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Under Armour Exec Says ‘Quiet Collaborations’ Drive Sustainable Advancement

The athleticwear brand has teamed with sustainability stakeholders to create and share solutions with the industry at large.

Under Armour Exec Says ‘Quiet Collaborations’ Drive Sustainable Advancement

Left to right: Michael Levine, Pete Sadera.

There’s an indisputable need for “radical cooperation” across the fashion sector when it comes to advancing sustainable products and practices and mitigating the industry’s issues with waste, Sourcing Journal editor in chief Pete Sadera said in a conversation with Under Armour vice president and chief sustainability officer Michael Levine.

The Baltimore-based athleticwear brand is living by that mantra, according to Levine. “The way our team has worked on environmental sustainability…is by solving problems faced by competitors in an environmentally respectful and mindful way,” he said.

“We’re committed to working in a multi-stakeholder context on some of these very difficult issues,” he added. “There are quiet collaborations that brands engage in all the time that are aimed at trying, when product problems surface, to address them.”

The sustainability lead was one of the founders of Under Armour’s Green Machine — a collective of global employees engaged in finding sustainable solutions to the industry’s most pressing problems, and to amplify the impact of those ideas.

Like other apparel industry stalwarts, the brand is taking a look at its product assortment, its materials portfolio and its design strategy. “The products we make, from the start, are durable products,” Levine said. But in recent seasons, Under Armour has been looking to opportunities “to make them simpler, make them with fewer parts, and to work from materials that can be recycled mechanically or chemically,” he added.

Creating the infrastructure to support circularity will require collaborative work with other industry stakeholders, from recyclers and innovators to other brands.

“We’re trying to engage in some transformation,” Levine said. “Many of these issues are [about] internal transformation, personal transformation and industry and sector — and beyond sector — transformation.”

Under Armour has shared some of its own learnings with the industry at large. Last year, the group unveiled a fiber-shed testing methodology designed to inform product developers about the microplastic and microfiber shed potential of the products they design.

Created to help the company reach its goal of making 75 percent of its products with low-shed materials by 2030, the testing method helps quantify the shed rate of specific materials. High-shed fabrications are either redeveloped or discontinued before they enter the market, the group said in 2023.

“What gets measured gets managed,” Levine said, noting that Under Armour worked with leading textile testing equipment manufacturer James Heal, research and testing firm the Hohenstein Institute, the Nature Conservancy and the Microfibre Consortium to develop the methodology. “This is an example of something that we did to try to get better, and we use it to develop fabrics and materials that shed less,” he added. “If you come home and your home is flooded, you can bail out the water, or you can turn off the tap. This is really an effort to turn off the tap.”

Test kits retail for $4,000 to $5,000 through James Heal. “They take up less space, they’re scalable and we want to evolve it with the help of the industry,” he added. “The ask that we have is, ‘Come use the method.’”

Collaboration has also led to the development of a next-generation material that the company believes has the potential to replace traditional stretch technology.

Through a partnership with North Carolina State University and chemicals and materials solutions provider Celanese, Under Armour has “come up with a material that provides the stretch in fabrics that Spandex currently provides, but has the ability…to be recyclable,” Levine said. “It gets rid of also some very harmful solvents earlier in the process, and we think that’s a win.”

According to the VP, the material, dubbed NeoLast, will make its first appearance over the course of the next year, and a small amount will be made available commercially as well.

“I want to stress here that we think this has a lot of potential, and it’s an innovation that we’re not keeping as an Under Armour innovation…it’s going to be open to industry use,” he added. “Our hope is that we’ll find ways to use it in increasing concentrations and products, and work with others to bring infrastructure to bear that will scale it.”