Steps to sustainable or sustaining status quo?

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May 6, 2021

Reebok GROW - steps to sustainable or sustaining status quo?

Most runners care for the environment; after all it’s where we chose to spend our free time. When I heard Reebok were bringing out a sustainable “plant based” shoe I was excited to give it a try.

Being a sustainability professional, I’m always interested in the impact of my choices. Going so far as tracking the carbon footprint of my running during 2019. During this I found that a 5th of my total running impact was from products I bought including new trainers. 

When each pair of trainers emits 13-15 Kg CO2e, requires 4,000 – 5,000 litres of water and creates 1+ Kg of waste it may seem like not much per shoe, but it becomes significant when you consider that 25 billion running shoes are manufactured each year. All of this adds up to the trainer industry emitting 350 million tonnes of carbon, slightly more than a G7 country like Italy.

I try to live a low carbon lifestyle where possible. Following key tenets of consuming less, reusing/repairing and choosing sustainable options. Yes, you can push past the recommended she mileage, patch up holes, rotate shoes and give items a second life. However, at a certain point you just need new shoes. When choosing new trainers are the Reebok Floatride Energy Grow a solid, sustainable choice?

The shoe

Lower impact products must still be good products. No use making a low impact shoe if no one wants it. This needs good design, durable materials and in terms of performance, be at least equally effective. Having worn the Floatride Energy Grow on several runs, for me they are a solid shoe, at least as good as others I have and wear. It will be interesting to see their long-term durability (each extra wear reduces impact per wear and the need to purchase something new).

I’ve always ran in whatever I felt like that day, swapping between zero drop Altras, comfy Hokas and bulky trail shoes. The Floatride Energy Grow feels right in the middle of that “everyday road shoe” you can do a quick 5k or Sunday long run in. Not sure you’ll smash your PB in them but you’ll happily reach for them day after day, which is what you’d want them for.

I sized half a UK size down and they fit great. They offered a smooth ride, while gripping the road well and have reasonable feedback and responsiveness on different surfaces/paces. The foam has enough cushioning to be comfy without feeling too bouncy. The insole seems quite disconnected to the rest of the shoe but hasn’t given any issues yet. They’re also stylish enough for those MR Instagram snaps. Although mine are a cream colour, so just waiting for that first time I accidentally stumble into a muddy patch giving that “worn in look”.

So far so good on performance but what about...

Basic principles for sustainable footwear

So what makes the Floatride Energy Grow a sustainable choice? They are made with over 50% plant-based materials (3rd party certification by USDA to be 50% USDA Certified Biobased content Plastic.) rather than the conventional variety of oil based plastic materials. Plastic is a fantastic material and in our current climate we would struggle to exist without it, yet, what makes it so useful also makes it so harmful. Being so durable means it doesn’t break down easily, building up in the environment and causing environmental harm. That’s also on top of the carbon and other pollutants released from extraction, processing and manufacturing. 

What about plant-based materials and plastics?

Firstly plant-based plastics are still plastics, one is made from oil based hydrocarbons the other plant based. Some bio-plastics/natural products do have stronger environmental characteristics like greater biodegradability, lower extraction/processing impacts and reduces demand for oil. However, both the oil and agriculture industry cause massive environmental harm, so it’s not so cut and dry. 

Overall it depends on a lot of factors, but yes generally plant-based components are a better choice. Some parts have clearer benefits than others, for example generally natural rubber is better than synthetic alternatives. In addition, bio-plastics can help lock away atmospheric carbon, rather than releasing new carbon from oil, (depending on the plant use and agricultural practices). However, bio-plastics can cause more harm in some circumstances, especially if grown with high pesticide use, deforestation and intensive chemical processing; so specific material choice is key.

