I’m on a Skype call with half a dozen Adidas designers and engineers in Germany, and they want their shoes back.
Specifically, they want their Futurecraft Loop returned—a shoe made completely from polymers that can be washed, ground up, and melted into components for a new Loop shoe. I’ve grown fond of my Loops over a few months of wear. Their natural marshmallow sheen from the knitted polyurethane fabric has long lost its luster. Now they’re covered in swipes of grease and dirt smudges. The tops have, unexpectedly, been dyed blue from constant contact with my jeans. And the ends have begun to fray earlier than I’d have expected. These shoes were not meant to last forever, but the team is eagerly probing me about my experience. It’s data they need right now.
Oh, and they need my shoes back, too. Because they’re announcing Loop generation 2. And for that shoe to exist, they need as many Loop 1s to grind up, melt down, and reconstitute into Loop 2 components as they can get.
At a glance, the Loop 2 is largely the same shoe as the Loop 1. Due for wide release in spring or summer 2021, the Loop 2’s most prominent update is that its naturally colored thermoplastic polyurethane (a.k.a. TPU) upper is now woven in a blue-gray gradient. Whereas most fabrics are still dyed in liquid (often with added chemicals to help the textile bond to the color), Loop 2 uses a more eco-friendly dry-dyeing process, mixing blue powder with raw TPU pellets, which are melted together and extruded into yarn. That sounds easy; I’m told it was definitely not.
The rest of the shoe is mostly unchanged, though, and for good reason. “It’s scientifically not too wise to change so many variables every time,” says Paul Smith, senior director, Footwear Innovation, at Adidas Future. “We’re learning phase by phase what we can do as we move to commercial launch.”
Indeed, Loop 2 is the real proof of concept of the entire Loop concept. It’s the first Loop shoe that’s been made from another shoe. If the Loop 1 was the theory, the Loop 2 is the first proof. Its tongue, outsole, and eyelets are made primarily of Loop 1 material. And now, for Loop technologies to become the natural conclusion for all Adidas products, the company needs to figure out hardest part of all: Incentivizing consumers and the recycling industry at large to get those Loop shoes back.
“We’re out of the phase of celebrating each other for replacing materials, and now we’re in the phase of figuring out how to make an actual massive change,” says James Carnes, VP of Brand Strategy at Adidas.
How do you convince people to give up their shoes?
To convince consumers to give their shoes back to Adidas is, in a sense, the biggest challenge of the whole project. For Loop 2, the rule was simple. “If you don’t bring back your generation one, you won’t get the next shoe,” says Amanda Verbeck, Footwear Developer, Special Projects, in Adidas Running. “You have to be part of the game to stay [in it].”
Recollecting shoes hasn’t worked so well during the Loop beta test. Only 1,000 pairs of Loop 1 were made, and many of the sneakerheads involved, no doubt, see something like the Loop 1 as a collectors’ item that could be worth a lot in the future, rather than something they should trade back in.
The company has been testing a few methods for collecting old Adidas shoes in cities across the globe for the last year and a half. It’s tried very traditional recycling models: Mail back. Drop-off bins. Recollection events. It’s also offered incentives through discount vouchers—trade in your old shoe, get a discount on a new one, like a phone. It’s also been experimenting with a platform called Adidas Infinite Play, which is like an eBay specifically for Adidas products. These models could all eventually be used to supply the material the company needs to produce new shoes, but it’s unclear if any of them have been all that successful so far.
“We learned we didn’t do enough due diligence on generation one. We didn’t get as many shoes as we’d like, but that was a learning,” says David Quass, Director, Business Model Strategy for Adidas, who admits the team simply didn’t project such low rates of shoe returns. The company has also been testing various forms of recollection internally, attempting to entice its own employees to trade in Loops—while also realizing they could mine their own waste scraps from shoe production to be worked into the Loop infrastructure.
On a broader scale, Adidas is talking to everyone from plastic manufacturers, to recyclers, to cities like New York, to figure out what a massive recollection of TPU shoes looks like. The goal? To build a model by 2021 that doesn’t just rely on people sending their shoes back to Adidas specifically, but would create a more generalized pool of recycled TPU that Adidas’s manufacturing partners could source.
That sounds easy! We’ve been recycling plastic, after all, for decades! It’s not, though, because not all plastics are the same. The low-end plastics that end up in shopping bags and packaging can be sourced from the existing post-recycled plastic market, because cheap items like disposable forks need the highly-tuned material properties that shoes do. Reclaimed high-end plastics, like those found in old performance footwear don’t have a market at all, yet, specifically because companies like Adidas source reliable, virgin materials every time instead of the recycled materials used in Loop.
“Talking to waste management, [we ask], what if you can throw your shoes into the yellow bin? Their point was, they have no problem taking it, collecting and sorting it,” says Carnes. “[But] imagine if you were an aluminum recycler and they were like, ‘can you take my titanium and gold?’ That’s their perspective! [They’re] saying, ‘we don’t need this. This is way too high-priced for our supply chain.”
One reason Adidas is experimenting publicly with Loop is to solve this chicken and egg problem. To scale Loop shoes, it needs a recycling infrastructure. But to incentivize the recycling infrastructure, it needs high-end materials like those used in the Loop program already operating at scale.
The ultimate goal of Loop? It’s not a loop
For now, the Loop program is far from its goal of melting down an old Adidas shoe, extruding it, and giving you a brand new Adidas shoe. But that continues to be the direction for the company. It’s not the only ambition of the project, though. Carnes tells me that Loop is about a lot more than recyclability or rethinking the business model that drives consumption. The final step of Loop will be creating a shoe that will break itself down naturally over time, even if it’s not recycled into a new Loop shoe, essentially rotting into soil like organic material does.
As Carnes explains, plastic has been engineered for the past 80 years for two key components: durability and longevity. “The plastic fork you grab from the takeout place will last longer than your grandchildren’s grandchildren,” says Carnes. “[We plan to] embed Loop shoes with a catalyst that helps them break down in a couple years.”
He imagines something like a 6-year lifespan on Loop shoes—and a future when Loop isn’t just one product line, but the way all Adidas shoes are produced.
Such a vision is inspiring; imagine an ocean that’s not full of plastic that will outlive us. But I also know adults who’ve hung onto Doc Martin’s since high school, and people who’ve passed nice sweaters and vintage tees onto their kids. An NBA player will wear his shoes two to three games at most, but I have high tops that are well over a decade old.
Which makes me wonder: Is the potential consequence of Loop that we are forcibly hooked on buying new things because everything is built with a limited lifespan?
“I would not put us in the Apple model,” says Carnes. “We are not building a planned obsolescence model at all. We are not upgrading technology to get people to buy more stuff. We’re trying to actively mitigate that and move away from that.”
As for turning in my first pair of Loops, I’ll admit that I’m reluctant to do so. The shoes are a bit ragged at this point, but I’m in no rush to hand them over. Just knowing they’re recyclable, one day, is why I value them in the first place.