Interview with Parley for the Ocean’s Cyrill Gutsch

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Have you had a chance to check out our current issue of SNEAKERS, the Future Issue? It’s where we look into brands and individuals that are shaping what’s next in footwear. And that future includes sustainable, eco-friendly design – all the way to saving the world’s oceans by reducing the use of plastic in our industry. Here’s our interview with Cyrill Gutsch, founder of the initiative Parley for the Ocean that’s making an impact by working with brands such as adidas.

You are working with plastic in order to raise awareness to the problem connected to it. Why not work with another material altogether?

It’s easy to feel disconnected from the realities of many environmental threats we face. But it’s a lot more difficult to ignore a problem that’s directly in front of you. We chose to focus on plastic pollution because it’s a tangible threat that impacts everyone, in some way, on a daily basis. Plastic use and production is rapidly growing, but the action, education, and innovation we need to minimize and prevent waste are lagging behind.

What are the main problems associated with plastic?

Plastic never biodegrades; every piece ever produced is still out there in some form, and much of it looms as a toxic plastic smog in our lifeblood, the oceans, the ecosystem behind every second breath we take.

The latest adidas Running UltraBOOST X Parley features Primeknit made from 95% Parley Ocean Plastic.

What is your concept behind using upcycled plastic in footwear?

A product can be the most efficient messenger for a cause. A product made from the very problem we are fighting to fix only amplifies the message. We all share the responsibility to avoid plastic whenever we can. That alone won’t solve for what’s already out there, the plastic in the bellies of sea life and polluting even the deepest ocean trenches. We need to phase out plastic and reinvent the material itself. To do that, we need a creative, positive and realistic approach to solutions — one that motivates and unites people, rather than discourages them. We found our answer in the Parley AIR Strategy (Avoid, Intercept, Redesign), and in an eco-innovative material made from upcycled marine waste: Parley Ocean Plastic.

Each adidas Running UltraBOOST X Parley shoe re-uses approximately 11 plastic bottles.

You described plastic as a design flaw. If that’s the case, sneakers must be the human race’s biggest fail …

Sneakers aren’t the problem; the material and system that produces them is. Behind every major threat to our environment is a dated business model, a way of thinking and producing that’s overdue for an update. This seemingly perfect, sleek, versatile material duped us. About 60 years ago, we started using plastic in everything. It didn’t take long for us to become plastic addicts. At the same time, brands became detached from their supply chains. Now we are seeing the consequences.

The Futurecraft Biosteel features completely biodegradable fabric that replicates natural silk.

And you feel you have a solution?

If we can solve plastic, this superstar of design failure, we can solve anything. adidas performance products made from Parley Ocean Plastic, including jerseys for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich football clubs, were just the start. Our material is a viable replacement for virgin plastic, and an invitation for everyone to step up and own their impact by implementing Parley AIR — the strategy that can end marine plastic pollution long-term.

Responsibly made products often come with a higher price tag. Do you think the consumer of the future will want to pay that price?

Purpose is the new luxury. People will always want nice things — be them experiences, services or products — and they want those things along with the peace of mind that they’re not supporting some ugly unseen cost. According to a 2015 Neilsen report, 66% of shoppers are willing to pay more for products that support eco and social responsibility. The demand is there. Protecting the planet and especially the oceans isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good business.

This concept shoe from 2015 was 3D-printed and never released. The goal was to demonstrate how the industry could rethink design and help stop ocean plastic pollution.

Let’s talk about your collaboration with adidas, which goes far deeper than many people know. What are you working on with adidas beyond the amazing concept shoe or UltraBoosts we’ve seen?

adidas is fully committed to our mutual mission to end marine plastic pollution and has already taken several steps to ingrain Parley AIR in the company’s culture. In addition to reassessing supply chain practices with the intention of phasing out the use of virgin plastic, and introducing the first performance products made from Parley Ocean Plastic, adidas has stopped the use of plastic bags in its retail stores and removed single-use plastics from its corporate headquarters. They banned the use of microbeads in licensed personal care products, and are educating and empowering employees to be leaders and ambassadors for the oceans cause.

The UltraBOOST Parley, UltraBOOST X Parley und UltraBOOST Uncaged Parley will be available on 19 May in stores and online.

That’s an amazing progress on a global scale. Where did the conversation with adidas start in the first place?

I’d worked with adidas as a consultant for several years, and knew they’d be the perfect partner for the cause. It took us two years to figure out a way to work together. We looked at this partnerships from all sides and corners as we both wanted to create something unique that could really be representative of the change we wanted to bring to the industry. It’s great that adidas is both structured and flexible, but also confident to let us be demanding, annoying even.

The Futurecraft Biosteel fiber is all natural and was developed by German biotech company AMSilk. It was made to explore the use of Biosteel fiber in performance products.

In addition to consuming the right things, it’s important to consume less. Is it even possible to communicate such a statement?

There’s a logical order to the Parley AIR Strategy. The first pillar — avoid — is a common-sense place to start. We can’t keep consuming and especially disposing at the current rate. We should be avoiding the unnecessary and buying products that last. Encouraging less, smarter consumption is not harmful to your business strategy. The opposite is true. Consumers are increasingly valuing quality over quantity. They also value and expect transparency and authenticity. Brands should be prepared to get ahead of the curve and help create this new industry landscape. Change is the only constant.

What is the last great thing you achieved that you are proud of?

Seeing Real Madrid and Bayern Munich wear Parley Ocean Plastic on pitch in support of the movement. That was like a dream scenario come to life. It was surreal.

Parley for the Oceans founder Cyrill Gutsch, left, experiences Doug Aitken’s “pavilions” underwater art installation while SCUBA diving on Catalina Island. Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/For The New York Times

What’s next?

With Doug Aitken x Parley Underwater Pavilions, we launched the Parley Deep Space Program. The idea is to unite the ocean, space, and creative communities in collaborations that boost the ways explore and protect this planet’s undiscovered realm. The greatest age of exploration is still ahead of us — or below us and beneath the surface. We want people to get their heads underwater.

Thank you for the interview.

The UltraBOOST Parley, UltraBOOST X Parley und UltraBOOST Uncaged Parley will be available on 19 May in stores and online at 

This interview is an updated version of the original feature on Parley for the Ocean. Find the original article in our print issue #34, which you can get in our store. You can also subscribe for a full year of SNEAKERS mag.


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