There are also concerns that greater bio-plastic demand requires more agricultural land conversion, often at the expense of the ever-reducing natural world left. In this case the castor bean oil and natural rubber may contribute to this problem, but overall only 0.02% of agricultural land is used for bio-plastics so not a material issue (if half of all plastics were plant based it would still only need 3% of agricultural production). In general mass scale bio-plastic using virgin crops could have significant impacts, care should be taken to choose low impact options. 

Overall what are the environmental savings? 

In the absence of a specific life cycle analysis, the most comparable analysis indicates an environmental impact reduction of 10% compared to conventional trainers, some achieve a 30% improvement (Allbirds for example). 10% may not sound like much but if achieved over all 25 billion annual sneakers produced it’s a significant improvement. 

What about the other big issue: end of life impacts? 

In many cases natural products and bio-plastics may more easily decompose in the natural environment, leading to lower harm. Just remember that landfill is still the worst choice, if reuse/repair is no longer viable recycling should be the next-best choice. One challenge is that some natural products and bio-plastics may also be more difficult to recycle and if mixed with conventional plastics, can contaminate the whole batch. 

What else can be done? 

If material choice makes a small but discernible impact what else can be done to lower your trainer impacts? 

  • Keep your shoes in good repair to last longer, reuse them where possible and finally recycle them at their end-of-life. We can all take a role in this but also there’s more manufacturers could do. A few progressive companies are moving in this direction or even offering subscription models incentivising maximum lifespan and returns for recycling.
  • Packaging - recycle that cardboard guys. Or even better do we need all packaging in the first place? 
  • Manufacturing - up to 68% of the impact comes from manufacturing. Wasting less material, using renewable energy, improving efficiencies etc. makes a huge difference. 
  • Even better than plant-based material is recycled material. If we could create recycled content shoes which are in-turn easily recycled, we wouldn’t need new materials as we could just reuse all those existing pairs, avoiding waste and lowering our impact. 
  • Development and design - creating a shoe which lasts twice as long, repairs/refurbishes and is easily recycled would be a game changer. For example, Adidas made a shoe from one single material allowing for much easier recycling. 
  • Transport – where and how materials and finished products are shipped and transported has an impact but so can our own choices. A lot of impact comes from the “last mile”: choosing green delivery, walking, cycling or taking public transport to the shops has a huge impact. To put this into perspective, driving 10 miles out and back in a large pickup truck emits about the same carbon as the whole shoe you’re buying.
  • Finally improving company performance – sustainable strategy, setting targets, renewable energy and so on benefits all products. Not to mention the massive social issues with the apparel industry. Adidas (Reebok’s parent company) do OK but not great. Their business targets are: by 2025 their own operations will be carbon neutral, only achieving a 15% reduction per item (from 2017 levels) by 2025 and 30% by 2030, with a long-term goal of reaching full value chain carbon neutral by 2050. This all sounds good but technically is quite weak. Carbon neutral is the least ambitious target compared to approved Science Based Targets (SBT) and its accompanying “Net Zero” target.
  • Performance review: for the last couple years Adidas achieved a B rating in CDP (the most widely used independent climate rating). Scoring a B is OK but others score higher with Nike and Asics both achieving an A- last year. On top of that Nike, Asics, Under Armour, On and Brooks have all set 1.5°C targets approved by the SBTi, while Adidas have committed but not yet set an SBT yet.
  • With Reebok potentially leaving their parent company of Adidas maybe there is an opportunity to set new more ambitious targets and push the rate of change across the industry.

In summary, yes the Floatride Energy Grow is a good shoe, one I’d happily recommend. It is great to see Reebok use innovative lower impact and more sustainable materials. Whilst the overall impact per shoe is quite small, in the grand scheme of things, all of your personal choices can have a big impact. Leading companies like Adidas (and Reebok) are making small steps in the right direction, it's clear that they can also be doing more. Through supporting sustainable choices we can show there is a market for them and help accelerate the change needed to avoid climate catastrophe in the next years and decades.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily mirror the views and opinions of Midnight Runners

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