Is Nike Sustainable? Focusing on a Brighter Future

Is Nike sustainable? We take a look at the past, present and future initiatives to answer that question.

It’s a name that’s instantly recognisable worldwide, whether it’s for its iconic trainers, performance activewear, celebrity collaborations or sports sponsorships. Of course, we’re talking about Nike.

But as governments, consumers and brands become more eco-conscious, how are big players like Nike responding? Is Nike sustainable? In this blog, we’ll answer exactly that.

 

Is Nike Sustainable?

After a turbulent history, Nike has set clear goals to improve sustainability and make a difference, predominantly by 2025. By introducing the ‘Move to Zero’ initiatives and making sustainable materials commonplace in the collection, achieving full sustainability appears more achievable now than ever.

To get an accurate picture of whether Nike is sustainable, we need to look at past criticism, current initiatives and future innovations —then, we can understand just how committed the brand is to transform its image and the industry as a whole.

The Past: Criticisms and Responses

Although Nike may be making strides towards a more eco-conscious business model, it hasn’t always been plain sailing.

Once upon a time, if you heard the name ‘Nike,’ sweatshops and unfair labour would instantly spring to mind. Exposed by Jeff Ballinger in 1991, Nike’s relationship with poor working conditions and low wages dated back to the 1970s.

Initially, Nike was slow to respond, further damaging its image and reputation. Eventually, it made a commitment to change how its supply chain operates and employs workers, gaining the trust of its customers again.

However, the conversation about unfair labour practices didn’t stop there. The same story reared its head around 2017, when Nike turned its back on its commitment to the Worker Rights Consortium, limiting the transparency of how it protected workers’ rights.

What can we draw from this? Although Nike admitted its failings and made constructive changes in the face of criticism, more recent actions show that stability in its choices is needed to fully strengthen its sustainable mission.

While labour rights and people are a big part of sustainability, the environment is the first thing that springs to mind when considering the topic So, how has Nike previously performed in this area?

Ultimately, Nike is a fast fashion company manufacturing millions of products every year. There’s a lot of waste associated with that, particularly when you consider that a single trainer sole can last over 1,000 years in landfill.

Achieving sustainability for Nike won’t happen overnight. It will require ambitious targets, stringent reporting and a complete overhaul of its operations.

Let’s look at some initiatives Nike has embraced to help achieve this overarching company goal.

 

The Present: Investment in Innovation

In recent years, sustainable initiatives at Nike have kicked into gear, with numerous plans and targets released to help clean up the planet and the brand’s image. 

From switching SF6 gas in its Air Max to nitrogen to the recycled Space Hippie trainers, sustainability and innovation have been linked together to unlock success for Nike.

Nike’s realised it can’t wait for sustainable solutions — it must create them.

On top of this, Nike pledges to use only renewable energy sources and is exploring collaboration as a route to sustainability. Most notably, they’ve become a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which focuses on creating transformative change throughout the fashion industry.

 

Recycling Programmes


One of the biggest challenges between brands like Nike and achieving sustainability is the amount of waste they produce. Currently, 92 million tonnes of textile waste end up in landfills every year, so how does Nike plan to reduce this number?

Recycling programmes are some of the most effective ways of reducing waste, as it involves the whole supply chain, including the end consumer. Incentivising consumers to recycle their products with the original manufacturer can close the loop in the fashion supply chain.

This might explain why Nike has launched a recycling and donation programme to help them reach their sustainability targets.

Nike accepts worn shoes and apparel from any sportswear brand, which consumers can drop off at any participating Nike store. It’s then sorted into batches for recycling or donation, with some products sent for recycling and others cleaned and donated.

The result? Fewer waste materials and products in landfills, particularly when most sportswear products are made up of harmful fibres that don’t biodegrade, such as polyester.

The brand takes things one step further with Nike Grind. By no means a new initiative, Nike Grind was started in 1992 to create a continuous loop without waste, repurposing old shoes that would otherwise head to landfills.

Under Nike Grind, old, damaged, surplus shoes are broken down and reused to create rubber, foam, leather, textiles and thermoplastics. These recycled materials can be used for playgrounds, stoor flooring and displays, turf fields, courts, tracks and more, creating a sustainable sports future for the next generation.

