The sports shoes and sportswear market is extremely competitive. Unknown players -like Under Armour- can become giants in no time at all. Besides marketing, an important weapon in the fight for market share is product and material innovation, with biobased options entering the picture more and more.
The prevailing market definition of sportswear and sports footwear is wider. Analysts often include clothing and footwear for outdoor activities (sailing, surfing, etcetera) and clothing ‘inspired’ by sport activities. Market analyst Catalyst observes that these markets overlap each other more and more. The boundary between sportswear and leisure wear in particular is blurring increasingly, especially thanks to the growing numbers of sportswomen.
Catalyst sees a promising future for this market. ‘Consumers are increasingly choosing an active lifestyle, and this is also being encouraged by their employers and other organisations,’ according to the M&A update of Catalyst from 2014. ‘As mentioned earlier, we also observe that the importance of female consumers is growing, which leads to market expansion (in volume and value).’
Product and material innovation is one of the things driving that value appreciation. Consumers are better informed about products and materials with improved functionality such as lower weight and better breathing fabric, and they are more receptive to them.’
Lighter, stronger, more sustainable
Material innovation is a hot topic in the sector. It is not just the ‘big’ players which are looking for lighter, stronger, better breathing, moisture-resistant and ‘more sustainable’ materials; the smaller players are also interested. A brief enquiry among the large brand owners shows that they want to make their business more sustainable. That applies to the production methods (less energy, water, chemicals, etcetera) but most certainly also to their products.
‘We are using more sustainable raw materials, such as biobased materials, polymers and elastomers, to an increasing extent. We then use them in combination with synthetic fibres, foam, rubber or textile,’ according to a spokesperson of Adidas. ‘What we’re talking about is PLA, biobased polyamides, biobased thermoplastic polyurethane and materials such as viscose, Lyocell and Modal.’
These hybrid materials – a combination of recycled plastics (including polyester) and biobased components (plastics and/or textile) – are then used in the production of sports shoes and sportswear. Adidas claims that it aims at using these materials and material combinations more and more, to replace virgin fossil-fuel-based plastics. ‘The aim is to reduce our environmental footprint, but this does have to be validated,’ according to the spokesperson. ‘If we use biomass, it must come from sustainable sources. That means things like no pesticides, a low water footprint and no competition with food consumption.’
Adidas wants to increase its efforts in recycling, biobased materials and more efficient design (fewer (types of) materials per product). In addition, it wants to phase out certain materials and/or chemicals as much as possible, such as PVC, polyethylene chloride and phthalates (inks).
Adidas does use leather, mostly in its footwear lines. The company argues that it ensures that this leather does not come from endangered animal species. The tanning process, however, is not really ‘clean’. That is why an alternative (biobased) would be welcome. At the University of Delaware, the department of Prof. Richard Wool is working on a biobased substitute; Nike and Puma, among others, have already expressed interest. It is as yet unclear whether this has already resulted in a tangible product. The two companies are unwilling or unable to answer this question.
Besides a substitute for leather – still under development – there are numerous tangible products on the market already. Thus DSM supplies Ecopaxx, a biobased polyamide, to the French manufacturer of outdoor apparel, Salomon. Salomon processes Ecopaxx in the soles of the Salomon X hiking boot line. ‘We had the soles tested for two years by mountain guides, athletes and rescue teams,’ according to the French company. ‘We were already using it in snowboard fasteners, and were convinced that this lightweight material would also be suitable for this application.’
Getting rid of the baddies
Phasing out ‘baddies’ and replacing them by raw materials which are cleaner because of their sourcing and processing is a major driving force in the sports and outdoor sector. Thus Patagonia will introduce a wetsuit in the autumn in which neoprene, a synthetic rubber, is replaced by Yulex, a latex-free rubber produced from a desert plant. The production of neoprene uses the vulcanisation accelerator ethylene thiourea, a carcinogenic substance. In the meantime, neoprene manufacturers are also working on cleaner and safer production methods.
