scorecardHow streetwear brand Unless Collective aims to accomplish what brands like Nike and Adidas haven't — fully sustainable sneakers and apparel
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How streetwear brand Unless Collective aims to accomplish what brands like Nike and Adidas haven't — fully sustainable sneakers and apparel

Matthew Kish   

How streetwear brand Unless Collective aims to accomplish what brands like Nike and Adidas haven't — fully sustainable sneakers and apparel
Retail4 min read
  • Eric Liedtke worked for Adidas for 26 years, ultimately serving as brand president and on its board.
  • Liedtke recently cofounded Unless Collective, which makes plant-based streetwear.

Eric Liedtke did a little bit of everything for Adidas over his 26-year tenure, from working in the mail room to becoming Adidas brand president and earning a spot on the company's board.

He worked closely with Adidas endorsers Kanye, Beyonce, and Pharrell and spoke at the United Nations about an Adidas sneaker made from trash recovered from the ocean. He also helped develop the company's 2020 business plan.

Liedtke was a popular pick to become the next CEO of Adidas. But, at the end of 2019, he moved from Germany back home to Oregon to start a more sustainable retail brand.

In 2021, Liedtke, and four other Adidas veterans, Paul Gaudio, Tara Moss, Milos Ribic, and Maarten Teijsse, launched Unless Collective, a Portland-based streetwear brand that makes clothing from plants. The brand recently opened its first store, a 400-square-foot temporary location in downtown Portland, across from the famed Powell's Books.

Liedtke's goal is to do for sportswear and streetwear what Tesla did for cars.

"We want to be a lighthouse brand for others to follow," Liedtke told Insider, in an interview at the new store. "This industry needs a Tesla-like moment."

"Before Tesla came along, if you wanted an electric car, you had to buy a smart car," he said. "You made the consumer sacrifice their taste. You made them sacrifice what they wanted in speed and quality and comfort. You have to meet people where they are with better solutions."

Liedtke said his decision to start his own brand came after concluding big brands are limited when it comes to their sustainability efforts.

"I took it as far as I could at an incumbent. The problem with incumbents is they're complicit in make-take-throw away," he said, referring to fast-fashion trends where brands make products that consumers ultimately discard, creating waste. "Their fiduciary responsibilities get in the way of being able to pivot to a better feed stock because of the cost involved."

No "forever materials"

While companies like Adidas and Nike have pledged to use more recycled polyester this decade, Liedtke said Unless Collective doesn't use any polyester in its products.

Polyester is a plastic typically derived from petroleum. It's a staple of athletic footwear and apparel because it's lightweight, durable, and versatile.

For Liedtke, even recycled polyester is still a "forever material," because it takes significantly longer to decompose than natural materials.

"Recycled polyester is akin to driving a hybrid car," he said. "It's kinda like this half step, but you still need to solve the problem of waste."

Instead of recycled materials, Unless Collective uses plant-based materials, mostly cotton. Buttons on jackets are made from corozo nuts. The goal is "zero harmful waste" in any product. T-shirts start at $45. Hoodies and jackies start at $99 and $149, respectively.

Everything is designed to be compostable. There's even a glass box in Unless Collective's retail store that holds a rapidly decomposing hoodie.

"We start with the end in mind," Liedtke said.

At end-of-life, a tag sewn inside each Unless Collective product gives directions on how to return it. The company's working with an industrial composter in California that can make "nutrient rich soil" out of the company's old hoodies and T-shirts.

"Moving towards the upper right-hand corner of your whiteboard"

Unless Collective started as a direct-to-consumer brand, but like other retail startups it's pivoting to include wholesale. It's already on shelves at Social Status, a trend-setting boutique.

So far, Liedtke said Unless Collective's story is a winner with consumers. After an episode of the Guy Raz podcast about Unless Collective recently re-aired, orders spiked the next day, which Liedtke said is common when people first hear about the company and its mission.

"We picked and packed over a hundred orders yesterday," he said. "We were packing boxes all day. I've driven more transport trucks in my last year than I have in the last 10 years. I feel like a college kid with all the moving around."

Like other plant-based apparel companies, Unless Collective has had to completely rethink its supply chain. Contract factories that make streetwear and sportswear apparel aren't used to working with plant-based materials. For instance, polyester thread is easier to work with than cotton.

Instead of relying on factories in Asia, Unless Collective manufactures its jackets in Portugal, T-shirts in the Carolinas in the US, and hoodies in Los Angeles.

In some cases Unless Collective is working to get a "minimum viable product" on the market in order to keep the company moving forward. In December, the company unveiled its first sneaker.

"I believe in moving towards the upper right-hand corner of your whiteboard," Liedtke said.

Just don't expect anything like a Jordan or an Air Force 1. Performance athletic shoes are made with leather, polyester, and glue. Unless Collective's shoes will be made with plants and minerals, making them less durable, but more sustainable, than a typical sneaker.

"Will it adhere to the standards that we are used to in a Nike, or Adidas, or Doc Martens? Maybe not," he said. "But let's get it on consumers' feet and let the consumer decide."

Liedtke said his decades of experience continues to open doors, including with venture capitalists who provided $7.5 million in early funding. Three collaborations, which are critical to creating buzz, are in the works, he said. Liedtke declined to share names or brands.

"I know somebody at every major brand," he said. After nearly three decades in the industry "your network is an unfair advantage."