This is what sustainability is truly about — not only minimising the impact fashion brands have on the environment, but finding innovative ways to give back to people, too.

 

Materials

For sustainability to be achieved, it has to be a focus throughout the supply chain. Materials can make or break how sustainable a brand is, as they account for more than 70% of any product’s footprint.

No matter the energy sources you use or how much plastic packaging is involved, if the materials aren’t made sustainably or reusable after customer use, your processes will have a negative, irreversible impact on the environment.

Thankfully, Nike is heading in the right direction. Nike’s use of more sustainable materials increased from 41% to 59% in 2020. Nike apparel labelled with ‘sustainable materials’ has at least 50% recycled content.

Nike significantly reduces its emissions and impact by reusing, recycling, and repurposing existing materials.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the materials initiatives Nike is championing to help make it more sustainable.

 

  • Nike Flyknit

    An ultra-flexible, lightweight fabric made from 60% less waste than traditional footwear, thanks to precision engineering. Each Flyknit shoe upper contains up to seven recycled plastic bottles.

  • Nike Air

    All Nike Air soles are made from at least 50% recycled manufacturing waste and as of 2020, the Nike Air manufacturing facilities in North America are powered by 100% renewable wind energy.

  • Cushioning systems

    90% of the waste materials for Air soles are repurposed into innovative cushioning systems.

  • Nike Forward

    An all-new material that's ultra-thin, soft, warm and lightweight, with a reduced carbon footprint of 75% on average.

  • Nike Flyleather

    Made from 50% recycled leather fibres and synthetic materials, this recycled leather has all the properties of virgin leather.

 

The Future: Move to Zero

While Nike is taking many steps in the right direction, there’s still a long way to go for the fashion and sportswear industries to become sustainable. Ambitious targets need to be set and met, with investment from all areas of the business helping to make this happen.

But it won’t come without challenges, particularly related to consumer demand, which shows no signs of slowing down.

Due to demand from ‘sneakerheads’ and collectors, Nike’s leather usage has jumped up 35% due to increased demand for iconic designs, such as Dunks. Leather has one of the highest carbon and waste footprints of any trainer material, which won’t help Nike’s carbon emissions targets.

But, it doesn’t mean to say that they’re not introducing more initiatives to help combat these challenges. They’re working with celebrities like Billie Eilish to spread the message about climate change and spark the conversation with their customers, hoping sustainability becomes a focus for them too.

Most significantly, in 2019, it announced its ‘Move to Zero’ mission — ‘Nike’s journey toward a zero carbon and zero waste future.’ It highlights Nike’s commitment to addressing the climate crisis with clear, timely targets to meet. These include:

  1. Nike will power owned-and-operated facilities with 100% renewable energy by 2025.
  2. Nike will reduce carbon emissions across its global supply chain by 30% by 2023, in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement.
  3. Nike diverts 99% of all footwear manufacturing waste from landfills.
  4. Nike diverts more than 1 billion plastic bottles annually from landfills to create yarns for new jerseys and uppers for Flyknit shoes.
  5. The Reuse-A-Shoe and Nike Grind programmes convert waste into new products, playgrounds, running tracks and courts.

 

The Verdict

So, is Nike sustainable? The answer is mixed. Ultimately, can a fast fashion brand ever be sustainable if its core practices go against protecting our planet? Hyper-consumerism, trends and fast supply chains are deeply rooted in Nike’s business model.

The brand has also been accused of lacking transparency when proving its effort. In fact, it’s currently tracking behind the 2025 target, primarily impacted by its growth in leather trainer sales.

Additionally, considering the brand generated over $49 billion in revenue for the 12 months ending November 2022, Nike can arguably afford to be investing a lot more in initiatives and making itself the driving force behind a fashion industry shift.

However, Nike undoubtedly focuses more on sustainability than many other major players. It’s investing in new, eco-friendly materials, setting clear targets and regularly reporting on its progress, showing that it’s come a long way since the sweatshop days in the 1990s.

To conclude, while there’s still work to be done, Nike is moving in the right direction towards becoming a sustainable brand.

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