Can Sustainability Sell Sneakers?

A 3D-printed shoe made of plastic ocean waste (Image credit: Adidas)

In an industry dominated by pro sponsorships and celebrity endorsements, Adidas is opening up a second front to reach its millennial customers, innovating ways to engage on sustainability and other topics beyond the confines of functionality and fashion.

“We’re lucky to have a Futures Team that’s focused on professional athletics, and how to improve performance,” said James Carnes, VP Global Brand Strategy at Adidas. “So we’re interested in understanding the needs of all the other people who participate in sports.”

“Working with pros is incredibly different than working with the NCAA, and when you get to the high school or pickup adult game level, it gets even more interesting.”

In March, 2015, IT kicked off a strategy, called Open Source…

The program was designed to bring such insights into its development fold. Many of the activities had been underway for years, but the program codified three broad activities as a part of its business plan and culture:

“First, our creative approach isn’t to collaborate to bring incremental improvements, but to look at the consumer and identify what’s missing in their experiences that we can provide,” Carnes explained.

The company has opened eight facilities, called RunBases, where consumers can play sports and engage with experts, in Berlin, Boston, London, Moscow, Prague, Sao Paulo, Scandinavia, and Tokyo, and is looking to expand the network.

“Our design approach is to innovate beyond existing products, and explore new ways that sports fits into consumers’ lives,” Carnes continued, noting that it will open its first interactive design studio in Brooklyn later this year, where people can access 3D design tools, the company’s materials library [he said it’s the world’s largest], and ask people:

“Tell us what you’d do with it.”

Its third innovation tool, the partnering approach, is perhaps the most disruptive, since its being applied first to the company’s supply chain. An initial project in collaboration with Parley for the Oceans and noted green chemist John Warner yielded the world’s first running shoe made from plastic waste (3D printed, no less).

“We humans create 200 million tons of plastic every year, and 10% of it ends up in the oceans as trash,” said Carnes. “If we can create a system to harvest and use it, not only will be a pioneer, but we’ll corner a future supply chain resource.”

Though it remains to be seen whether such innovations will make a dent in the established practices of sports marketing.

“We just did research on local production and sustainability, and it’s astonishing how important it is to new consumers,” Carnes said. “The fact that you do it isn’t as much a differentiator as how you do it.”

To that end, Adidas has incorporated its Open Source innovation initiative into its organization, eschewing a stand-alone team in favor of Carnes and an associate agitating as “ambassadors for change” who discover opportunities and connect them to people across the enterprise. No innovation project gets the green light unless it has a business owner.

“It’s important that we recognize the value of projects outside of standard accounting rules,” Carnes said, “The process needs to be compelling, and not just the outcome.

“Does the consumer care?” he added. “We’re making a bet, for sure.”