Adidas is one of the most well-known sportswear companies in the world, and the Ultraboost series is one of its most popular line of shoes. I recently purchased this product in order to help alleviate some pain I have in my achilles, and noticed that Adidas was touting the use of Primeblue technology. It claims Primeblue is “a high-performance recycled material made in part with Parley Ocean Plastic”. With the ever increasing amount of companies looking to capitalize on the market for sustainable alternatives through greenwashing, I was intrigued to find out if Primeblue was more of a marketing ploy or an honest effort by a leading athletics company to make a difference. It seemed fishy that a large company with such a profit-driven incentive to create fast fashion (a new Ultraboost line is released yearly) would truly care about making an impact. What I discovered was a bit of a mixed bag: Adidas is taking real action for change, but they need to be much more ambitious and forward thinking in their ways. Adidas was named the most sustainable sporting goods company in the world by the Dow Jones Sustainability Index in 2018, and it’s time they start to create some separation from the rest of the pack.
The most highly marketed component of the Ultraboost is the Primeblue yarn that makes up about a third of the shoe’s upper textile. In partnership with Parley, Adidas has been able to incorporate this material into many of their products. Parley is a company focused on intercepting plastics from remote beaches and coastal communities before they end up in the ocean. They also are focused on educating the next generation of ocean activists through the Parley Ocean Schools Education program, and seem like a pretty legitimate organization to me. The Primeblue yarn coming from the Parley is made from recycled, non-virgin polyester. This is really great to see considering the non-renewable, energy intensive process that goes into producing virgin polyester. While using this material is definitely a step in the right direction, there are many other materials that go into making the Ultraboost. Rubber is one of those materials, making up the outsole of the shoe. Rubber is not a very sustainable material, but Adidas supplier of rubber, Continental, is taking some honest steps in the right direction for rubber production. Continental has innovated life cycle renewal systems giving many of their rubbers second and third life cycles, and has substantially invested into research for dandelion based rubber, a potentially much more sustainable alternative. It’s good to see Adidas is partnering with forward thinking suppliers. While it was difficult to find precise information on proprietary materials used in the Ultraboost such as Primeknit+ and the Boost Midsole, Adidas does provide a materials list that lists some harmful chemicals they never use, like PVC, PFC, and phthalates. Overall, Adidas stands out for sustainability among competitors, but still has much room for improvement if it wants to be truly sustainable.
Adidas is a brand that earns its profits from consumers purchasing new products every year, for every season, and for every activity. As a result, the company sources much of its footwear from factories spread across Asia, calling into question if labor rights are being adhered to and if carbon footprint is an issue. In 2016 Adidas sourced essentially all of its footwear from Asia, and not just a few factories. The components of an Adidas shoe are made in numerous different factories and shipped all over Asia before finally being assembled. This process can take two or more months and inevitably leaves a substantial carbon footprint. Recently though, Adidas has started building “Speedfactories”. These locations localize the production of all products and therefore drastically reduce the carbon footprint. However, it is unlikely that this is why Adidas created Speedfactories. Speedfactories also dramatically increase the rate at which products can be made, assembled, and shipped out, allowing Adidas to capitalize on an even greater amount of fast fashion. The tradeoff here essentially cancels out. I would like to see if Adidas can find a way to profit off increasing the life cycle of their products rather than producing a greater volume before I endorse their modes of production.
Adidas is highly transparent in some of its labor practices, but much more vague in others. Since generalized statements rarely signify real action, I tend to assume the worst if they do not actively prove otherwise. Adidas claims to trace and audit most of its supply chain, and uses third-party organizations to do so. However, since I could not find substantial data supporting the legitimacy of this claim, it is fair to assume they could be doing a much better job. Adidas has comprehensive codes of conduct and ethical standards that suppliers must meet, but the extent to which they enforce them is questionable. Adidas has followed through in some ways though, particularly in regards to child labor. Adidas prohibits child labor, and has not had a case of child labor from any of its suppliers in several years. Additionally, Adidas sponsors educational programs in locations where products are produced to ensure children are not forced into labor and out of an education. This has helped reshape entire communities where Adidas and its partners have manufacturing facilities. Adidas also supports many sports initiatives around the world, with several effective programs around the world in places like the US, China, and Switzerland aimed at giving children an opportunity to play sports and learn valuable social skills outside of school. This is an important alternative for kids to have in many places where crime and poverty rates are high. At the production facilities, 80% of employees are women. Adidas has made great strides to support these women by cracking down on discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status, and pregnancy/breastfeeding needs. I believe there is still work needed to be done in equal pay for Adidas’ suppliers, and that the company should look into how much their suppliers really pay both women and men. The corporate side of adidas has been a trailblazer in terms of its diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity efforts, but they need to make sure suppliers follow suit.