In the first part on the topic of Sustainability Trend in Running Shoes, we covered the brands creating Green Shoes to address the challenge. In this second part, we will explore what brands have done to reduce and make their established running shoes series with less environmental impact. Each of the brands’ sustainability effort stretch across the whole of their operations. Here we will draw particular attention towards the initiatives that have impacted their running shoes or footwear. In this article, we will cover Nike, the company founded in 1964 by Phil Knight with his coach Bill Bowerman.

Nike & its Sustainability Campaign

“Move to Zero” is Nike’s campaign against carbon as well as waste. The campaign seeks to move Nike towards zero carbon and zero waste in its production and operations. In terms of Nike’s targets, the company has a 2025 target of reducing 70% of HGH emissions in owned or operated facilities, through 100% renewable electricity and fleet electrification. In addition, Nike also want to achieve 10X the amount of post-consumer waste collected and recycled/donated and advancing the new circular business models. Nike has also pledge to reduce 500 thousand tons of GHG (Greenhouse gas) emissions through increasing our use of environmentally preferred materials to 50% of all key materials (e.g., Polyester, Cotton, leather, and rubber).

Nike also has its Reuse-a-Shoe Program and its Nike Grind program. The former is a long established initiative which started back in 1990 to collect old, worn-out athletic shoes for recycling. These shoes are then broken down into Nike Grind, a material used in creating new products, playgrounds, running tracks and courts.

Image 01: Move to Zero (Credit: Nike)

In terms of Nike’s commitment to sustainability, we will focus on how the company did for its footwear. From Nike’s FY 2020 sustainability report, the company has failed to reduce the average carbon footprint per unit by 10% in FY 2020. The other goal which Nike did not manage was on the use of sustainable materials in footwear for FY 2020.

Reducing the carbon footprint is a complex process, it has several different stages beside manufacturing. When new products and innovations come to the scene, things get a lot more complicated as well. In the past few years, we have seen Nike coming out with new midsole materials, new designs, and new products. These adds to the complexity to reduce carbon footprint.

As such, looking into the top 5 materials by volume which Nike used in its business/products. Rubber is doing very well with 94% being environmentally preferred. However, EVA foam is sadly very poor in its recycled status, at just 1% for FY20. No doubt Nike has made progress in terms of increasing the amount of EVA foam recycled from FY 15 at 185,000 KG to 793,000 KG in FY 2020. In addition, it seems that Nike has reduced its use of EVA foam in FY 2020 by 27% compared to previous year and decreasing since 2018. However, the percentage of EVA foam being recycled remains very low, about 1%.

Running shoes is one of the main contributing products for Nike’s carbon emission and waste. Therefore, Nike has its “Nike Refurbished” program to extend the lifespan of returned footwears.  This program takes footwears returned by customers and classify them based on how much they are used: (i) like new, (ii) gently worn, and (iii) cosmetically flawed (due to manufacturing for example). These returned footwear are then give a clean-down and tidy up before it is available at selected Nike stores where the price will be based on the condition of the footwear. Certainly, Nike is also attempting to use recycled and sustainable materials in their footwears as we will see later.

Performance Footwear

While the above section provided the macro view of what Nike is doing for sustainability, there are also new products launched in the market. These products showcased Nike’s effort to be more sustainable and work towards it “Move to Zero” initiative. For example, the most recent, Nike Zoom Alphafly Next Nature. One of the controversial running shoes which gotten everyone attention when it came onto stage. Nike has decided to make the Alphafly with a touch of sustainability. The pair of running shoes is made with at least 50% recycled content by weight, the highest in Nike’s offering now. In addition, the upper, midsole, carbon-plate, and the Air Zoom units reduces material waste or utilize recycled materials (e.g., foam scraps). The midsole is made from recycled ZoomX foam using glue to stick together. The Nike Zoom Alphafly Next Nature comes in at US$300.00, a hefty price tag.

Image 02: Nike Alphafly Next Nature (Credit: Nike)

Other includes the Nike Free Run 5.0, Nike Flex Run 2021, and the Nike Revolution 6 Next Nature. These running shoes, are made with at least 20% recycled material by weight. As materials consist of more than 70% of any product carbon footprint, these products utilized recycled materials from post-consumer and/or post-manufactured waste. It is likely the materials are for the upper construction as Nike stated that reusing existing plastics, yarn, and textiles can reduce carbon emissions.

Nike has also been investing to develop their capabilities and learnings further, with the most recent project being the Space Hippe. The Space Hippe Model “04”, there are 3 other models, comes in with about 3.7kg CO2e, the lowest of the 4 models produced under the project. The midsole and exposed outsole part of the Space Hippie is constructed from “Crater Foam”. The “Crater Foam” is made from a mixture of standard Nike foams and 15% recycled waste rubber (i.e., Nike Grind) ground down into granules. Space Hippie is a story of trash transformed, from the upper to the outsole, the shoes are made of at least 25% recycled material by weight. The Space Hippie series would be more of a lifestyle footwear than a pair of running shoes, but it would be unfair to Nike not to mention this initiative. There are also other footwears which have embarked on a sustainable journey, such as the Waffle Racer Cater, a lifestyle footwear, and the Cosmic Unity, a basketball footwear.

Image 03: Space Hippie 04 (Credit: Nike)

Nike in the Right Direction, Yet More Could be Done

In this article, we briefly touched on Nike’s policies related to sustainability and the products which the company has launched to tackle climate change. Nike certainly takes climate change as one of the factors for its business and has made considerable progress. However, for Nike, as well as any footwear company, to revamp the manufacturing process and choosing the right materials for the running shoes is a challenge. It isn’t a simple process especially with the change of materials used while maintaining performance of the footwear. For running shoes where performance is of key priority, Nike needs to ensure that the performance is maintained or improved with the change in materials.

In 2021, we have seen new launches from Nike to highlight its progress working with sustainable materials. Innovations and learnings from the projects must be put into commercialization to shift the industry towards being more sustainable. Yet, business remains business as Nike still need to compete with the other major brands such as Adidas or ASICS for market share even in the traditional footwears.

With the other brands, both major and new brands, creating their product offerings for the runners who wants to be more environmentally friendly. Such product does not come easy, even as Adidas seemingly has made progress through its collaboration with Allbirds. As an innovation leader, Nike need to double down on its efforts to bring forth sustainability in the performance series. When performance, price, scale, and technological barriers of sustainable running shoes are broken down, it is hard not to make a better choice for planet Earth, hard not for it to be a new and growing segment.

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