To many customers, it’s quite a challenge to understand which innovations are honest moves to make a brand more sustainable, and which are just greenwashing. Frankly, sporting goods manufacturers are pretty good in both categories.
Sure, many measures might be the first step into a brighter future. Substituting polyester with bio-based products for example or introducing a new, green packaging concept. You have to start somewhere, right?
Unfortunately, to many major sports brands this first step is already the end of the road. If you find some of the following moves in the behavior of your favorite brand, you might want to start questioning things.
1. Sustainable materials in a supporting role
Many brands love to label their collection with tags like “made from sustainable materials”, “bio-based” or “recycled”. But if you check the true composition of their fabrics and compounds you may find out, that these materials just complement conventional ones. Sometimes there is no way around it — high-tech midsole foams for example might still need a petroleum-based part to keep your shoe cushioned. However, if your sports shirt contains 10 % hemp and 90 % polyester, it might be bio-based, but definitely not sustainable.
2. Eco-friendly material from problematic production
Recycled or natural materials always sound like a sustainable solution. But what if the people collecting the bottles or the farmers picking the cotton are treated badly? What if water was wasted, if the dyeing process was toxic? Bambus for example is becoming a very popular textile material — but while lyocell bamboo uses organic solvents, viscose bamboo relies on harmful corrosive chemicals, such as sodium hydroxide, to dissolve the plant’s pulp.
3. Sustainable production but harmful materials
Or the other way around. Many companies love to tell stories of social projects they finance. Or they write about efficient, water-saving, perhaps even local manufacturing. But when you look at the materials they use, the product is suddenly far away from being “green”. The same way an eco-friendly material cannot compensate a problematic production, a good production is worthless without sustainable materials.
4. Local assembly but global sourcing
Customers love local products. And brands know that. Often they place the final station of their supply chain somewhere close by, perhaps even in their home town. This way they can claim that their products are being manufactured locally — Made in EU or Made in USA. But what if all of the product’s components and materials have to be flown or shipped in from far away? Actually, very often, a production process can be significantly more eco-friendly when the product is being manufactured close to the sources of its materials in Asia and then gets imported to a central or regional stock as one final item.
5. Local production but poor conditions
But even if a brand sources and manufactures its products locally, that doesn’t mean that it’s doing that in a sustainable way. Actually, while shipping is responsible for a maximum of 5 to 10% of a product’s CO2 emissions, the actual production process, depending on the category, can take up to 50% and more. For example, a sports bag produced in a modern Taiwanese factory shipped to a central stock in France can have a much greener footprint than a Portuguese bag manufactured with old machines.
6. The smoke of aims and goals
Promises are cheap and often untrackable. That’s why the sustainability reports of all major sports brands are full of them. “Yes, perhaps we pollute like hell right now. But herewith we solemnly declare the following ambitious goals…” Sure, a first step. But unfortunately, this trick is being repeated over and over and over again. It’s easy to claim, you’ll be using green energy only in 2025 or you’ll be carbon-neutral in 2050. Nobody can prove you wrong in 2021, yet. Don’t read only the latest reports, check out what your favorite brand promised ten years ago… and hold them accountable.
7. It’s all about packaging
Many brands love to talk about their recyclable packaging. Some a bit too much. Why? Because it could be the only thing about (or rather close to) their product, that has been manufactured in some “green-ish” way. Sure, proper packaging can be a challenge and every year the sports industry produces millions of tons of packaging waste. But it should be just (!) a part of a brand’s sustainability concept.
8. Irrelevant collections and prototypes
Another popular, maybe even the lousiest trick is promoting collections or even only single products, that are as green as can be — but unfortunately, although these products are advertised with all the brand’s marketing power, the actual production numbers of these items take an irrelevant share of the brand’s total portfolio. Some products don’t even get produced at all. What remains is the conventional mass of much more profitable and significantly less sustainable products.
9. Proper materials but un-recyclable
This one is tricky to judge but useful to be aware of. If you have a product put together from many different recyclable or bio-degradable materials, it’s almost impossible to recycle or to bio-degrade it anyhow… or at least for you. Different materials need different treatments, often industrial composting or anaerobic digestion. Actually, the most sustainable product would be made of one fully recyclable or bio-degradable material only — but this limits the products performance. Figure out if the manufacturer takes care of or supports your product’s disposal.
10. Sustainable but useless
Finally, even if all the things above do not apply, consider if the product you’re told to buy really delivers. It’s pretty easy to create a shoe from recycled paper. But first, you won’t be able to run in it, and second, tomorrow you’ll need a new one as its durability might be pretty bad. Many companies try to jump on the sustainability bandwagon with products that don’t meet an athlete’s expectations and therefore end up on a landfill far too early.