Can the Adidas-Allbirds sustainable sneaker be more than a marketing gimmick?

The Futurecraft.Footprint by Adidas and Allbirds
The Futurecraft.Footprint by Adidas and Allbirds
Image: Adidas
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In an unusual move, Adidas and Allbirds—normally competitors in footwear—have teamed up for a greater purpose. The two companies shared their knowledge and expertise with one another to make a sneaker with no carbon footprint.

They didn’t quite get there, but the sneaker they’ve just unveiled, called the Futurecraft.Footprint, has a carbon footprint per pair of 2.94 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions (CO2e), a measure that factors in other greenhouse gases as well, such as methane, for a more holistic tally of a product’s climate impact.

The companies hailed it as a major achievement, and it’s a stride in the right direction. The footprint of one of Adidas’s comparable but traditionally manufactured running shoes, the Adizero RC3, is 7.86 kg CO2e, according to the company, and it has said previously its shoes’ carbon output can reach roughly twice that. Allbirds, an outspoken proponent of companies adopting more sustainable practices, says the average footprint of its own products is about 7.6 kg CO2e. The Futurecraft.Footprint brings these numbers down significantly. The big question that remains is whether this innovation will allow the companies—Adidas in particular, as the giant of the two—to make a dent in the carbon output of the rest of their products.

A close up of the Futurecraft.Footprint on a woman's foot as she jaunts through a field
A closer look at the Futurecraft.Footprint.
Image: Adidas

In 2019, Adidas produced 448 million pairs of sneakers (pdf). Just going by the footprint of the Adizero, that’s about 3.5 billion kg CO2e, or about the same emissions as 765,808 cars driven for a year. The number of sneakers Adidas produced last year declined to 379 million because of the pandemic, but the company’s overall trajectory has been to increase its output. In 2010, for example, it made a comparatively modest 219 million pairs (pdf).

The Futurecraft.Footprint will officially launch this month via a raffle of just 100 pairs. This fall, it will see a wider release of 10,000 pairs as Adidas increases the volume further in 2022. Even if it scales quickly, Adidas will only reduce its climate impact if it produces fewer of its other products or finds ways to significantly reduce their emissions.

The big environmental challenge for the fashion and footwear industries, in fact, is the sheer amount of stuff they produce. Even as companies try to reduce the strain they create on the planet, they may find the growth in the amount of products they sell is outweighing the benefits (paywall) of their sustainable practices.

In an emailed statement, Adidas said it plans on incorporating the innovations in “design, development and life cycle analysis as part of the work we’re doing to reduce our CO2 footprint per product by 15% by 2025.” Allbirds said it would also seek to use what it learned in its manufacturing process.

Where footwear’s CO2 emissions come from

Typically more than two-thirds of a running shoe’s carbon emissions come from manufacturing it. They’re generally assembled from numerous components, many of them made of molded plastics often produced Asian factories that may still be powered by coal.

Adidas and Allbirds say they rethought the standard manufacturing techniques, materials, and even packaging of a sneaker to get to the Futurecraft.Footprint’s numbers, which were calculated using Allbirds’ methodology (pdf) for assessing the full lifecycle of a product. The shoe’s upper is made of 70% recycled polyester and 30% tencel, a material made from wood pulp, while components such as the midsole, sock liner, and tongue incorporate a sugarcane-based foam developed by Allbirds. Adidas and Allbirds say their key suppliers for the sneaker committed to use electricity from renewable sources.

Adidas has set ambitious goals for its climate impact. It has committed to reducing its greenhouse emissions 30% from 2017 levels by 2030 and being climate neutral by 2050.

The innovations behind the Futurecraft.Footprint could help it get there, if they reach beyond the Futurecraft.Footprint.