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How a Former Adidas Exec Has Raised the Bar on Sustainability Within Streetwear and Sneakers

Unless Collective The Degenerate
A model in the Unless Collective The Degenerate shoe.
Courtesy of Unless Collective

In his 26 years at Adidas, Eric Liedtke was instrumental in helping the sneaker giant become greener. But the industry veteran knew his stringent sustainability goals weren’t possible working for a giant, so in 2019 he departed and two years later launched the brand Unless Collective.

“To be scalable and to disrupt, I needed to step outside the machine and do it from the bottom up,” Liedtke told FN. “We want to be the first 100% regenerative fashion brand, we want to pilot the whole thing, so we can then offer it as a service to the industry.”

Unless, a label with a streetwear lean, has already made significant strides in sustainable fashion after just two years. Its apparel, which debuted in November 2021, is made with only biodegradable, plant-based materials, to eliminate plastic waste. And the company created a takeback program that repairs, recycles or composts used products.

To boost awareness and foster collaboration, it is lining up a string of compelling partnerships. Its first was with Mammut for a hoodie and T-shirt released on World Mountain Day last December. “The collab was about protecting the places they play. It was cool and it exploded,” Liedtke said. “This is our model, to show what we offer is a great story to tell consumers and to build consumer advocacy — and it helps build our audience.”

Liedtke said three other collaborations in the works, though he remained mum on details.

Unless Collective The Degenerate
The Degenerate from Unless Collective on foot.Courtesy of Unless Collective

Unless has also made inroads on sustainable footwear. In December, the brand revealed its first shoe, a skate style dubbed the Degenerate.

It was created with several plant-based materials from innovation company Natural Fiber Welding, including Pliant outsoles, Tunera foam midsoles, Mirum for the eyelet and mudguards and more. Also, the shoe was created to decompose at the end of its life.

After selling out last December, Unless restocked the Degenerate in February, and it is available via Unlesscollective.com for $139.

Having proven its methods can yield market-ready product, Unless is now looking collaborate with the sneaker giants. “Our role is to show there is a better way, to show the momentum of the product and then talk to brands to partner,” Liedtke said. “I can now offer this to brands and say, ‘I have a solution, let’s do collections together, let’s do some things that can be fun.’”

For many in the sustainability space, performance footwear has been off limits because of quality concerns around eco-friendly materials. But after creating a cupsole skate shoe, Liedtke is confident performance-based styles are possible.

“We did this shoe inside of two-and-a-half years, so your running shoe is going to be there. It’s a capital raise away,” he declared.

For now, Unless does have more releases on the horizon. Liedtke said the brand has found tooling it likes and will pair it with different uppers, though the concept is still in the prototyping stage.

As for its retail strategy, Unless is branching out beyond its DTC channel to launch wholesale at the end of 2023. It is targeting streetwear doors and those in the surf-skate space.

“The criteria is: You have to tell the story,” Liedtke said. “Product times story makes a difference to the consumer. If you don’t have that story, what’s the reason to buy a shoe? You can’t just put our shoe on the shelf next to 1,000 Air Force 1s, Dunks or Jordans.”

Unless Collective The Degenerate
Unless Collective The Degenerate in black.Courtesy of Unless Collective

Unless Collective The Degenerate
Unless Collective The Degenerate in white.Courtesy of Unless Collective

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Unless Collective Is Raising the Bar on Sustainability in Sneakers
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