Alexis Olans Haass Director Sustainability adidas PURPOSE
Alexis heads adidas brand's sustainability program from global headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany. Her responsibilities include directing adidas brand's sustainability strategy, developing new sustainable innovations and business models, and coordinating sustainable product creation across adidas' business units and global creation centers. Alexis' previous work revolved around sustainable product development and clean technology with companies such as IDEO, P&G, and Transfair USA. Alexis has an MBA in Marketing, and a MS in Sustainable Systems from the University of Michigan.
There is possibly no other product category that is more dynamic and experimental with materials than the sportswear industry, and in particular athletic footwear. Being part of the fashion industry, it is also an area that needs to be held environmentally accountable for the high turnaround and volume of products that it generates. As such, this interview with Alexis Haass, Director of Sustainability at Adidas, looks at the role of plastics from the perspective of sustainability and high-end design, materials and consumer expectations.
Chris Lefteri: Could you explain your role within Adidas?
Alexis Haass: I'm the director of sustainability in Adidas Purpose. I lead the team that focuses on sustainable product and how sustainability impacts our brand strategy. We work with teams across the company to determine which sustainable innovations we need, what new business models we should pursue, how we engage our consumer - anything that goes more towards the consumer side of things.
CL: Sustainability is a hugely complex process in terms of materials for products. How do you break that down into manageable chunks?
AH: So that's actually quite a challenge for us as a brand, not only on the products themselves but even just thinking on the strategy we wanted to pursue because the topic is so huge. We broke down our strategy into three areas – we call them three Loops. We're trying to make this transition from that linear economy that we all know - where we take something out of the ground, you make it into a product, and then it gets thrown away - and transition over to a natural circular economy. In order to do that, we've got three Loops that are all part of the solution.
The first one - The Recycled Loop - is where, instead of that straight line, you start to bend the line back. In the Recycled Loop, you're putting waste in at the front end instead of virgin material. Parley product and our recycled polyester Moonshot fit here, making sure that we can cut off the flow of virgin material and move only onto recycled materials. For our Moonshot, we are committed to using only recycled polyester in every product and in every application where a solution exists by 2024.
The next stage is the Circular Loop – not only using recycled materials, but also ensuring the product itself is circular. That it's made to be remade. Here it's not just design - you'll need new business models to ensure that products go round and round. The last Loop that we have is Bionic Loop, where we are trying to loop with nature. Products here, if not made with recycled plastic, will need to be made from nature, and – in case they ever escape the loop – should harmlessly return to nature.
This is a transition we are trying to go through as a product company and as a brand. We want to engage our consumers not only in the eco-innovation we're doing, but also how these topics could apply to their lives. That's why with Parley products we focused on not just making shoes out of ocean plastic, but also on engaging consumers to make a commitment to get rid of single use plastic in their lives. With the Futurecraft Loop shoe we're trying to spur on the conversation about the need to transition to a new circular economy.
The goal is to create an exciting vision that our consumers want to participate in with us. Where we can bring the power of a big brand to innovate in this space – be it in the materials, products, or even brand activation – to make inroads in this transition towards a circular economy where we loop with Nature.
CL: I'd like to probe a little bit more because there was an interview that I read where you talked about the difficulty of using lifecycle analysis tools. On that very narrow level of just looking at material and material choices, how do you balance and approach materials selection of one material being better than the other?
AH: We lean very heavily on lifecycle analysis in shaping our strategy. What we don't want to do is solve a small subset of the problem over here and then create another big problem with the replacement over there. We have in our team lifecycle analysts who actually help review those innovations and who give that full picture that guides both our strategy, our products and materials. There are times when something comes out as a bit of a wash about which innovation is a better way to go, and then we go for what illustrates the story of transition better. When it comes to something that is not communicated the right way and could be perceived as greenwashing, we need to take into account if it is really going to help our consumers. Is this going to get them excited? Or maybe help them relate to a problem that's otherwise pretty intangible? If that's the case, then we could prefer one over another.
CL: Yes, exactly. I gave a talk recently and I talked about this aspect of product and sustainability and there has to be that element of desire. It isn't just about feeling guilty, you want to be optimistic and you want enjoy the process of being more considerate. Which brings me to the next question, are there any instances where sustainability in terms of materials in your products has driven the aesthetic of the product?
AH: Actually both Futurecraft examples - the one we did for the Recycled Loop and the other for the Circular Loop – the sustainability of the material drove the original aesthetic. I'll talk about them one at a time.
Our first Parley shoe – the UN shoe – was Futurecraft. That shoe was an experiment - we had this problem of new material (gillnet pulled from the ocean and plastic bottles from the Maldives) that was not of the quality or calibre that we normally expected. We were trying to weave it into a product and find a way we could turn this threat into a thread, and so had to turn to a new technology we were trialling in the lab. When we wove in the gillnet with this new technology, it created a particular look where you see waves on the line of the shoe. The tech made somebody really be able to see and visualise that the net was a part of the shoe.
