When it comes to making clothes more sustainably, the conversation in the last couple of months has focused mainly on the working conditions in garment factories following the tragedies in Bangladesh.
Now, MAKING, a new app that Nike launched last week to help designers make informed decisions about the environmental impacts of the materials they choose, provides a reminder that sustainable apparel is not just about where the clothes are made, but also about the materials they are made of.
The new app is powered by data from the Nike Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), a database built on more than seven years of materials research and analysis. It aimed to help designers and product creators select materials with lower environmental impacts by ranking and comparing materials based on specific environmental impact areas like energy, water and waste.
This app is not just a valuable sustainability working tool for designers but also an interesting milestone in Nike’s journey from open innovation to systems innovation, as well as another indication (if you still need one) of Nike’s commitment to “move past the current incremental mindset into a genuine shift of entire systems.”
MAKING’s first version includes the 22 materials that are most commonly used in apparel and home goods, like silk, polyester, cotton, polypropylene and down. The app scores the materials in four specific environmental impact areas – chemistry (level of toxicity), energy/greenhouse gas intensity, water/land intensity and physical waste. The higher the score, the better the environmental footprint of the material (50 points is the maximum).
What is the value of knowing the environmental impacts of these materials? For Nike it’s very clear – it’s about both risk and opportunity.
According to Forum for the Future’s report, Creating the Big Shift, challenges such as resource scarcity and climate change create an unprecedented era of risk and volatility for Nike. “In a business that…uses a palette of more than 16,000 materials, that volatility has the potential to disrupt profits in a big way,” the report explains.
In terms of opportunity, this database is another expression of Nike’s belief that sustainability will be an engine for growth for the company, or in other words, that making products with lower environmental impacts is going to be key for continuing the company’s ongoing success. This is also about innovation – “innovation is in Nike’s DNA, and sustainability is an integral part of Nike’s design process,” explained Lee Holman, Nike VP of Apparel Design.
So if Nike believes that its materials database can provide significant benefits, why would the company share it with the rest of the world instead of keeping it for itself?
One explanation is that the materials problem is just too big for one company, even as large as Nike, to handle on its own. The company explains that according to industry data, by 2015 the global apparel industry is expected to produce more than 400 billion square meters of fabric annually. Just in terms of water used for dyeing, this figure means dye houses will need then up to 8 trillion (!) tons of water to process this amount of fabric.
“Imagine if we could change these figures – the sustainable difference it would make,” said Hannah Jones, Nike VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation. “Today, more than ever, we believe that systems innovation, transparency and the sharing of tools and indexes will propel business and society towards a more sustainable future.”
Forum for the Future’s report adds, “Today, Nike sees that its core strengths of design, innovation, high performance and supporting athletes will thrive in a more sustainable market. And that by finding pre-competitive spaces it can benefit from wider innovation and collaboration – and the reduced individual operational costs and reputational risks this brings.”
In other words, Nike can do a better job as a company in an environment where the apparel industry as a whole is working to make the industry more sustainable, than in an environment where it is one of the few doing so. In addition, as Mark Parker, Nike’s President and CEO explained back in 2010, “Our belief [is] that the best way to stimulate sustainable innovation is through open innovation.”
Parker was talking back then about GreenXchange, the patent-sharing platform Nike helped to launch. Later on, these beliefs in the importance of open innovation and sustainability to the company’s future led Nike to share the MSI, first with members of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (where it is embedded now into the Higg Index) and later on with the whole world, eventually leading to the launch of the MAKING app.
Interestingly, while Nike is supporting open innovation with the new app, it’s already thinking beyond into the next phase of sustainable innovation – “we are moving from an era of open innovation to one of systems innovation,” Mark Parker explained. What he meant was that for the solutions Nike is looking for when it comes to materials making information available on their environmental impact is no longer enough.
So where is Nike heading? The company works on generating breakthrough scalable solutions that will take sustainability in its value chain, from raw materials to engaging with consumers on closed-loop products to the next level. It does it through pre-competitive initiatives, such as LAUNCH, strategic partnership between Nike, NASA, USAID and the US State Department aiming to find scalable game-changing solutions to meet urgent challenges facing our society. One of these challenges is to find “innovations that will transform the system of fabrics to one that advances equitable global economic growth, drives human prosperity and replenishes the planet’s resources.”
With such ambitions in mind, Nike’s MAKING app might signal the end of one era and the beginning of a new one, which has the potential to generate even more exciting innovations not to mention some great new apps.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.