Energy

On Running is trying to make shoes more circular

A version of this article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

It’s a vicious cycle really. I buy a pair of running shoes, I run them into the ground, I convert them to yard work shoes, then ultimately I pile up so many pairs that my family tells me it is time to get rid of some. I currently have four pairs of running shoes in rotation and 10 or so pairs relegated to the bench. Like many who are worried about the environment, I have the irrational feeling that I’m doing something “good” by holding onto things indefinitely even after I have no use for them.

Much has been written about the options for donating, recycling, reselling and repairing shoes. If the shoes you have are still in working order, but you just don’t want them, those can be good options. There is evidence, however, that much of what we donate to charity gets sent overseas and much of it is landfilled or incinerated due to higher supply than demand (see here and here). So, what is a conscientious consumer supposed to do? Sportswear company On may just have a solution. Queue the Cyclon subscription program and the new Cloudneo shoe…

‘The shoe you’ll never own’

It is difficult not to be drawn to this slogan. There are a lot of shoes I’ll never own, such as Manolo Blahniks, Ugg Boots or wooden clogs (apparently there’s a “Clog Outlet”?). Running shoes, though? I thought they could all be mine if I wanted them bad enough.

I’d never run in On running shoes. When I found out about the Cyclon program, I did some research and found the company’s story incredibly compelling. (Read it for yourself when you get a chance.) I’ve always heard great things about these shoes, and if they are good enough for Roger Federer, they are clearly good enough for me. So, I decided to reach out to see if I could speak with them about the Cyclon program and try out the new shoes.

First, let’s talk about the shoes themselves. They are, in my humble opinion, beautiful, even if stark. All white, they are the antithesis of almost every pair of running shoes on the market that seem to be getting brighter and more colorful by the day. The good news? There is a method to this all-white madness. By eliminating the added colorants, On has created a shoe containing fewer chemical contaminants for improved recycling.

Second, the material behind these shoes is innovative. They use a material called Pebax Rnew, from Arkema SA, that is derived from castor beans. I’m not one to yell from the rooftops about bio-based materials being the end-all and be-all solution to our sustainable future, but in this application it is a pretty exciting development. Pebax Rnew can be modified during processing to provide bounce in the sole as well as comfort and support in the upper. In other words, it is the only material used in the Cloudneo, thus reducing complexity in recycling. In addition to using this new material, On has an internal life cycle assessment team working to quantify the environmental impacts of the new program. While LCA is notoriously challenged when it comes to end-of-life issues, this work can help guide On as they modify, adjust and adapt the program moving forward.

Third, let’s talk about this experiment at scale that On is undertaking with the Cyclon program. I had a chance to sit down and chat with François-Xavier Dosne, head of innovation and business strategy at On, about the program. “We love what we’re doing, but it’s no easy feat,” Dosne said. “The product is a challenge, but the whole subscription side of things is not easy. We built a new business within a business.” This project landed on his desk in January 2020, meaning that over two years of planning, testing and learning went into the launch. It included new website features, regular payment services, reverse logistics planning, warehousing, and the list goes on. Dosne said the day On went live with Cyclon, “we had more than half a million visits on our website. That was huge for us.” In other words, there was buzz around this program from the outset.

Last, I’d like to touch on something that is a bit more squishy. On is building a community of runners through Cyclon to help educate the company on how to function in the product as a service economy. People, including me, are excited about the prospect of having direct lines of communication with the company that makes their shoes, and On seems excited about engaging with these users to learn and grow. They’ve already called every early adopter in the U.S. to check in, according to the company.

The one drawback I see so far with the Cyclon program and the Cloudneo shoes is the price. At $30/month, a couple points must be true to make these worth the investment for most people:

  1. They (probably) have to be your only pair of running shoes. As I said, I generally have two to four pairs of shoes in circulation at any given time. This is personal preference, of course. If you add Cloudneo to a rotation like mine, you are paying for a lot of down time between runs.    
  2. You have to run a considerable number of miles. The math here for me is pretty simple. I generally run about 300 to 350 miles in a pair of shoes and pay anywhere from $100 to $150 per pair. That means I have to run at least 60 miles per month for the math to pencil out for the CloudNeo subscription. This is fine for me, but something to consider if you’re only wearing your shoes for running and don’t log that many miles.
  3. You have to be a “premium” shoe person. Clearly these shoes are not the entry-level pair you can buy off the discount rack. On makes a premium product and is asking a premium price for this subscription service. They are not charging an unfair or outlandish price, just a premium price.

If those three things are true, and you care about shoe waste, this program is something to consider. Also, the company has a really cool video on its website.

I’m pulling for On to get this right over time and other companies to follow its lead. We all know new business models have to be part of the circular economy solution, and this is one that could make a big dent in the shoe waste problem.

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