The spokesperson of the French manufacturer said it already: lightweight. Manufacturers choose (partly) biobased materials particularly also for their material properties. Weight, and through that (the feeling of) speed, are selling points the industry can use to strike a chord with professional and amateur sportspeople. Four years ago Nike launched the GS (Green Speed) model, manufactured partly on the basis of thermoplastic polyurethane. ‘The GS is the lightest and fastest football boot we have developed thus far,’ according to Andy Caine, Global Design Director at Nike. ‘When you combine high-end performance with a low environmental footprint in a shoe, you have a winning combination.’ For that matter, it is debatable whether Nike has found the winning combination. Headquarters was unwilling to react to our questions about the sales figures for this line. Certain models, such as the Neymar edition from 2012, are offered for sale on the Internet for 700 dollars. So it is vintage.
Nike introduced football shirts during the World Cup which were produced entirely from recycled PET. The next step is to add (partly) biobased components such as PEF, from which yarn can be spun on conventional machines (polyester production). The PEF fibres can also be coloured without any problems. ‘The first PEF shirt is an important step in the commercialisation of PEF,’ according to Tom van Aken. The Avantium CEO argues that the material is more sustainable than fossil-fuel-based materials and offers functional advantages (barrier properties).
Apart from weight, another important functionality is moisture resistance, without loss of breathing properties. These properties are particularly important for sportswear and outdoor clothing.
This effect – drawing the perspiration through and out of the clothing – is called moisture wicking. A biobased polyamide, Terryl (Cathay Biotech), is already available on the market. It has superior performance in the area of absorbance and wicking, according to the manufacturer. Terryl has been positioned mainly as an alternative to nylon.
Another aspect related to perspiration is the odour of sportswear. Various companies are working in this area on biobased antibacterial coatings and/or materials which are intended to fight the growth of micro organisms. The German startup Qmilk has developed a 100% natural textile based on casein, a milk protein. The compostable substance has antibacterial properties, according to Qmilk. A different route is to add antibacterial properties through the finishes or coatings. In the Bio-AmiCoFitex project (Centexbel), biocides from the foods industry, including chitosan, are used in biobased coatings based on water (soya polymers, PLA). The choice for biobased or renewable polymers and biocides from the food sector is driven mainly by the factors of increasing sustainability, the environment and public health.
Robust supply chain
It should be clear that the sports and outdoor industry is looking for more sustainable materials which have a better environmental footprint and functionality score than customary (fossil-fuel-based) materials, or at least similar. Unfortunately, this cannot be quantified, so the percentage of renewable raw materials which is used in the sector – biobased and/or recycled – is not known.
For these materials to break through properly, some hurdles still need to be overcome. ‘Developing and sourcing biobased polymers and yarns which have similar or even better properties than fossil-fuel-based materials is no sinecure,’ according to the spokesperson of Adidas. ‘If the materials are already on the market, it is a matter of building a robust supply chain, so that a sufficient supply of a stable, homogenous quality is ensured.’
No irresponsible use
Another issue to which Adidas attaches value, and the sector too in a general sense, is the provenance of the biomass. As the German multinational pointed out earlier, the biomass must originate from sustainable sources: a low environmental and water footprint, no competition with food crops or threat to vulnerable ecosystems. Adidas is certainly not the only player to emphasise this. Various designers and clothing producers such as Stella McCartney, H&M and Patagonia, have sided together behind the Fashion Loved by Forest initiative. This campaign warns about the irresponsible use of raw materials from forestry.
Second generation biomass is therefore preferred, but it must come from demonstrably sustainable sources. ‘We encourage the use of residual flows from the agricultural and/or food industry,’ according to Adidas. ‘We are also extremely interested in third generation biomass, for example based on algae or waste gases.’
In 2013 the total market amounted to approximately 263 billion dollars (Euromonitor, 2013), and the growth was higher (1.8 percentage points) than that of the generic clothing market, in comparison with 2012. The Euromonitor predicts a CAGR of 7.5 percent for the coming years (up to and including 2017). In terms of sales volume the most important markets are North America, Asia Pacific and Europe. South America, Asia Pacific and Eastern Europe stand out as far as growth potential is concerned. North America and Europe are the ‘underperformers’.