Understanding which innovations are honest attempts to make a brand more sustainable and which are pure greenwashing is a challenge for many customers.
Sure, many measures could be the first step towards a better future. For example, replacing polyester with bio-based products or introducing a new, green packaging concept. You have to start somewhere, right?
Unfortunately, for many major sports brands, this first step is already the end of the road. If you recognize some of the following steps in your favorite brand's behavior, it might be worth questioning a few things:
1. Sustainable materials in a supporting role
Many brands love labeling their collections with tags like “made from sustainable materials”, “bio-based” or “recycled”. But if you examine the true makeup of their fabrics and compositions, you may find that these materials are only complementary to traditional materials. Sometimes there is no way around it - high-tech midsole foams cannot do without an oil-based component to optimally cushion a shoe. However, if your sports shirt contains 10% hemp and 90% polyester, it may be bio-based but definitely not sustainable.
2. Eco-friendly material from problematic manufacturing
Recycled or natural materials always sound like a sustainable solution. But what if the bottle collectors or the cotton pickers are treated badly? What if water was wasted or if the dyeing process was toxic? Bamboo, for example, is becoming an increasingly popular textile material—but while lyocell bamboo uses organic solvents, viscose bamboo relies on harmful corrosive chemicals like sodium hydroxide to dissolve the plant's pulp.
3. Sustainable production but harmful materials
Or the other way around. Many brands like to tell stories about the social projects they fund. Or they write about efficient, water-saving, maybe even local production. But if you look at the materials used, the product is suddenly far from being "green". Just as an environmentally friendly material cannot compensate for problematic production, good production without sustainable materials is not particularly helpful.
4. Local assembly but global sourcing
Customers love local products. And brands know that. They often place the last stop in their supply chain in their immediate vicinity, perhaps even in their hometown. This way they can claim that their products are made locally - Made in EU or Made in USA. But what if all the components and materials of the product have to be flown in or shipped from far away? In fact, a production process can very often be significantly more environmentally friendly if the product is manufactured close to the raw material sources, for example in Asia or South America, and then imported into a central or regional warehouse as the end product.
5. Local production but poor conditions
But even if a brand sources and produces its products locally, that doesn't mean it's doing so in a sustainable way. While shipping is responsible for a maximum of 5 to 10% of a product's CO2 emissions, the actual production process can account for up to 50% or more, depending on the category. For example, a gym bag made in a modern Taiwanese factory and shipped to a central warehouse in France can boast a much greener footprint than a Portuguese bag made on old machinery.
6. Promises upon promises
Promises are cheap and cannot be checked at first glance. That's why the sustainability reports of all major sports brands are full of them. “Yeah, maybe we're polluting like the world champions right now. But we hereby solemnly declare the following ambitious goals...” A first step? Perhaps. But unfortunately, this trick is repeated over and over again. It is easy to claim that from 2025 we will only be using green electricity or that we will be climate-neutral by 2050. No one can prove otherwise in 2021. So don't just read the latest reports, look at what your favorite brand promised ten years ago and hold them accountable.
7. It's all about the packaging
Many brands like to talk about their recyclable or maybe even compostable packaging. Some a little too much. Because it might be the only thing about your product (or around it) that's made in some more sustainable way. Sure, finding the right packaging can be a challenge and every year the sports industry produces millions of tons of packaging waste. However, environmentally friendly packaging should only be part of a brand's sustainability concept.
8. Irrelevant collections and prototypes
Probably the lousiest trick is to promote collections or even individual products that are as green as possible, but ultimately only represent a measly part (or rather an exception) of the portfolio. Although they are advertised with all the brand's marketing power, the actual production figures for these items hardly play a role in the brand's overall sales - because the money continues to be made with plastic shoes and plastic shirts. Some products are not even produced as studies or prototypes.
9. Right materials but not recyclable
This point is the most difficult to assess - but it is worth considering. When you've made a product from many different recyclable or biodegradable materials, it's extremely difficult to recycle or biodegrade it... at least for you as a customer. Different materials require different treatments, often industrial composting or anaerobic digestion. In fact, the most sustainable product would only consist of a fully recyclable compostable material - but this currently often limits product performance. Fair manufacturers therefore take care of the disposal of your product and support you in recycling it.
10. Sustainable but useless
But even if all of the above aren't true, consider whether the product you're looking to buy really delivers. It's pretty easy to make a shoe out of recycled paper. But firstly, you won't be able to walk properly in them, and secondly, you'll need a new shoe tomorrow because it probably fell apart during the first run. Many companies launch ecological products, which unfortunately do not meet the expectations of ambitious athletes and therefore end up on the landfill far too early. More importantly, such products should be more durable and repairable to avoid premature production of a new piece.