As Adidas continues its transition to becoming the foremost sustainable sportswear brand, its former executive board member and brand president, Eric Liedtke, has spun off with eco ambitions of his own.
Eric Liedtke spent two decades with Adidas in various roles, building partnerships with Beyoncé and Kanye West. He’s on the steering committee at Parley for the Oceans, one of the German shoe giant’s partners in sustainable textiles. But after leaving Adidas in 2019, Liedtke has returned to the apparel industry with a new, sustainable streetwear brand called Unless.
In a partnership with Paul Gaudio, former Adidas creative director, as well as executives at Quicksilver and ad company R/GA, and funded by Connect Ventures, Liedtke is helming the first streetwear brand aiming to go mainstream with clothes designed to decompose at the end of their wear cycle. The brand has raised more than $7.5 million at a $30 million valuation.
Unless says it’s out to reimagine streetwear and the fashion industry at the same time.
“Fashion is arguably the world’s second-largest polluter,” Liedtke said in a press release. “And the plastic problem keeps getting worse. With Unless we see a real opportunity for change. An opportunity for a better way. A way driven by cutting-edge innovation married with the desirability of streetwear. An innovative solution for consumers so they can truly feel as great as they look knowing their choices will have a positive impact on the world.”
The brand takes its name from a quote in the children’s classic Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax. The main character warns that unless people care about the planet, nothing will change.
“Unless we find a better way, we will continue to pollute our oceans, our food supply, and our bodies with plastics that never go away,” says Liedtke.
Core to that ethos is a no-plastic and a no-waste commitment. The brand’s “zero plastic promise” means there will be no waste—ever. It’s all part of what the brand says is a new business model focused on eliminating waste both up and downstream.
According to Liedtke, Unless is poised to be the “next Supreme or Yeezy, but from a sustainable standpoint.”
Liedtke helped Adidas shift its supply chain toward ambitious sustainability goals. It pledged to make more than 90 percent of its offerings sustainable by 2025—and is on track to hit the target. With partners including Stella McCartney and Parley for the Oceans, the brand is reimagining eco footwear. It has nearly eliminated all animal-based leather in the process.
Its iconic Stan Smith sneakers have gone green, quite literally—with the help of two green pop culture icons: Muppet Kermit the Frog and Star Wars’ Yoda. Both appeared in recent iterations of the popular sneaker made with the company’s Primegreen technology, made up of recycled materials.
“We believe that through sport we have the power to change lives, and we are dedicated to creating that change,” James Carnes, VP brand strategy, Adidas, said in a statement last year. “Since 1998, we’ve been developing and introducing innovations to end plastic waste. Our commitment to eliminating the use of virgin polyester in our products by 2024 helps us get one step closer to being a more circular company.”
While Liedtke fostered the shift to sustainable practices at Adidas, Unless is starting sustainably from day one. Liedtke says that as consumers embrace sustainability Unless will be an opportunity to elevate the conversations around waste, impact, and sustainable alternatives.
“Diversity of thought, experience, perspective, and expertise fuels our creativity, and inclusivity ensures that we bring people along with us on the journey where everyone has the opportunity to share in the successes—whether they are an engineering partner working material developments, or a local artist working on graphic tees,” he says. “We aren’t trying to save the world, or solve all of society’s problems, but we do come to work each day looking to find a better way, to do what we love.”
Similar to brands like Pangaia and MSFTS, which are aiming to redefine materials and streetwear, Liedtke says Unless has a unique market position.
“The growth of streetwear and fashion over the last decade has been great for the brands but along with that comes massive commercial pressure and expectation that has its own sort of flywheel effect. As things get bigger, stronger, faster, they also get much harder to turn or change,” he says. “Some of us have tried to drive change from within the big brands and while there is general support for this both in the board room and the marketplace, it is near impossible for the big incumbents to do what it really takes. This is where small companies and start-ups like Unless come in.
“We exist solely to prototype and test new models for the industry, we can be agile and focused in ways the machine cannot be. Our impact might be small at first, but if we can show the industry and consumers a better way, then we have a real chance to drive change.”
The new SS22 collection delivers tees and hoodies, and a button-up workwear overshirt. The hoodie is completely biodegradable, picking up on a trend in the shoe industry. One of the campaign images features the hoodie being buried.
“Every drop is created from the elements, for the elements, and designed to harmlessly return to the elements, the brand’s mission statement reads.
“Unless is for everyone who feels strongly that what they wear says a lot about who they are and who doesn’t want to compromise their style to do what’s right for the planet. We leave nothing and no one behind,“ it adds.