Sustainable products need innovative materials

Lorrie Vogel is general manager sustainable product research and discovery.

Lorrie Vogel is general manager sustainable product research and discovery.

Innovating for the athlete is an exhilarating process.

As designers, we get to imagine and create products that make athletes better. But we’re not just innovating for the athlete — we’re trying to innovate for a better business and a better world, creating the best performance products with lower environmental impact.

At Nike, we use thousands of materials to create our products and approximately 60 percent of the environmental footprint from a pair of our shoes is related to our materials choices. These choices provide our designers with the greatest opportunity to reduce environmental impact. To create the best performance products through the lens of sustainable design, we've been working for many years to help our designers choose materials wisely and innovate ways to reduce our impact with respect to water, land and energy resources.

Nike has steadily increased the use of Environmentally Preferred Materials since 2004. We used 7 million kilograms of organic cotton — the equivalent of 15 million t-shirts — in our apparel in 2011, as well as enough recycled polyester to effectively remove 280 million plastic bottles from landfills and other waste streams.

But we continue to research infinitely available and infinitely recyclable options.

We have also developed the Nike Materials Sustainability Index. The first version of the index was developed in 2006, to evaluate the environmental impact of the materials we select. It’s continuing to evolve to include more materials, and also provides an evaluation of the vendors who produce these materials, enabling Nike designers to make informed choices about the products they create.

To date, Nike has used the index to assess 80,000 materials on chemistry, energy and emissions; water and land use; physical waste; organic or recycled content; and dye processes. The vendors themselves are scored on criteria such as compliance with Nike’s Restricted Substance List and Water Program requirements; if they take part in materials certification processes, such as the Global Recycle Standard; and whether they have ISO 14001 certification or operate out of certified green buildings.

Our design teams use a material’s index score in their material selection process as part of their overall product evaluation. As of 2011, we have collaborated with and trained 500 material vendors on the Nike Materials Sustainability Index and hope it will drive them to develop more environmentally preferred materials.

In addition, Nike has made the Index available to the apparel industry, sharing it with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which recently adopted it as the official materials assessment tool for its members. The coalition estimates that its members represent 30 percent of global apparel and footwear sales.

Nike’s long-term vision is to drive industry adoption of a standard practice of rating and reducing the environmental impact of footwear and apparel products. By creating higher standards for materials, measuring those standards and sharing what we learn with the entire industry, we hope to set new benchmarks for sustainability and performance. We believe that sustainable innovation means creating what we do want, not eliminating what we don’t want. The materials the world uses must get better. It’s a willingness to collaborate on game-changing innovation that will enable us to accelerate this transformation.

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