Tech defines a lot of what we do, on a daily basis. The way we consume news, the way we automate the smart lighting at home, the way we stream content on the phone or TV and even how we simply call out to a smart speaker to listen to music. These are just breadcrumbs in the larger scheme of things, and what technology enables. In fact, we even have tech infused apparel, the idea being to make them lighter, more breathable and more comfortable. So why not the running shoes that we buy? Well, who said tech isn’t relevant for sneakers? It really is, and 2019 is certainly a breakthrough year as far as the intersection of technology, fitness, footwear and running is concerned.
As I glided into this year alternating between the brilliance of the Nike Pegasus Zoom Turbo and the Asics Gel Quantum Infinity, the sneaker industry was also busy putting the right foot forward by calling on technology to help achieve the goals of comfort, integrity and speed. No one wants a sneaker that is uncomfortable or doesn’t look good. Style quotient mustn’t be compromised. Runners particularly don’t want footwear that slows them down or is heavy. But nothing could have prepared us for what lay ahead.
In terms of the numbers, Nike closes the year with a market cap of close to $156.32 billion and is far ahead of its rivals. Under Armour ($9.26 billion), Puma ($10.36 billion), Skechers ($6.78 billion) and Adidas ($58.20 billion) are quite some distance behind. In a way, that sets the tone for what awaits us in 2020, with technology and innovation playing a critical role for Nike in extending its leads at the top, and for the rivals who want to increase their market share.
Nike started off the year with a bang. The Nike Adapt BB basketball shoes were pretty much the self-lacing shoes from the future. This looks like a typical basketball shoe from the outside, but inside sits a custom motor and gear train that senses the tension needed by the foot and adjusts the fit accordingly to keep the foot snug. This is to prevent foot roll inside the shoe during movement, which can be uncomfortable as well as dangerous. Nike says that the tensile strength of the underfoot lacing mechanism can exert 32 pounds of force to secure the foot throughout a range of movement. Incidentally, this is the force rating of a standard parachute cord as well. The Adapt BB is using the FitAdapt tech extensively, and this is where you use your smartphone app to customize the fit of the shoe without having to manually do it or even touch the shoe. In 2018, if we had said shoes might need firmware updates in the future, you would have probably laughed at us. Now you aren’t, are you?
During a normal basketball game the athlete’s foot changes and the ability to quickly change your fit by loosening your shoe to increase blood flow and then tighten again for performance is a key element that we believe will improve the athlete’s experience,” says Eric Avar, Nike VP Creative Director of Innovation. At some point during the journey, a firmware update installed for Android phones caused the shoes to become unresponsive, but Nike sorted that out soon enough.
The year also saw retro sneakers making a strong comeback, duly helped by generous doses of technology to keep them up to speed with the modern-day preferences. PUMA company rolled out the RS-X range of shoes this year, totally inspired by the styles from the 1980s, but with the modernity checklist ticked off by the Running System (RS) polyurethane midsole. They weren’t the only ones. Reebok, Nike, Fila, Onitsuka Tiger and New Balance all picked out their best shoes from the years gone by and reconfigured those for modern preferences. The simplicity of designs from the years gone by just has a charm which is hard to describe in its entirety.
Let us not forget that where there is tech, the ‘connected’ buzzword cannot be far behind. The Under Armour HOVR Sonic2 shoes landed on the scene complete with the promise of pairing with your smartphone, tracking your steps and fitness routine and giving you statistics that make sense. No more wearing a fitness band or smart watch, unless you want to track the heart rate data too. Since health and tech are coming closer together than ever before, it was perhaps to be expected that running shoes would become smarter too.
Puma decided to add technology to really enhance the experience of shopping for a shoe, at a physical store. The German sportswear manufacturer launched its first interactive store in India, which allowed buyers to not only check out the complete range of shoes via an interactive screen, but also check for fit, customization and preferred ordering options. The futuristic retail environment is focused on creating an immersive experience by engaging the consumer throughout their shopping journey,” says Abhishek Ganguly, Managing Director, PUMA India. The exclusive global collaborations including Tetris, Helly Hansen, Adriana Lima, Ralph Sampson and Selena Gomez will also be in stock at the store.
The company did not forget its social responsibilities either. In a partnership with non-profit Goonj, Puma urged people to donate their old and perhaps unused footwear which would then be repaired and repackaged for rural distribution. “This partnership with Puma, presents a great example of how different entities can collaborate to bring awareness on the development issues and how by creating such platforms, people from all across get a chance to participate,” said Anshu Gupta, Founder Director, Goonj. These customized kits were prepared for local needs of rural India, including Family Kits, School Kits, Rahat Disaster Relief Kit, Aaganwadi Kit, Labour Kit and Menstrual Dignity kits.
The world of sneakers wasn’t without its share of controversy either.
Nike developed the new Joyride technology for its running shoes. Some people have the habit of finding a controversy where there is none. And that is what happened when Nike unveiled this new tech that puts multiple pods in the cushioning beneath your foot and each of these is filled with tiny plastic TPE (thermoplastic elastomer—a copolymer of plastic and rubber) beads that have been created specifically to absorb impact as you run along, environmentalists quickly claimed that these beads are hard to tame and can end up in the food chain.
