Athletic apparel has sure improved since the bulky sweatsuits of our parents’ generation. While those heavy cotton jersey outfits are still easy to find, what we now wear to the gym or yoga is often thinner, thankfully moisture-wicking and, let’s face it, is sharper and far more presentable than those frumpy grey sweats of yesterday.
The better materials and sleek designs paid off: Sales have dramatically risen in recent years for most athletic gear companies, from Nike to Lululemon Athletica, as they have profited from the fact that Americans are spending more on such clothing since it now often doubles as fashion. The size of the U.S. athletic wear market, in fact, could be as high as $225 billion annually.
That demand, however, requires more cotton, a crop that requires massive amounts of water and land. WWF estimated that to produce one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cotton, 20,000 liters (almost 5,300 gallons) of water is required from planting to harvest. About 2.5 percent of the world’s cropland is devoted to growing cotton, yet WWF says this crop requires 24 percent of global insecticide sales and 11 percent of pesticide sales annually. Almost 75 percent of the world’s cotton is grown in regions that require irrigation, including the world’s largest producers such as the U.S., China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and countries in western Africa. Add the human rights misery that has festered from its production worldwide, and that one kilo of cotton needed to manufacture the T-shirt and jeans you are wearing has left quite the footprint before they landed in your closet.
For a decade, however, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) has been committed to mitigating the impacts that stem from global cotton production. This NGO strives to make cotton sustainable on all three fronts: economic, environmental and social. According to its most recent annual report, the cooperation BCI has engendered between farmers, ginners, manufacturers and retailers has resulted in a 2014 harvest of 2 million metric tons (2.2 million U.S. tons) of cotton that is more sustainable, responsible and, for farmers, equitable. One apparel company that has made a commitment to the procurement of sustainable cotton is Adidas.
Last week, the German athletic clothing and shoes manufacturer, the second largest on Earth after Nike, announced it had exceeded its 2015 target of sourcing “Better Cotton.” The company said 43 percent of all cotton it purchased last year was from BCI growers, exceeding its original goal of 40 percent.
Most of Adidas’ Better Cotton comes from India, Pakistan, China, Brazil, Turkey and Australia. Those fibers in turn are accounted for by BCI’s “mass-balance” traceability system, which allows them to be processed with conventional cotton — keeping costs down for textile suppliers, which often operate on thin margins. All of this sustainable cotton consumption is monitored by BCI’s “chain of custody,” a documentation management system that the NGO says ensures retailers can make claims about its cotton with integrity.
Companies such as Adidas support BCI’s work by paying annual volume-based fees to BCI. Those funds then allow BCI to continue its field implementation projects at cotton farms worldwide. Professionals at Adidas also work with manufacturers and elsewhere within the company's supply chain in order to explain how to source, track and report its incorporation of Better Cotton. This approach, which Adidas has taken since 2011, will allow the company to eventually reach its goal of 100 percent Better Cotton by 2018, an Adidas spokesperson told TriplePundit in an email.
Now if you’re looking for that truly 100 percent sustainable cotton shirt, keep in mind that, again, the cotton from all sources are processed together as it is transformed from bolts of textiles to an item of clothing. There is no way to declare which particular Adidas clothing item has what percentage of Better Cotton in it. “We can say with certainty, however, that a known mass of Better Cotton entered and exited the supply chain,” an Adidas representative told 3p in an email, “and that farmers and planet have benefited from its production.”
Going beyond cotton, Adidas is also working on other projects to ensure that all of its materials will become more environmentally responsible. Shoes, for example, have an average of approximately 65 various parts and incorporate as many as 360 manufacturing processes — which are among the reasons why those sneakers may have crossed several international borders before they landed on a store’s shelf.
To that end, Adidas has helped launch the WRAP Consortium Project, or Sport Infinity, a European Commission initiative that seeks to enable the manufacture of easily customizable athletic gear. Ideally, this process, which is essentially 3-D printing, would allow a worn-out soccer shoe to be broken down and recycled into another product without the challenge of disposing other materials such as adhesives.
In addition, Adidas has also adopted a sewing technique it calls Futurecraft Tailored Fiber, which the company says allows new raw materials such as salvaged gillnets to be integrated in new footwear designs and reduce the amount of waste that results from traditional shoe manufacturing. Furthermore, on the ocean garbage front, adidas also partners with Parley for the Oceans, an initiative that incorporates more plastic waste from the seas into shoe components such as midsoles.
We are still far from the time when we can purchase athletic wear with a totally clear conscious. Nevertheless, the efforts made by companies such as Adidas have made huge progress in recent years, and will spur even more innovation within the textile industry in the coming decade.
Image credit: Adidas
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.