Olivier Bernhard and Caspar Coppetti were born and raised at different ends of Switzerland. Nevertheless from their very earliest days, they had something in common – a deep connection with nature. That is why, when they launched On in 2010, it was clear that respect for the planet would be hardwired into everything they would do.
Being close to nature, in the way that everyone at On is encouraged to be, means that the changes that are happening to the environment are clear to see. On started out as a small brand, close to the mountains. And that initial mindset has stood firm as the business has grown. In every department there is an ongoing drive to understand how the business can reduce its impact and develop methods of working that can lead the way in sustainability.
First Understand. Then Act.
As On has grown as a company, it has become necessary to understand how it is affecting the environment, because only then can the business take steps to mitigate its impact. That is where On’s Sustainability Team comes in.
Vesna Stimac, Head of Communications, explains that the Sustainability Team plays a big part in putting the environment at the forefront of decisions made at On.
“One of the challenges with sustainability is that the subject is so vast,” says Vesna. “It can be difficult to know where to start. So as a first step, we did a complete assessment of the business so we knew where the biggest impacts were and therefore where we could make the most meaningful change.”
Three Pillars of Sustainability
One of the outcomes of the assessment was that the choice of materials had the biggest impact, accounting for around 80% of the emissions generated when creating products. This meant that when it came to establishing three pillars for sustainability, choosing materials that would have the least impact on the environment was crucial.
The second pillar in On’s sustainability focus is the reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Keeping CO2 gas emissions to a minimum is a key goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. Which is why On is working with LanzaTech and Borealis – two leading technology companies working on the capture and reuse of carbon dioxide – to develop CleanCloud™ technology. This is a way to turn CO2 emissions into EVA – the foam used in all running shoes (as well as in thousands of other applications). The process involves using a technique similar to brewing to take CO2 and ferment the gas into ethanol that can then be polymerised to create EVA.
For François-Xavier Dosne, Head of Innovation Business Strategy at On, this new technology provides a unique opportunity to create products that play a part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“With CleanCloud™, we are building a system that allows a widely used chemical, EVA, to be made out of carbon emissions instead of oil. Using petrol-free raw material as feedstock for mass production chemical plants is an incredibly complicated and resource-heavy operation. We are pioneering that field together with our partners and hope to set an example for others to invest time and capital into this field. We are driven by the survivor spirit. This means that everything that we do is serving the purpose of saving the planet, while not compromising on performance. We invest in lot in making sure that ongoing initiatives are being executed as planned, and you will hear more about new initiatives as soon as they are mature enough to be communicated about.”
The third pillar of On’s sustainability strategy is circularity. For On, the idea that products can exist in a closed loop – whereby customers use and return them to the business to be repaired, repurposed or reused – is a key area for innovation.
The first example of how On is looking at circularity is Cyclon. The eureka moment came when the team realised that it might be possible for a customer never actually to own the shoes in which they run. Instead the shoes would be “rented” from On and returned to the company once the customer had derived sufficient use from them. The customer would receive a new pair of shoes and On would reuse or recycle the materials in the old pair.
Best of all, the Cyclon running shoe is engineered from two types of high-quality, high-performance polyamides. The upper is created from a bio-based material derived from castor beans. The sole is made from an equally high-performance polyamide compound called Pebax.
So not only is the Cyclon running shoe majority bio-based, it delivers exceptional performance.
With Cyclon, On has created a blueprint that could eventually describe the way all On products are created. And in doing so, show the way to any brands looking to reduce the impact their products have on the environment.
From its modest start, On has grown to become one of the world’s leading running brands whilst working to ensure its products are as sustainable as possible. From choosing better raw materials to playing a part in reducing CO2 emissions and creating innovative ways to close the loop on footwear and apparel production, On is always looking for ways to have less impact. Having deep roots in nature has made sure of that.