(Bloomberg Businessweek) —
For a good chunk of his 20-year tenure at Adidas AG, Eric Liedtke thought about Kanye West. Named head of global brands at the German company in 2014, Liedtke worked alongside the rapper and designer, now known as Ye, to build Adidas’ Yeezy label into a billion-dollar business. That all came crashing down last October, after Ye unleashed a series of unhinged outbursts that forced Adidas to end the partnership. But by then, Liedtke was already long gone: He’d left Adidas to design a shoe that might help save the planet.
The seeds of Liedtke’s departure were planted in 2014, when a branding expert named Cyrill Gutsch pitched Adidas on the idea of making sneakers from recycled plastic. Gutsch, 51, is founder of Parley for the Oceans, an advocacy group promoting design solutions to save marine habitats.
Ironically, Liedtke was at the time developing Boost, a plastic-based cushioning technology that Adidas had created with German chemicals giant BASF SE. But Gutsch made a strong impression on Liedtke, a former competitive swimmer and surfing enthusiast with a knack for both the technical aspects of footwear development and the art of marketing new products.
“You can tell a great story around saving ocean animals,” Liedtke recalls. “It’s a very powerful image to promote to people to say, ‘You can be part of the solution by buying this ocean-plastic product.’ ”
Adidas was also sold on the idea. To make the shoes, the company initially relied on Parley’s infrastructure for collecting plastic from beaches in the Maldives, which then got converted into high-quality yarn by Taiwanese textile giant Far Eastern New Century Corp. Before long, the parties had to expand the collection efforts to countries including the Dominican Republic and the Philippines to keep up with demand.
Buzz for the franchise built after Liedtke unveiled its inaugural pair of sneakers at a United Nations climate conference in June 2015. They contained material that had been extracted from 45 miles (72 kilometers) of netting that Sea Shepherd Conservation Society crews had pulled out of the ocean while chasing the poaching ship Thunder a few months earlier. (Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson was friends with Gutsch.)
“This is the highest-end performance running product you can find in the industry,” Liedtke told the UN conference crowd. “That’s what the future can look like. We don’t compromise anything.”
Adidas’ ocean-plastic franchise has since become a billion-dollar business: The company last year produced almost 27 million pairs of sneakers containing the Parley Ocean Plastic yarn, and it’s now using that material to replace virgin polyester in products such as marathon trainers and professional soccer jerseys. Adidas says a pair of $120 Parley X Adizero running shoes boasts an emissions footprint of 3.5 kilograms (7.7 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent across its “useful life.” That’s about a quarter of the average for a running shoe, according to a 2012 study from researchers at Asics Corp. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But Liedtke’s UN speech was also a harbinger: He’d lost his taste for compromise.
While he was proud of the success of Parley, he realized that even recycled plastic seeps into our oceans and food chains. So in 2019, Liedtke—by then a vegan—left Adidas and soon co-founded Unless Collective with a handful of fellow Adidas veterans, setting up shop in Portland, Oregon. The name refers to a line in Dr. Seuss’ overconsumption parable, The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
The plan was to make shoes and other apparel that skipped the plastic entirely, leaving no harmful waste behind in the environment. This past December, Unless released the Degenerate, its first sneaker made from decomposable plants and minerals.
For most of human history, there was nothing remarkable about footwear made from natural materials. Consider Ötzi the Iceman, who for 5,000 years was buried under Alpine snow at an elevation of 10,500 feet along the present-day Italian-Austrian border. His Copper Age kicks were made of bearskin, cowhide and tree bark, among other materials, and stuffed with hay to keep his feet warm at high altitudes.
In the past century, though, humanity became reliant on petroleum-based synthetics to improve products’ durability, breathability, comfort and price. These materials are more environmentally taxing to produce: The footwear industry accounts for an estimated 1.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to sustainability consulting company Quantis, and tends to handle manufacturing in countries that rely on fossil fuels.
Making shoes also creates waste that lingers. According to one estimate from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the world’s oceans in 2050 will contain more tonnage of plastic than of fish.
