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Nike Closes the Loop with Shoes Made From Trash


It’s highly likely that your most recent pair of Nike shoes had a previous life. Earlier this month, the athletic apparel giant announced that a whopping 71 percent of its footwear is made with materials recycled from its own manufacturing process. In 2015, the brand recovered 92 percent of its trash.

In addition to doubling down on waste diversion, Nike’s sustainability report reveals a continued and concerted effort to achieve zero-waste in its supply chain, invest in technologies to drive 100 percent renewable energy within its factories, and reduce toxic chemical output from dying processes from entering the environment.

“By creating low-impact and regenerative materials, we can continue to move toward a high-performance, closed-loop model that uses reclaimed materials from the start,” Mark Parker, Nike's president and CEO, wrote in an opening letter to the report. “Coupled with smarter designs, we can create products that maximize performance, lighten our environmental impact and can be disassembled and easily reused.”

Recycled materials are derived from old shoes, plastic bottles and factory scraps branded Nike Grind. Through a “slice-and-grind” technique, shoes are split into three sections -- separating the rubber from the outsole, foam from the midsole and fiber from the upper sole -- before they are put through a grinder and transformed into fabric pellets for future use in another pair of shoes, a track court, a playground or another athletic padding surface.

Parker goes on to share Nike’s vision of accomplishing their goals by the fiscal year 2020, achieved in part by completely eliminating footwear manufacturing waste from landfills or incineration.

Nike’s efforts are strengthened through its partnerships with NASA,  the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State who, since 2013, have teamed up through the Launch program to identify leaders and thinkers to “transform the system of fabrics to one that advances equitable global economic growth, drives human prosperity and replenishes the planet’s resources.”

A focus on up-front product design processes appears to drive Nike’s approach to improved product sustainability and materials sourcing. Nearly 81 percent of all of Nike’s products across every category will be reviewed for sustainability scalability by 2020. The significance of implementing sustainability measurements and metrics across the total brand will push teams to choose better materials based on an internal sustainability index, improve efficiency patterns and ultimately decrease the number of materials used to create a single product.

For example, the report states that more than 16,000 materials make it into Nike products each year with up to 30 materials used for a single pair of shoes. Using Nike’s materials index, teams can compare the environmental impacts of numerous materials based on several hundred suppliers to smartly make changes to meet brand sustainability goals.

In addition to ushering in a vision for driving their part in capping climate change while establishing accountability as long-time players in the fashion industry, Nike recently joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a Global Partner. In this role, Nike will work strategically to drive scale within the circular innovation economy by working together to identify opportunities to achieve positive impact.

Value creation is amid the levers the company seeks to create as detailed within the report.

“We envision a transition from linear to circular business models and a world that demands closed-loop products – designed with better materials, made with fewer resources and assembled to allow easy reuse in new products.[...] We are re-imagining waste streams as value streams, and already our designers have access to a palette of more than 29 high-performance materials made from our manufacturing waste.”

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Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

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