Swiss performance sportswear brand On has debuted a prototype of a shoe made from carbon waste.
In the last decade, On has become a fastest growing running brand (Olympians, triathletes and recently retired tennis player Roger Federer have been seen wearing their gear). But that major growth and influence comes with massive responsibility, says Nils Altrogge, Head of Technology Innovation at On.
Could this shoe, albeit a single design currently, be able to help company repurpose carbon emissions while fulfilling the need for footwear? Altrogge helps us understand how it works, the technology behind it, and its implications for the footwear industry.
Esha Chhabra: How are these carbon emissions captured?
Nils Altrogge: To create Cloudprime, On partnered with LanzaTech, Borealis and Technip Energies to leverage their innovations in biochemicals, process, and material innovation. Each company owns a different step in the process, the first being carbon capture. That’s where LanzaTech’s carbon recycling technology comes in, which begins with capturing carbon monoxide from the source. Think of it like attaching a brewery onto an emissions source, like a steel mill or a landfill site. That technology captures emissions directly from industrial sources before they’re released into the atmosphere. Much like beer, the emissions go through a fermentation process in which a naturally occurring bacteria converts the carbon rich gas into ethanol.
The process simply broken down goes like this: LanzaTech captures carbon monoxide emitted from industrial sources and ferments it with bacteria into ethanol. Technip Energies then dehydrates the ethanol to make ethylene. Then Borealis polymerizes the ethylene to become EVA in the form of solid small plastic pellets. Finally, On uses the pellets to create the performance foam it uses in the Cloudprime.
Chhabra: What is the % content of the carbon emissions used in each shoe?
Altrogge: Breaking down the different components, the midsole is made from On’s CleanCloud EVA technology, which is 51% from CO2, in collaboration with Borealis, Lanzatech and Technip, while the upper is CleanCloud polyester yarn with PES that’s 27% from CO2, in collaboration with Fairbrics (we are also the first in footwear to make an upper out of carbon emissions).
Chhabra: What is the cost involved? I imagine it’s a pricey endeavor so how realistic is it to scale up?
Altrogge: As we evolve our go-to-market strategy and continue to build excitement for this new model of materials innovation, we hope to generate increasing demand that will help balance the significant investment that is required to make the shoe. We don’t yet have a specific price for the Cloudprime, but our goal is to make the price competitive with other foam technologies on the market.
Consider the electric vehicle industry – 15 years ago, the technology and demand looked very different than it does today. As consumer expectations and needs changed, so did the market.
When you look at the market for EVA foam, there is a similar “chicken and egg” comparison. As consumer and company demand increases, so will the ability to scale the technology and product. Our mantra when we look at innovative initiatives is to discover, apply, then scale. We have completed the application phase and are moving into scalability. The path to making CleanCloud happen on a commercial scale will require time, resources, and a strong commitment from all partners.
Chhabra: What is the lifecycle of these shoes? Will they break down if they’re made from fermented matter?
Altrogge: These shoes will have the same lifecycle as a typical running shoe. We are also exploring ways to recycle EVA foam. So far, we have made significant progress in recycling – at the end of 2021, 53% of the polyester and 63% of the polyamide used were recycled, and 95% of the cotton used was organic, recycled or petrol-free – there is still more progress to be made for EVA foam.
Chhabra: How long did the R&D take to develop this?
Altrogge: The Cloudprime is the result of five years of work and a collaboration between six brands.
For the past three and a half years, On has been working with LanzaTech, Borealis and Technip Energies – three of the most innovative companies in biochemicals, process and materials innovation. All three companies understood On’s mission and felt passionate about working together to find better solutions for the planet.
We knew that LanzaTech had a great reputation of building consumer products from carbon waste, but it had never been done with footwear soles, which are typically made from petroleum-based materials. Their scientists use a combination of cutting-edge genetic engineering, state-of-the-art biotechnology, AI, and innovations in mechanical and chemical engineering to manufacture chemicals using a process that soaks up waste carbon rather than emitting it.
Bio-ethylene production is another key component of the light material within On’s high-performance foam, which is made by Technip Energies’s Hummingbird technology. It is then polymerized by Borealis to become ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) in a form of solid small plastic pellets.
Our partners helped CleanCloud become possible – with the help of some of the brightest minds in material technology, we were able to overcome the challenges of developing such complex technology as well as the finished proof-of-concept.
Chhabra: What were some challenges you faced and how did you reckon with them?
Altrogge: We have learned a lot through trial and error throughout this process. The biggest takeaway is that we were able to create a high-performance EVA foam that can be used across industries. This innovation has the potential to impact the fashion and footwear space as well as broader applications, considering the materials in every mattress, in cars and airplane seats, packaging, and more. It is a solution that can touch many different industries, leading to a greater impact. This requires us to be intentional with our choice of partners since disrupting a supply chain requires agility.
Chhabra: Can this innovation be applied to other plastic products, not just shoes? Has there been any conjecture by manufacturers to find other applications for it?
Altrogge: Yes, On is working to incorporate the CleanCloud technology into the company’s footwear and apparel within the next 3-5 years.
On is the first company in the footwear industry to explore the use of carbon emissions as a primary raw material source for a shoe bottom unit, specifically foam (EVA). Our goal is to create a full portfolio of CleanCloud products in the future, expanding this technology into other parts of the shoe. This has already taken shape through our upper made out of carbon emission-based polyester.
Our goal is to demonstrate that it is possible to reuse carbon emissions and to pave the way as a climate-focused innovator in the performance footwear and apparel space. The proof-of-concept is a meaningful step forward, while also signaling there is still significant work to be done. To scale this technology across the industry it will require enthusiasm and investment from not only fellow brands within the industry but consumers as well.
Chhabra: Will this shoe be in limited supply?
Altrogge: Once we’re able to fully scale the technology for the Cloudprime, it will not be limited in supply. Together with our partners (Lanzatech, Technip, and Borealis) we are pioneering technology to move away from fossil fuel resources. Now we finish the proof-of-concept by making a handful of pairs on a pilot scale to show the world that it is possible to make materials and shoes from carbon emissions.
Chhabra: Lastly, are there any limitations with this technology?
Altrogge: From our perspective, this technology solely brings about new potential; the sky’s the limit. With CleanCloud, we’ve discovered the ability to create a high-performance EVA foam that can be used across industries, leading to greater possible impact.