Adidas and Allbirds traditionally compete in the sneaker market. But the two companies changed all that, partnering on a 12-month project to craft a new approach to sustainable footwear from design to materials to manufacturing to delivery, creating the Futurecraft.Footprint performance running sneaker.
At 2.94kg CO2e per pair, the shoe has the lowest carbon footprint of any performance sneaker ever.
And this isn’t just a concept created in a sample lab, but a full-scale project that takes into account every step in the process. “We knew we wanted to build the lowest carbon footprint running shoe the industry has ever seen,” says Sam Handy, vice president of design for Adidas Running. “We set a goal of doing something never done and very extreme.”
The Futurecraft.Footprint starts with a 100-pair launch this month before a 10,000-pair release in fall and a wider release for spring 2022. Getting to that point, though, was a new process, for both companies.
The 2.94kg CO2e per pair footprint for the Futurecraft.Footprint was a big drop in carbon footprint
The Goals of Adidas x Allbirds
“Maybe our industry is focused on the wrong race,” says Jad Finck, Allbirds vice president of innovation and sustainability. “Wouldn’t it be wild if we try to do what they say not to do, try a collaboration with a competitor?”
The process of the two companies working together came about when executives at the German-based footwear giant and San Francisco-based sneaker company decided to speed up sustainable sneaker design. Finck says both companies got excited about changing up their approach, recognizing that maybe “the status quo isn’t doing enough to help the planet. Let’s take this race and make it a race to the lowest carbon shoe possible.”
“You run quicker when you run together,” Handy says. “Maybe we could have done this separate, but we would have done it much slower.”
The project first laid out a life cycle assessment of an already sustainable-minded Adidas performance running shoe, the Adizero RC3, deciphering the true history of the shoe’s carbon footprint from the beginning of materials to transportation, use and end of life. This roadmap showed all the emissions and pinpointed everything the project was trying to reduce or eliminate. And while the RC3 carbon footprint was lower than the average runner, it was still 7.6kg CO2e per pair.
“We laid out this really aspirational list, zeroed in on if we could go sub-2 kilograms and that was stretching forward on every component,” Finck says. “In the end we got it just under 3. We are incredibly excited about that. It was a moon shot to begin with. Hopefully it inspires both companies to keep going faster.”
Early on, the companies weren’t sure how collaborating would work, especially working digitally across continents and time zones. With Adidas an expert in high-performance running shoes and Allbirds positioned with sustainable and carbon calculation know-how, Handy says the goal to make a lower carbon high-performance running shoe existed from the start, even if the early process figured the two sides could just combine expertise.
“In practice, it became collaborative with both sides reworking, bouncing sketches,” Handy says. “We had the Allbirds team drawing on performance aspects and Adidas working on materials. It became much more collaborative than we anticipated in the beginning.”
Initial plans featured Allbirds bringing its natural bio-based materials into Adidas construction, Finck says, but it turned out to be a true blend. The Futurecraft.Footprint upper is a newly developed material featuring 70% Adidas Prime Green recycled polyester and 30% natural Tencel from Allbirds made from wood pulp. The combination produces a lightweight material with a reduced carbon impact without sacrificing performance standards.
The midsole compound uses Adidas Lightstrike mixed with Allbirds’ sugarcane-based SweetFoam, the same blend found in the cushioned tongue and heel foam.
“It is pretty remarkable that we wanted to blend both companies and actually blended materials,” Finck says.
Throughout it all, the companies were counting carbon in every thread. “Every single millimeter has been completely rebuilt and every assumption challenged,” Handy says. “All the materials are brand new and bespoke in order to achieve this.”
The materials and shoemaking process represent the bulk of sneaker’s carbon footprint, so beyond creating the lowest-carbon materials, the companies needed to rework the processes. One change came in the patterning. Instead of a one-piece upper, which leaves waste after cutting—the wasted materials count against the carbon footprint—designers created a sneaker with extra pieces embroidered on, reducing waste and using the opportunity to strengthen the upper of the shoe for running while eliminating internal inserts. This Tangram Principle, where individual parts in their entirety achieve limited scrap during production, moved the final iteration toward a lower carbon number while engineering in performance attributes.
The sneaker’s rubber features a new compound void of carbon-rising additives and the pattern was designed purely to reduce carbon with as little waste as possible while providing a performance grip and stability.
“We made our life super hard,” Handy says. “Making it work functionally and making it that light and low carbon, I’m not sure we could have picked a harder project.”
Along with the 2.94kg CO2e per pair, each pair weighs 308 grams (10.86 ounces) or 154 grams per shoe (5.43 ounces).
Beyond the Shoe
The packaging of the shoe is new. Even the boxes used to ship shoes were rebuilt to reduce weight and fit more shoes in a single carton to reduce shipping fuels. Adidas and Allbirds worked with the Asian factories creating the sneakers to bring in renewable energy to power the plants. The fuel used in ocean shipping is recycled cooking oil. From transportation to logistics, Finck says they were shaving off weight in the hundredth of kilogram range, doing what they could in even the smallest ways.
Both companies will continue to trumpet the Futurecraft.Footprint, but they both have the potential to take what they’ve learned from the project in whatever direction they choose, especially as the newly blended materials offer a fresh path in performance footwear. At the same time, much of what was discovered—from packaging to patterns and transportation to sourcing—can apply across the entire industry.
“We looked at every aspect, from engineering raw materials to final delivery in a runners’ hand,” Handy says. “Something I really love about this project is, in essence, you can cheat the system and build something in a sample factory to lower the carbon footprint, but we genuinely measured end-to-end in a real production shoe that people will really be able to buy. It is high-performance tested, manufactured and a functionally perfect running shoe. You can’t really cheat this and that obviously made it a lot harder.”
The Adidas-Allbirds team worked right to the end to get the carbon number as low as possible. “I’ve never worked on a project where I didn’t know the final details until it was ready to be shared with the world,” Handy says. “We didn’t know the final number until we got the final shoe.”
That’s why the 2.94 on the side of the Futurecraft.Footprint comes handwritten.