On January 9th, the NHL announced that players would be wearing eco-friendly jerseys for the 2019 All-Star game. These will be the “first-ever NHL jerseys featuring repurposed and upcycled materials.” This move aligns with Adidas’ existing relationship with Parley for the Oceans, an initiative that attempts to deal with ocean plastic by turning it into raw materials (a process commonly referred to as upcycling).
The partnership between Adidas and Parley started in 2015, and by 2017 Adidas had manufactured 1 million pairs of Adidas Parley X shoes made predominantly from discarded fishing nets and single use water bottles. Eventually they made uniforms for the soccer teams, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, and updated their ADV sneakers with Parley technology. Adidas isn’t the only athletic brand trying to draw eco-conscious consumers, Nike has their own technologies in play using leftover leather hide and many of their 2018 World Cup uniforms were also made from recycled plastic bottles.
As global waste management becomes an increasing problem for everyone, brands are taking the opportunity to foster innovation. This is all well-intentioned and certainly needed, especially when it leads manufacturers closer to closed loop manufacturing. See, our traditional economic model is a linear process of Take – Make – Waste. It’s the way we have done things for a long time now but it has never been a sustainable model. Conversely, a closed loop model for manufacturing attempts to ensure that there never is “waste” in today’s sense. Everything from waste water, scrap metal, and discarded material would, in theory, become food for another process. The Adidas Parley products exist in a space between traditional manufacturing and closed loop manufacturing.
The main problem with these “eco-friendly” products is that they have the side effects of 1.) encouraging us to buy more stuff (because we feel less guilty about our consumption – in psychology they refer to this as moral licensing) and, 2.) we are still producing non-biodegradable products. These Adidas Parley shoes and jerseys will all still end up in the landfill at some point and because they are made from plastic their existence will surely outlast ours. Everything ends up in the landfill at some point and because our landfills are so full it eventually makes its way to our oceans. It is estimated that 80% of the garbage in the oceans are from land, as opposed to marine waste. And, as was recently pointed out in an article published in Outside magazine about the opportunities offered by renewing existing products, as opposed to making new ones:
In an age when sustainable design and manufacturing is ever more in demand, the Renewal Workshop addresses a hypocrisy few in the outdoor industry ever talk about: every shirt made from recycled water bottles and every jacket made with recycled-polyester insulation will wind up in a landfill. The materials and manufacturing may be eco-friendly, but putting another item out into the world is not.
So, are eco-friendly jerseys made from plastic bottles better than jerseys made from virgin polyester? Sure. But let’s be weary because the last thing this planet needs right now is more jerseys. The fact that Adidas and Nike can make millions of sneakers and boxes of jerseys from discarded plastic is indicative of a significant problem. Instead of being excited about a cool stop-gap measure we need to seriously question why we continue to make so much plastic stuff even though we know it’s harmful. As Gay Hawkins asserts in his book, The Ethics of Waste: How we relate to rubbish, “Waste becomes a social text that discloses the logic or illogic of a culture” (p. 2). The logic of creating fabric from old plastic bottles is tremendous but let’s not forget to question the illogic of why this has become a necessary technology.