Liedtke knew he wanted to address the root of the problem, but initially he wasn’t sure how. Sneakers are filled with glues, foams, threads, polyester mesh and other petroleum-based synthetics. And to really disrupt the footwear industry, he would need to invent plastic-free shoes that could also compete in terms of performance and price.
The lightbulb moment came in March 2020, when Liedtke met Luke Haverhals. A chemistry professor at Bradley University in Illinois, Haverhals is also founder and chief executive officer of Natural Fiber Welding Inc., which uses “green chemistry and processing techniques” to create novel textiles out of plants and minerals.
Haverhals’ company had already patented high-performance versions of cotton, hemp and wool (called Clarus), along with a leatherlike material (Mirum) it was supplying to, among others, Ralph Lauren Corp. and BMW AG, both of which own a minority stake in the business. For Unless, the company developed a plastic-free rubber material (Pliant) for the outsole, as well as a midsole foam (Tunera) made of natural rubber, vegetable oil, minerals and cork.
Code-named the Impossible Shoe during development, the skater-style sneaker was christened the Degenerate for its 2022 debut—a nod to its capacity to biologically break down and its defiance of industry norms. Haverhals describes it as “the Tesla Roadster of shoes,” a reference to the automaker’s inaugural electric vehicle, which premiered in 2006 and turned heads for actually looking and feeling like a sports car.
Degenerates are technically biodegradable; wearers can mail used pairs back to Unless for a 20% discount on their next purchase, and Liedtke’s company works with California-based industrial composter Agromin Corp. on disposal. Degenerates can even be buried in the backyard (though ideally after being thoroughly ground up).
Unless isn’t alone in trying to make greener footwear. Last year, Swiss athletic brand On Holding AG started a subscription service for dye-free, recyclable bioplastic shoes known as Cloudneos; in June, Allbirds Inc. revealed the M0.0nshot, a knit bootee made from regenerative wool and bioplastics. But no one has fully nailed the formula: On is still figuring out how to build an efficient return network for Cloudneos, and the M0.0nshot was derided on social media for its goofy look. Liedtke says he hopes Unless can master the nexus of style, sustainability and scale.
The company declined to say how many pairs of Degenerates were in its initial low-volume run, but the $139 shoe quickly sold out. Unless says it’s in the process of restocking, while Liedtke also works on its next act. In December the company collaborated with outdoor brand Mammut on a line of biodegradable hoodies and T-shirts. Liedtke is keen to keep growing by working with even bigger brands, including Nike, New Balance or even Adidas.
“Eric has a lot of credibility in the industry,” Adidas CEO Bjorn Gulden told Bloomberg News this spring. He said he’d spoke with Liedtke about Unless last year, back when Gulden was still CEO of crosstown rival Puma SE. “I don’t know if they still talk to him,” he said of Puma, “but I did, and we will surely meet in the near future.”
Liedtke declined to comment on the status of his talks with bigger brands. But he stressed that the urgency to get off petroleum-based products is too great for a startup such as Unless to address alone. In recent weeks, the world has suffered from the hottest temperatures on record, including in the waters of the North Atlantic—further imperiling sea life that’s already under threat from plastic waste.
Liedtke says he’s prepared to “help and partner with anybody and everybody that wants to solve some of the world’s problems while providing beautiful products.”
On a morning in June, with Canadian wildfire smoke blanketing New York City, Sea Shepherd’s Watson prepared to set sail with another crew on a monthslong campaign tracking whalers off the coast of Greenland. Despite all the bad climate news, he was feeling more galvanized than resigned. “You have no power over the future,” the 72-year-old said. “Your power is in the present, and what you do in the present will define what the future is.”
The group set off the following day from New York outfitted with 100% plastic-free shirts, jackets and hoodies made by Unless. Watson was confident the plant-based material could handle months at sea.
“Eric’s on the right track,” he said. “And since he left Adidas, he’s on an even better track.”
To contact the author of this story:
Tim Loh in Muenchen at firstname.lastname@example.org
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