But to teach Nike about the responsibility towards the environment is perhaps a bit much. The company has diverted more than 51 million pounds of waste materials globally (that is equivalent to 10 Olympic-size swimming pools) between May 2016 to 2017. It has also used 4 billion discarded plastic bottles for its products. The materials that are salvaged and reprocessed, including the ones left behind during the manufacture of new products, include rubber, foam, fiber, leather and textile blends. These are separated and ground into granules for use again. Nike’s data suggests that as much as 120 million pounds of surplus materials have been recycled and reused—this is approximately the same quantity to fill 700 jumbo jet aircrafts completely. Nike has also recycled 30 million pairs of sports shoes, which if lined up, could circumnavigate the earth five times over.
“Like all athletic footwear, Joyride can be recycled through Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program and transformed into new products. We have also been actively exploring the source of microfibers and working with the sporting goods industry and other industries to understand the issue and identify long-term scalable solutions,” said the company in a statement regarding the Joyride. It is also quite perplexing to see selective criticism. Nike isn't the only brand to use this bridge between rubbers and plastics. Remember the Adidas Boost shoes? Well, that Boost midsole which the company makes tall claims about, consists of TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), is also a form of TPE, and the Boost midsole also uses what are essentially beads or capsules derived from when TPU is read the riot act. Yes, the similar TPE (thermoplastic elastomer—a copolymer of plastic and rubber) beads that Nike Joyride uses. Then there is the Puma Ignite midsole tech, that also uses TPU technology and then they have the Jamming trainers which use NRGY beads. And these are just some examples in the world of footwear.
Then there was Allbirds which didn’t hold back in alleging that Amazon was copying the designs of their successful shoes for their in-house brand. Earlier in the year, Amazon’s private label 206 Collective began selling shoes that replicated a lot of the features of Allbirds shoes. In a post penned on Medium, Zwillinger has called out Amazon’s business practices. “We are flattered at the similarities that your private label shoe shares with ours but hoped the commonalities would include these environmentally-friendly materials as well. Alas, we’re here to help. As we’ve done with over 100 other brands who were interested in implementing our renewable materials into their products, including direct competitors, we want to give you the components that would make this shoe not just look like ours, but also match our approach to sustainability,” he wrote.
The sustainability aspect and the use of green materials to make the sneakers are what Allbirds is highlighting. They talk about the partnership with petrochemical company Braskem to create what is essentially the world’s first green EVA midsole, the foam that is used in pretty much every sneaker that is made. But is largely a petroleum derived product, though footwear companies are trying to make this alternate process greener. Allbirds uses sugarcane waste instead of petroleum. Allbirds calls this SweetFoam. “We’re also removing carbon from the atmosphere and locking it away with one of the most photosynthetically-efficient crops, fighting climate change in the process,” says Zwillinger.
And finally, Adidas. The company that once thought technology was a great idea, but now not so much it seems. The company said that early next year, they will shutter the Speedfactory robot factories, in Ansbach, Germany and Atlanta, US. This, Adidas says, will be more economical and flexible. They probably realized it now—these factories were opened in 2016 and 2017. What they are probably not saying is that it will rely on humans more than ever before to produce their shoes.
Adidas insists the technological upgrades that the Speedfactory introduced to the process of producing running shoes and apparels will now be deployed in the factories in Asia. Yes, factories where humans will make shoes. With their bare hands, and some rudimentary machines. Adidas however doesn’t exactly say what these technologies are and how they will be implemented. It does make us (or anyone even remotely sensible) wonder what happens to the human element in these factories, which are already producing at capacity, and in cases, much beyond that. Technology and processes used to shorten the production time in a factory where robots did the work, will now be deployed in a factory where humans do all the work. There are more than a million workers in their factories across Asia. There really is no scope for it to go wrong, is there?
There was more controversy. In October, two record times by atheletes wearing Nike’s cutting-edge ZoomX Vaporfly Next% shoes set off a rather peevish reaction by some rivals. The time of 1:59:40 by Eliud Kipchoge in Vienna and 2:14:04 by Brigid Kosgei in Chicago meant Kipchoge became the first person to run the 26.2-mile distance in under two hours. There were allegations that these shoes gave an unfair advantage to those who run in them. The Nike Vaporfly 4% and Vaporfly Next% shoes have a 36-millimeter midsole, or about 1.4 inches thick. What those who were complaining failed to explain is how this was an unfair advantage. Nike has clearly got everything spot on in terms of the materials, thickness, designing, feedback and the fit to be able to offer perhaps the very best running shoe that money can buy right now. And yes, you can buy the Vaporfly 4% and Vaporfly Next% shoes at a Nike store near you—so much for it being some outlandish disadvantage. If only some other brands spent less time in their own echo chamber, they may be able to do a better job of competing.
The year 2019 really made sneakers a serious business, more so than ever before. And 2020 will see this evolve further. And that’s great news for us sneakerheads.