With plastic now polluting every corner of the globe, plastic pollution remains one of the greatest blights on the world’s oceans. From compostable coffee cups to biodegradable plastic bags, the issue is leading to rapid changes in the attitudes of designers towards their projects. One such product is the Adidas x Parley shoe—footwear partially manufactured from recycled ocean plastic.
“There’s really been a huge realisation in the last few years that we have to start working in a completely different way and be conscious of creating real sustainable products and implementing real sustainability in production,” explains Alexander Taylor, the lead innovation and design consultant behind the Adidas x Parley collaboration.
Alexander was first invited to work with Adidas in 2008 on a project for the 2012 Beijing Olympics: the Adidas PrimeKnit shoe. The project focused on proposing new ways of manufacturing footwear which sat outside the regular toolbox of the industry at the time, and Alexander’s experience in industrial design proved to be more than innovative. “I’d never designed a shoe before—my proposal at that time involved knitting,” he says. “By taking technology from the furniture world and using knitting as a key technology, I proposed that we make some shoes.”
A single process
It was on the back of that project that Alexander was invited to do more work with Adidas, oriented towards proposing new sustainable technologies, processes, and materials. “It was normal at that time to have fifteen to twenty individual pieces going into each shoe—these would be cut out and sewn together to add support or functionality,” he explains. “My brief right then was to see if we could cut out all the pieces and try to make the upper part of the shoe out a single piece of material, using a single process.”
Since then, Alexander and the team have developed a number of different technologies, including a fibre placement technology that enabled the creation of the Parley shoe. The intersection of new technologies (such as 3D printing) and the urgency of sustainability has, Alexander argues, offered designers a new direction. “Rather than just focusing on the physical object itself, there’s an opportunity now for designers to have a conversation—and be part of changing the whole process of creating an object at every level. Every aspect of creating a new project becomes a whole system. That’s where designers have an opportunity to really make a difference—more than ever before. We can work in ways where we can imagine engineering products in a way that is cleaner and smarter. We can also consider the afterlife of the product and where it’s manufactured so that we can move towards local sustainability.”
The Parley shoe was a perfect example of this. “It relied on so many different factors coming together at the same time—and it just clicked,” finishes Alexander. “The shoe had the visual of the waves, and spoke to the cause in that way—it came together intuitively. That’s another tool for designers. You don’t just see the process and the material but there’s a communication within the product itself.”