough generations mixed with enough colors. But the big idea here is that every individual product would have a rippling, heirlooming effect on every other product. Imagine the sanctity of your grandfather’s weathered leather baseball glove, oiled for decades to a rich chestnut patina–but on the scale of tens of millions of shoes, made of what’s essentially plastic.

“Maybe there’s a new or unique characteristic that develops in material and the color of material, or how we think about buying color. It could be that a deeper, richer, darker shoe is a more mature shoe. There may be value in that,” says Gaudio. “Things age. They can age gracefully, beautifully, that’s certainly one of the things we’re interested about exploring.”

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[Photo: Adidas]

Selling a shoe again and again

Loop is a technical marvel, and designers at Adidas have put considerable thought into the way it will age through the generations. But what’s less certain is what consumers will think. We live in a sneakerhead culture, where many of us collect shoes, saving our favorites in an ever-growing collection.

“I do think the technical challenges are less the magic,” says Gaudio. “I think the consumer model, the consumer desire–how do we get people to buy into this . . . that’s the secret sauce.”

[Photo: Adidas]
Adidas’s team doesn’t claim they know how to market and sell Loop shoes just yet. Of course the initial Futurecraft Loop line will sell out–limited-edition sneakers always do, and Adidas will be giving them away in an unannounced manner. But getting them back, and making that next generation equally desirable, is another question.

In our interviews with Adidas, representatives floated selling the shoe with a return box and label, giving customers a free v1.5 shoe in the interim between when they mailed their shoe in and when they waited for another one. Adidas is even considering a subscription shoe model, which we’ve seen how companies like Volvo does with cars, and Rent the Runway does in fashion (a startup called For Days will even let you subscribe to a T-shirt). Indeed, it’s easy to imagine a flat-rate Adidas subscription–perhaps for $15 a month like Netflix–that would let you have a couple of shoes checked out all the time. When you’re done, just send them in, and a newer model arrives in the mail.

If there’s any indicator that Adidas really isn’t certain about how the Loop model will work out at retail, it’s that right before we hung up, Sahanga asked me if I, personally, would ever send a Loop back. But of course, I don’t know yet, either. I have knock-around sneakers with worn treads that I’d love to simply refresh without replacing, simply because I know they fit so well, and I also have my favorite kicks with limited designs that I’ll never be able to part with because they can never be replaced once I do. Adidas has the unenviable task of figuring out, and even inventing, how to get consumers to buy into the circular model before pretty much every other company in the world.

“This is risky. We could probably sit on this for another couple years before we have it further figured out,” Gaudio admits. “But that wouldn’t help [the industry] move things forward. We have an obsession with process that drives us. That’s what this is about.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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