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How Nike Considered Uses Innovation and Collaboration to Close the Loop

This impressive footprint is Nike’s Considered Air Jordan XX3, their first basketball shoe designed using the Considered Ethos.

Lorrie Vogel is the general manager of Nike Considered, Nike’s in-house sustainability think tank. She holds a degree in Industrial Design from Syracuse, and numerous patents. Her work in innovating around sustainability has helped put Nike on Fast Company’s Fast 50 list multiple times. Considering how aggressive Nike’s sustainability goals have been, it’s even more impressive that they are on track to meet their targets.

Sustainability is second only to performance when ranking the critical factors of a product. Nike is committed to making their entire collection as environmentally responsible as possible. Lorrie Vogel spoke at the Opportunity Green conference in Los Angeles, explaining some of the ways Nike is meeting these targets. In this phone interview, Lorrie expands on some of the points she touched on in her presentation. The conversation is split into two articles, in order to go deeper into the many changes that need to happen to increase use of recycled and organic materials in apparel and footwear. We begin with a discussion about materials, and conclude with the human element needed to ensure these changes occur in a timely manner.

From Nike: The long-term vision for Considered is to design products that are fully closed loop: produced using the fewest possible materials, designed for easy disassembly while allowing them to be recycled into new product or safely returned to nature at the end of their life. By 2011, 100 percent of footwear will meet baseline Considered standards, apparel by 2015 and equipment by 2020 – creating better performing products while minimizing environmental impact by reducing waste, using environmentally preferred materials and eliminate toxins.

A Call to Action for Innovation

Think of this as a call to action in the clean tech community- to recognize the need for technology that facilitates recycling. While Nike would love to make their entire line from recycled polyester and organic cotton, their customers would rather not pay the 20-30 percent premium for these materials, nor would their shareholders like to absorb that cost. This is a quandary that faces every company that would like to use recycled fibers. The fiber manufacturing process is simpler, yet the end product is more expensive simply because there’s not enough demand.

In our conversation, we discussed the need for legislation around materials to create a level playing field. If all brands are asked to use a minimum of 5 percent organic cotton or recycled polyester, then the price premium won’t be an issue, and demand will be strong enough to ensure high volume.

Having worked in apparel product development for over a decade, I was deeply impressed by Lorrie’s presentation. Her visionary, systems-based thinking gave me faith that there is hope for at least one major apparel brand, even as the majority of the industry continues to wreak environmental havoc. So I invited her to continue the dialogue here on CleanTechnica.

Environmentally Preferred Materials

SS: This chart depicts how Nike defines Environmentally Preferred Materials, and how each factor is weighted. This shows far more depth and breadth of impact than any other apparel company’s responsible sourcing practices, as far as I know.

LV: We focus on green materials because over 60 percent of our impact is in our materials! Transportation is a blip on the radar in comparison. Extrapolate that ~800,000 tons of CO2 per year out to the whole world, the whole apparel industry, and you can see how massive the impact is.

SS: At the conference, I asked: What consumer incentives have been the most useful for making the take-back program, Reuse-A-Shoe, work?

LV: Reuse-A-Shoe has been a great pilot, but it needs to happen for all consumer products, not just shoes. For example, we need to increase recycling of plastics like PET bottles, to use them for polyester fiber instead of raw crude. Just changing a shoe into a shoe isn’t enough. We need to create an ecosystem.

SS: An ecosystem?

LV: If we know we’re going to add 30 percent more people by 2050, recycling should be a no-brainer! Yet, a product goes through multiple types of sorting to determine what it’s made of, at least seven different processes, making it extremely complicated to recycle a shoe, even if it contains only a few different materials. I don’t know why products don’t have DNA markers or something like that to make it easier to get the materials into pure waste streams. We need more environmentally responsible materials, but if other brands don’t adopt them as well, it’s harder to keep the momentum going, to ensure there’s a demand for recycled textiles.

So we’re doing this open source Green Lab in partnership with PopTech. Through the lab, we’ll work together with other participants to map the space, to find the most viable ideas. We want more manufacturers to get on board. We also want to encourage more designers to use fewer materials in any product and design products that are easier to recycle.

SS: Tell me more about how you define Nike’s success in a transaction-based economy.

LV: Ultimately, we want our entire line to be sustainable, not just a few eco pieces here and there. Reducing consumption is important, but it won’t get us to a green economy. So at Nike, we’re striving to close the loop. While it would be nice to be able to plant a used shoe in the ground, a biodegradable shoe still uses same amount of resources as any other shoe. The problem is, we won’t be allowed to use as much of these resources in future, as they become increasingly scarce, so we are focused on developing our products for reuse.

A case in point- France is considering an end-of-life tax for products.I would rather they reclassify waste, to define waste as a product that ends up in landfill.

But if a product can be recycled, it’s not waste. For example, why not legislation requiring DNA markers on materials, to make it easier to recycle them? The problem with the end-of-life tax is that there’s no incentive for companies to recycle or make easily recyclable products, it’s the same cost to them no matter what.

Recycling is subsidized, it needs to become a viable business on its own. It is the future, as resources are declining too fast to cover the growth rate in consumption. However, recycled materials commands a 20-30 percent higher price! Yet they require less materials, energy, and water, and create less waste than raw crude polyester, so should be cheaper.

There needs to be more attention around this, around innovating the entire supply chain. Nike does not manufacture textiles and their raw materials, we depend on suppliers for this. So I can’t control all ends of the cycles, my job is to identify key areas for improvement and find the necessary partners. Nobody is looking at this space, we need to increase awareness of the need to facilitate reclaiming materials. Cotton uses way too much water and land, while polyester is connected to oil, a dwindling and polluting resource. We want to lower our impact, to close the loop. So we need help from various sources, it will happen faster through collaboration.

SS: How significantly does legislation increase the potential to make this happen?

LV: Two things can influence adoption of sustainable materials. Either legislation levels the playing field, or consumers care enough. However, it’s hard to monitor buying habits. Consumers often state they’ll choose green, but sales numbers show otherwise. The great thing about legislation is that it moves faster than consumer influence, and legislation levels the playing field. If the government requires say, 30 percent to be recycled content, then everyone will do it. So we pay more, but everyone pays more.

Our goal is to blend a minimum of 5 percent organic cotton into all of our cotton-containing apparel materials by 2010, while steadily expanding our offering of 100 percent certified organic cotton products. -Nike

I hate to see organic cotton being 20-30 percent more expensive than conventional cotton, and hate having to charge more for it. The higher price decreases sales volume, but the goal is to sell more organic products. So it’s not creating the desired effect, because consumers aren’t willing to pay more. If there was legislation, it could keep everyone in the game. Because we use 5 percent organic cotton in our entire line, we’re one of the top two retail users worldwide, according to Organic Exchange.

SS: Tomorrow the conversation continues in Part Two, discussing how Nike employees are trained and rewarded for sustainable innovation, as well as other stakeholder issues.

Images Courtesy Nike

 
 
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Susanna is passionate about anything fast and electric. As long as it's only got two wheels. Which is why she's now based in Barcelona, Spain and happy to live in a city moving rapidly toward complete freedom from cars. She covers electric motorcycle racing events, urban mobility, test rides electric motorcycles, and interviews industry leaders.

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