As plastic continues to pile up in the world’s oceans, several fashion brands are upcycling it into their products. While companies like Outerknown are built entirely up sustainability, others use recycled materials in select productsonly. Adidas falls comfortably into the second category, but could be doing a lot worse in terms of sustainability.

Adidas’ sustainability efforts

In 2015, Adidas teamed up with Parley for the Oceans to create a shoe that incorporated yarn made from recovered ocean plastic and illegal deep-sea fishing gillnets. They unveiled a prototype at the 2015 “Oceans. Climate. Life.” talks hosted by the United Nations.

Since then, the Adidas x Parley collection has grown to 103 items of men’s and women’s athletic clothing, and Adidas has increased its sustainability efforts. In 2016, Adidas cut out 70 million plastics bags by switching to paper in its stores. Last year, it manufactured five million pairs of Parley shoes and plans to increase that number to 11 million in 2019. It has also set some aggressive sustainability goals, along with some rather vague ones.

Adidas’s notable sustainability goals:

The TERREX Two parley trail running shoes are created with recycled yarn made form plastic collected by Parley for the Oceans. Photo by Adidas.

It’s always good to see big companies take responsibility for their environmental impact with measurable goals. Even better is seeing a global trend-setter like Adidas incorporate recycled plastic into their products. According to its product page, a single pair of $125 TERREX Two Parley trail running shoes “keeps approximately 11 plastic bottles out of our oceans.”

This shoe’s price and quality seem to be on par with Nike and REI‘s trail running shoes (which are largely made of synthetic materials) – so why not opt for a product that reduces ocean plastic?

Here’s the tricky part…

Based on a 2011 study by Dr. Mark Browne et al., which has been widely cited by later studies, it seems washable clothes aren’t the ideal medium for this innovation. Published in Environmental Science & Technology, the study found that a single garment can produce more than 1,900 fibers per wash. It concluded that “a large proportion of microplastic fibers found in the marine environment may be derived from sewage as a consequence of washing of clothes.”

So where does that leave us? In terms of clothes, avoiding synthetic materials altogether is the best way to reduce microplastics. But for shoes, Adidas x Parley products aren’t a bad option, although Vivo Barefoot seems to have gone a step further with its Vegan Shoe collection.

Personally, I’d like to see Adidas continue to use ocean plastics, focusing on shoes, jackets and other items that aren’t frequently washed. If nothing else, Adidas’ partnership with Parley can improve recycling infrastructure and awareness, showing that ocean plastic can, and should, be upcycled. With any luck, other industries will catch on and produce long lasting items made from ocean plastic.

The best case scenario, however, would be for big brands like Adidas to move to sustainable, natural materials and avoid synthetics altogether. But I’m not going to hold my breath for that to happen.

Feature photo: Adidas makes a splash with its Parley collaboration. Photo by JULIAN ALEXANDER on Unsplash