FAST COMPANY • BY TALIB VISRAM
The Swiss running brand On will become the latest athletic company to meet the challenges of sustainable footwear—but with a notable difference: The Cyclon, its new, fully recyclable shoes, made primarily from castor beans, will be available solely via a monthly subscription.
For the three Swiss founders of On, creating recycled, bio-based shoes is only a small slice of the company’s long-term sustainability vision. They also want to achieve full circularity, so that discarded clothing items are reused in their entirety to create new ones. But, as other brands have explored this vision, they’ve hit roadblocks. Adidas publicly shared that its Futurecraft.Loop pilot struggled because consumers wouldn’t send the shoes back in time for Adidas to generate the next batch and keep the circle in motion.
On considered a deposit or even a penalty fee as incentives for customers to return shoes. But even those wouldn’t ensure the perennial, indefinite loop, says Caspar Coppetti, one of the founders. The answer: a subscription model. For $29.99 a month, consumers can keep sending back the shoes and receiving new ones, as often as they’d like, an incentive in itself for runners who crave fresh pairs. As far as they know, On is the first brand to combine a subscription-based shoe model with a fully recyclable offering.
Cyclon won’t launch until the fall of 2021, when subscribers will get their first deliveries. But the company is announcing now to amass a decent subscriber base; they’re hoping for around 200,000 by the rollout. Scale is important for the entire operation to function and meet its sustainability goals, which is also the reason for the lack of a pilot program or trial phase. “We don’t want to have a showcase of saying: ‘Look here’s a product, we made 10 of them, this is what we could do in the future,’” Coppetti says. “We want it in the market now.”
The company will also need enough people to register in different corners of the world to make it environmentally feasible to deliver shoes to those zones. (In both directions, sneakers will be shipped in sustainable packaging.) It’s currently targeting a minimum of 5,000 subscribers per customs union, and it won’t deliver to an area unless it reaches that critical mass. It wouldn’t make sense to increase the carbon footprint to deliver one box to a “far-flung corner of Fiji,” Coppetti says. “Everything we gain through the back loop would be lost just on the logistics side.”
[Photo: courtesy On]The Cyclon shoes will only be sold in white, to save the use of chemicals in dying. And they’ll be made from the oil from castor beans, which grow in arid parts of India and are not part of the food chain. By extracting acid from the oil, they can build an amino acid and gradually form a bio-based polymer to build from, instead of from the petroleum-based plastics from which sneakers are traditionally made. Over half the shoe will be made from that plant material, including the padding, laces, and tongue—as well as the SpeedBoard, On’s signature polymer-based propulsion mechanism inside the shoe, which allows feet to push off energetically after they hit the ground. (Though also recyclable, the rest of the shoe, including the sole, is still made from petroleum-based plastics, but it’s a priority to soon develop these parts from plant-based materials as they refine the technology.)
When On gets the shoes back, it can recycle the entire sneaker without having to break up the polymers. The shoes will be sent to regional recycling hubs, shredded, and converted back into the original raw material, ready for reuse in the next cluster of Cyclons.
On, which holds 40% of the Swiss market, now claims the U.S. as its biggest market and logged its highest e-commerce sales to date in June. The company is known for its high-performance sneakers, which has drawn professional athletes to choose them as their brand of choice; in November, Roger Federer joined the company as an investor and design consultant. At under 200 grams, the new shoe is lightweight and comfortable, and so it still performs as an elite running shoe, says Viviane Gut, On’s head of sustainability. The two goals don’t have to be opposites. “I really would love to prove that sustainability and performance are actually complementing each other.”
Over the coming months, Gut and the innovation team, headed by Nils Altrogge, will be fine-tuning the product. But, even when the sneaker launches, they expect an ongoing process of trial and error, during which they hope to collect consumer feedback and constantly perfect the product so subscribers can receive improved versions with new deliveries. Implementing new innovations quickly and at scale is possible at a smaller, more agile company, says Gut, who previously worked at Nike.
Still, the new venture will require the company to somewhat shift customers’ mindsets. When David Allemann, another of the founders, entered the industry, he says the industry dogma was that “more is better.” They reversed that trend by reducing design down to the essentials. Now, they’ll have to convince consumers that there’s no longer an allure to owning a shoe as a collectors’ item. Instead, like Netflix, or Zipcar: “It’s about owning an experience,” Altrogge says.