Insights / Fashion

How to turn a global sportswear brand from petroleum-based to plant-based

Reebok’s Head of Brand Communication Nordics, Alex Zachrisson, on challenges, experimentation, and consumer insights when working with ”things that grow”. And why recycling is not the ultimate way forward.
By FREDRIK EKSTRÖM & JOHAN MAGNUSSON
April 20, 2021

Reebok just released the new version of its innovation in running footwear, Floatride Energy GROW. As part of the brand’s [REE]GROW category, it’s guaranteed that at least 50% of the used materials are plant-based, while the new model still keeps the high-performance standards as a running shoe.

More on the new runner later.

The global sportswear and shoe brand has been working on sustainability initiatives for more than seven years when they were beginning to see an increase in consumer demand for more sustainable products.

— But we were also recognizing how critical it was that we address the issue head-on, shares Alex Zachrisson. The athletic footwear and apparel business has not been a particularly sustainable business throughout its history. The use of petroleum-based virgin plastics in particular is part of almost every product that’s been sold. It has significant negative effects both at the front-end processing of the product during creation and at the back end with much of what the industry creates ending up in landfills where it can last for hundreds of years. So we saw it as a responsibility. It is simply the right thing to do. As a company, we have a responsibility.

When the company began the process they realized that in order to reduce their footprint they needed to reduce both the waste and the use of petroleum products. 

— Recycling, which many companies are focused on, will get us partway there, but we knew that ultimately, we will need to find alternatives for the petroleum-based products and materials we use, says Zachrisson, continuing,

— So we immediately started focusing on plant-based products because it has several benefits: 

– First, plant-based ingredients can be used as substitutes for petroleum in many plastics 

– Second, plant-based products are more sustainable because unlike petroleum-based products the plants can be sustainably sourced and regrown.  

– Third, plant-based products have an added benefit of further reducing CO2. When sustainably sourced, plants serve as a carbon sink absorbing CO2 as they grow. In contrast, when petroleum is extracted and processed it releases carbon back into the atmosphere that would have stayed trapped underground. 

– Finally, we expect plant-based ingredients to help bring us closer to our goal of compostability which when achieved will close the product lifecycle loop and further reduce waste.  

How was the design R&D process when introducing the new biomaterials into the innovation process?               

— We have the Reebok Future team, Zachrisson explains, a team of engineers responsible for working on future projects on a 5-year timeline. The Future team is primarily tasked with creating new processes or new methods of making footwear and apparel. This team was responsible for our Floatride Energy running shoe, launched last fall, but they were also responsible for the development of our first plant-based shoe — a lifestyle shoe called Cotton and Corn. To create Forever Floatride GROW, one of the first plant-based, true performance running shoe on the market, it made sense to leverage the skills of our foam supplier who worked on Floatride Energy, and our Future team. 

— We’re on a constant journey of experimentation and often find that working with new suppliers and new materials help us push the boundaries of traditional methods to end up at truly innovative destinations. So we researched and spoke with and experimented with a number of different suppliers and innovative companies in the space to determine the best method to create Forever Floatride GROW. It was a process of trial and error and we have learned a great deal. What is now clear is that sustainability is critical to innovation moving forward. Sustainability used to mean the application of good practices. Now sustainability is a critical component of virtually every innovation we create, Zachrisson states. 

How is the consumer responding? And what consumer insights did you rely on when starting the project?  

— Currently, consumer response is very positive and Forever Floatride GROW has exceeded the sales expectations. And it’s not just our consumers, it’s also brand partners, retailers, and influencers who have been very enthusiastic about the direction we’re heading with sustainability. But we have a lot more work to be done to reach our long-term goals. But we’re committed to sustainability and the future health of our planet.

— In terms of the consumer insights we used as the basis for the project, we have identified two consumer groups: Activists and Enthusiasts. The Activists want to showcase that they buy sustainable products and actively seek these products out. They want to be part of the push for change and they gravitate towards brands and products that represent that. We know that 84% of Gen Z consumers are willing to pay more for these products, and the Activists certainly fit this mold. The larger group is the Enthusiasts. They really just want to do the right thing and, when presented with the choice, want to make a good choice. They’re interested in sustainability but might not be as willing to pay more for these products or compromise look, feel, fit, or performance. Overall, when we look at Western Europe and North America specifically, we see both of these groups making up more than 50% of the overall market, and that number is projected to grow, Zachrisson shares.

Could you share any fun stories, dos and don’ts, challenges, and joyful moments from behind the scenes?

— With regard to Forever Floatride GROW, one of the biggest challenges was sorting through all the different suppliers and materials to get to a bio-based solution that would work for performance running. Since we were the first in the industry, there was no roadmap or playbook we could refer to. Many potential partners had materials that looked perfect on paper, but it turned out that was not the case.  It’s important to make sure our sustainability goals are authentic and once we found the suppliers that had the patience and shared passion for our vision, we knew we were on to something special.

Reebok Forever Floatride Grow. Key features include:
– Castor bean midsole delivers responsive and lightweight cushioning
– Comfort flared heel collar and natural rubber outsole is durable and flexible
– BLOOM algae sockliner is molded for increased support and cushioning
– Eucalyptus upper is durable and breathable
– Total weight of 8.1 oz/230g women; 9.7 oz/275g men

What’s next? How does Forever Floatride GROW fit into your sustainability plan for the long run?  

— We’re focusing our efforts under two pillars: [REE]GROW and [REE]CYCLED. Products labeled [REE]CYCLED are made with recycled materials and those labeled [REE]GROW are made with plant-based materials — from ”things that grow”. We’re also committed to reducing virgin polyester from our material mix, and eventually eliminating it by 2024.

— In addition, we’re also investing more into sustainability than we ever have before. Currently, a significant percentage of our innovation resources are dedicated to our sustainability initiatives.

— Finally, as for what’s next, moving forward, we expect to be able to create plant-based alternatives for most of our footwear models. So, for us, the source of raw materials, plants, being renewable is important. We’re also spending a lot of effort against what happens with a product after its useful life — the back end of the process. This is the next big challenge for us, Zachrisson concludes.

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