The same effect wound up happening with Circular Loop, and the Futurecraft Loop shoe. We wound up with very different aesthetics and looks because of making it from just one material. The material has a natural color and behaviour properties. We're already seeing - as we go through future generations of recycling those shoes in the lab - that the colour of the material changes over time… So recycling itself creates a desirable aesthetic that tells a generational story. Does that make sense?
CL: Yeah absolutely, very nice. I brought that up just to give a little context because I asked this question to Alistair Curtis of Logitech, when they used the speckled effect on their K780 keyboard. Although it wasn't a project focused on eco materials it was whether consumers would accept products that were less perfect and had a degree of variance on them. In the US it wouldn't work at all which is why I'm interested in the aesthetics of sustainability and why I asked that question.
AH: That's not what we've seen – I think we're still experimenting with what people would and wouldn't accept. Consumer's interest in these topics is driving excitement around some of these new aesthetics. Recycled used to be a dirty word - in fact anything that gave you a visualization of that felt sort of crunchy in a way that most mainstream consumers didn't want. Talking about ocean plastic, enabling people to visualize and understand the plastic problem, is starting to change the desirability of recycled products. If you get it right in positioning the topic in such a way that it can grab consumers, actually that preference around aesthetics will start to change. So, I don't think it's a permanent thing, I think it's more a question of how much resonance you've been able to create and how simple and clean of a story for consumers to touch them in the right way. Not preachy, but in a more exciting, innovative way that makes them desire that future coming; and then they're all on board.
CL: In terms of these new types of materials, which generally have higher costs or are hard to get hold of how do you scale up from new and innovative materials? How do you overcome that at Adidas?
AH: So, at Adidas we have this thing called Futurecraft. Essentially this is our way of opening up our doors and letting people see in when our innovation is pretty far along but not fully baked. That's what we did at the beginning with Parley - we opened it up and we launched initially with one concept shoe. We were trying to create the demand or the desire for recycling where it otherwise wouldn't be, where it made no cost sense for it to be, such as plastic from beaches or from small island communities. We've been able to drive huge scale by positioning the topic right – by sending the call out to the industry while also making it exciting for our consumers, there's more demand for that story.
But we need to make sure we're not only driving up the demand for ocean plastic, but for recycling overall. That's why we are also talking about our recycled polyester Moonshot, where we've committed to having 100% of our polyester, which is also the material that we use the most of, transition fully to recycled by 2024, in every product and on every application where a solution exists. When you couple those together - the very good story and visualisation at the top and then a big call and commitment with the Moonshot material behind it - you generate consumer demand and awareness with our supply base on the outside, as well as mobilise people on the inside. The pull effect moves quite quickly.
We've created a replicable model with Futurecraft in this space. With the UN Parley shoe, we have a track record - going from a concept shoe to producing 11 million pairs of shoes with Parley Ocean Plastic by the end of 2019. You can really build scale if you couple the inspiration at the top with a big Moonshot plan at the bottom.
CL: Have you had feedback from retailers such as Footlocker about the projects, any of them? In terms of the aesthetics?
AH: Oh gosh, yeah.
CL: Do you do that sort of testing before launching?
AH: Could you clarify which sort of testing you're talking about?
CL: Well let's say the Parley?
AH: What we've seen from our key accounts is that they all really want this story, and that actually it's more of a question of trying to keep up with the demand of landing that story in the right way and making sure it comes across. We don't want to just sell products with that story, it's also about activating awareness and education around the problem we're trying to solve. That's where Run for the Oceans, RFTO, comes in. RFTO is Adidas x Parley's global mobilization initiative to encourage runners around the world to engage with the problem / raise awareness of the plastic pollution threat to the world's oceans. 60,000 runners took part in 2017, almost a million last year and around 2.2 million people ran in 2019, raising $1.5 million, which we're investing in the education of future generations on the issue of marine plastic pollution.
So for us, it's more about making sure that the story lands holistically, not the lack of demand. In fact, it's more us running behind it trying to keep up. This is what happens with opening up early with Futurecraft – putting that call out engages our wholesalers like Dicks and Footlocker, as well as engaging our key suppliers. People start approaching you afterwards saying 'look, I see your commitment to it and we're ready to go to scale with you'. I think that's the power of putting something out before it's perfect or 100% there, to create the pull.
CL: In an article that I read the interview where you talked about Solar City being an inspiring example of sustainability from a particular angle. Do you have a case study outside of Adidas that is a product that you were inspired by? In terms of how they had dealt with sustainability?
AH: Wow, there are so many. This is just me personally talking, but several of the car company models are changing the desirability around electric mobility. Tesla was quite early in that race, but there are more now. The thing that I found exciting about this moment is there used to be a perfectly functional electric car before, but those cars didn't put desirability first and foremost, so many consumers were stuck feeling they had to make a sacrifice to stick to their values. The success of Tesla has been in pulling the transition to electric forward 10 - 20 years because they made that switch to prioritizing desirability, while providing availability. If we can be so lucky as to do the same for accelerating the transition to sustainable consumer goods, driving up demand for moving away from virgin plastics and towards looping with nature… I would consider that success.