When you hear the word “plastic”, what comes to mind?
Likelihood is, it’s not a positive thought. But in the 1800s some of the first plastics were engineered from natural resources as a sustainable alternative to bone and ivory taken from animals. Fast-forward a century and synthetic plastics were becoming commonplace in just about every aspect of our lives, including on the soles of our feet.
Plastics have immense power to give us incredible performance results in our running shoes. But we’ve also started to understand the impact these materials are having on our planet, so we’ve been on a mission to find a better solution. And we’ve broken ground.
But before we get into that, let’s go back in time.
Big hair, big dreams
Long before CloudTec® and Speedboards®, athletes wore sports shoes constructed from natural materials. Like leather for uppers and carved wood for footbeds, which we can only image felt more like running on ironing boards than running on clouds. But in the late 1800s, rubber was recognized for its softer flexible characteristics, and began being used to meet the needs of an emerging leisure and sports industry.
In the 1950s and 60s, televization of sporting events and a new era of optimism following the war saw activities like jogging, cycling and aerobics become common pastimes in the western middle class home. People needed better shoes and growing demand meant companies had good reason to invest in materials.
But it’s the 1970s that are generally considered the turning point for our industry. Any nostalgic runner reading will know it was athletes like Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter that inspired millions to bring our beloved sport into their daily routine. Later known as “the running boom of the 70s”, the first New York City Marathon in 1970 received 127 entries – hardly a dent on the 20,000+ a decade later.
Even with velocity-compromising hairstyles, records were being broken and competition was rising. Track and field athletes, and runners of all abilities, wanted more speed, more cushioning and more support. Leather and suede became too soft too quick, and natural rubber wasn’t giving runners the light, responsive ride they wanted.
Then came synthetic foams and vinyl. Light springy bases, and uppers with just enough stretch, brought a new sensation to help get an edge on the competition. The bright contrasting colors and new, irresistible comfort of athletic shoes attracted the casual free-spirited style of the 70s, and their appeal grew rapidly into the vibrant spandex-loving fitness craze of the 80s. Before long, performance sports shoes were considered a fitness essential, and evolved into the casual sneakers that became a standard feature in any wardrobe.
Now, back to the future.
Today, running shoes are almost exclusively designed with synthetic plastics. Technology has developed to provide an infinite range of styles, fits and function to adapt to different sports and individual need.
One shoe can have several different materials – a polyester upper, metal eyelets, foam underfoot and nylon for laces. Right now, it’s not possible to recycle these mixed materials at once, and because these materials are tightly stitched and glued together it’s no easy task to separate them.
And these pesky plastics derive from fossil fuels. They’re cheap to produce and easy to source – exactly what an industry needs to meet huge demand. But as we know, fossil fuels have serious implications for our environment, and they’re a finite resource so they won’t be around forever.
We’re already making more sustainable choices when designing our shoes and apparel – like using more recycled materials to reduce our CO2 footprint and our need for fossil fuels. We know it’s just a temporary solution so we’re pushing ourselves to think bigger. After all, even if the material of a shoe has a second life, it’s often its last. These complex issues can leave you feeling a bit helpless, right? Well we’re feeling hopeful and we think you should, too.
It all comes down to (magic) beans!
Plant to performance
When we began our mission to find a solution to this linear line of plastic predicament, one of our partners, Arkema, introduced us to the Pebax® family. One material really stopped us in our tracks.
PA11, widely known as Rilsan, caught our attention because it checks a whole lot of boxes. It’s an exceptionally strong performance plastic that can be recycled over and over and over again thanks to its durability and high quality (hooray!). And it gets better. PA11 is a bio-based plastic which means it comes from resources that naturally regenerate unlike fossil fuels.
And there’s more. PA11 is engineered from the beans of a castor plant, and castor plants are kind of a big deal. They grow in very dry, sparse landscapes where little else can survive (bad*ss beans). Harvesting castor beans doesn’t take away land from agriculture-dependant communities, in fact it does the opposite – it provides new opportunities (virtuous beans).
PA11 has already been in use since the 1950s. It has long been relied upon for its tough, durable characteristics in industrial tools and protective gear like helmets among a whole host of other products.
We’ve already been using PA11 in our Speedboards® for a few years and it's shown outstanding performance results. But the Cyclon running shoe is the first time we’ve managed to engineer an upper from it too. The breathable knit, reinforced sections, heat-pressed eyelets and soft but durable laces? All PA11. And topping it off, an ultralight highly responsive foam underfoot from the Pebax® family too.
The Cyclon running shoe is 100% recyclable. Better yet, the materials can be recycled together. No complicated separation and no need to exhaust finite resources. Just high-quality performance and an efficient optimized process (very Swiss) to keep the materials in use infinitely.
Cards on the table
We’ve come a long way from bone, leather and wood. But there’s still work to do.
We think a more circular approach to design is not only the future of our products, but it’s the best future for our planet. If we want to see more of our products exist in a circular loop with truly sustainable materials, we have to create demand – just like they did in the 70s. If you want to know what you can do (apart from subscribing to Cyclon of course) then ask your favorite brands what they’re doing to do more.
We know we don’t have all the answers and we’re not putting our feet up or slowing down just because we’re making our Cyclon dream a reality. This is just the beginning, so watch this space.
There’s so much more to discover about Cyclon. Cyclon is not just a running shoe, it’s also a service. To be able to keep 100% of these materials in use, we need the shoes back when you’re done with them. That’s why it’s only available on subscription. You run in them, return them, and we recycle them. And we make sure you’re never without a pair. It’s called The Shoe You Will Never Own for good reason.
If you want to learn more about Cyclon, and just why we think this it the north star of sustainability, then discover more articles below.
Get an intro into the Cyclon mission, and understand how circularity and a subscription are a perfect match.
Get to know more about this clever circular system, what it is, and why it’s the future.
Sustainability never means compromising on performance. Discover just how elite this shoe is on track to be. Hint: record-breaking.
We’ve got nothing to hide. Discover our honest approach to sustainable practice at On.