Swiss Brand On Reshapes Carbon Waste Into Sportswear

De-fossilizing materials is at the core of Zurich-based On's sustainability strategy, so is another focus: designing products and programs to advance circularity. On is piloting new business models to keep its wares in use rather than have them end up on landfills.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

February 12, 2024

5 Min Read

Sportswear manufacturer On has a story to tell about how to fast track growth while reaching for aggressive sustainability goals. The Zurich-based brand, which two years after its IPO listing doubled its revenue and continues to snowball, has a mix of climate-related strategies going on. The team has cast a wide net in search of new ways to have environmental impact.

Projects range from a used gear takeback program to the recent rollout of a polyester apparel line that incorporates carbon from steel mills as raw material. A second product leveraging the same technology is on the way—a running shoe with a carbon-based sole to replace petroleum-derived ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) foam used as cushioning.

“As we grow fast, we have more responsibility for the footprint we are creating, so we are looking for new ways to lower it. It’s about decoupling our growth from our footprint,” says Nils Altrogge, On head of Innovation Technology and Research.

As the Swiss Alps-born brand climbs the ranks in the sportswear world, it inches closer to two fast-approaching climate-related goals: using 100 percent recycled content in its polyester and polyamide products, and using 100 percent recycled, organic, or petrol-free material in its cotton apparel by late 2024.

On a broader scale the ambition is to slash Scope 1 and 2 emissions 46 percent and Scope 3 emissions 55 percent by 2030.

A 2022 report tells of some of the company’s progress. Some noteworthy milestones are that On now incorporates 85 percent recycled polyester in its apparel and has broken completely free from fossil in 64 percent of materials in its apparel and accessories.

The carbon-based products (branded as CleanCloud) are the next step in reach of greater emissions reductions. The commercialized polyester collection contains 20 percent of captured carbon emissions. The EVA that will go into the shoes contains over 50 percent carbon emissions. It has the same quality as EVA from crude oil and looks and feels the same, according to Altrogge.

Bringing these unconventional options to fruition has involved pivoting to a very different, multi-step production process. And it’s meant teaming with new supply chain partners that might seem unlikely players in the apparels arena.

The first steps are capturing industrial plants’ carbon emissions before they release into the atmosphere, then converting the gases to ethanol through a fermentation process leveraging bacteria. That’s the job of partner LanzaTech, experts in synthetic biology and engineering. Engineering and tech company Technip Energies converts the ethanol made by LanzaTech into ethylene gas. Then chemical company Borealis polymerizes it into EVA pellets.          

“The CleanCloud project started when we were thinking about moving from fossil fuels to reduce our footprint. What feedstock can we take other than virgin crude oil? We can take recycled materials. We can take biobased materials,” Altrogge says.

On actually already recycles and incorporates biobased feedstock through various initiatives. But now there was this new idea.

“We know that every material in the world consists of carbon atoms. In using some of this carbon that would otherwise release to the atmosphere we would be making the problem part of the solution,” Altrogge says.

Kit McDonnell, a biologist and director of communications at LanzaTech, calls the On Shoe “proof of concept” and sees potential for EVA from carbon to have other applications someday.

“EVA is an essential material for many industries It’s the building block used in plastics in automotive, health care, athletic equipment, and is used by other sectors. It’s a difficult material, and companies are looking for non-petroleum alternatives [like the EVA On is debuting],” she says.

While de-fossilizing materials is at the core of the brand’s sustainability strategy, so is another focus: designing products and programs to advance circularity. On is piloting new business models to keep its wares in use rather than have them end up on landfills. Among them is a takeback program that works as a subscription service. At the end of a pair of shoes’ life, customers get a new pair and send back the worn shoes in the bag the replacement pair comes in, free of charge. Once the worn shoes reach On, they’re washed, ground, and made into new shoe parts.

For products with life left in them, there’s a re-commerce platform where consumers can buy and sell the brands’ gently used gear. Much of what isn’t sold moves on for donation for others to have.

On is also exploring fiber-to-fiber recycling. Wanting to get in on the ground floor, the brand joined a consortium facilitated by French green biotech company Carbios who is working to develop this nascent recycling technology. On is among brands providing waste as well as feedback on the required material quality to meet industry needs and ideas for building a fiber-to-fiber supply chain.

“We joined the collaboration because it won’t help if only one brand is doing something. Collaboration will be key to enabling innovation and to really scaling for true impact,” Altrogge says.

The sports industry and fashion in general are highly reliant on fossil fuels. It is a conservative industry that has changed little over the decades, note some progressives in this niche who are beginning to push for a paradigm shift.

“We have to pioneer and drive change,” Altrogge says.

“We see the planet as our playground, and it is our responsibility to maintain it for future generations. Working on such a challenge is exciting. We believe there is no one way to solve [for climate-related- problems]. We have to innovate. We have to explore and to apply what we learn to our products. We need the right partners. And then we need to scale fast.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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