“Corporate responsibility is no longer a staff function at Nike. It’s a design function, a sourcing function, a consumer experience function, part of how we operate.”
Nike CEO, Mike Parker
Ask sustainability professionals about a mainstream brand truly excelling in this arena; many will immediately point towards Nike. It has been an incredible journey for Nike, one that has started to reap rewards for the company. With Nike being one of the leading global athletic and apparel brands carrying a range containing 50,000 product lines in 2008, their impact on resources and the natural ecosystem is relatively significant (Henderson, Locke, Lyddy, & Reavis, 2009). At the end of 2010, Nike released its Environmental Apparel Design tool to the world… for free. It had been developed by Nike over a number of years and with $6million worth of investment. The use of these tools has aided the embedding of sustainability right at the beginning of the design process ensuring that products are made with the correct attributes in mind right from inception. The tool evaluates the creation of a garment through the various input processes, measuring impact on waste, energy, chemicals and water which allows companies to understand the affect that their manufacturing process has on the ecosystem. Designers are then able to search for alternative, more eco-friendly materials which can be substituted into the product to fit the Nike Considered criteria.
From this tool the Nike Considered label was created and the 23rd version of the Air Jordan basketball shoe was born. Though the price tag was heavy at $185, the shoe had been fabricated with the environment in mind. The Nike team had used a combination of recycled materials and had minimised their use of solvents. The press were thrilled and Michael Jordan himself stated that he wanted all of his shoes to be made in this way. Nike deliberately used the Jordan brand for this shoe to emphasise that environmental thinking does not need to impact the design and performance of their products. Hannah Jones, the VP of Sustainability at Nike added: “Too often ‘green’ means less of a consumer experience,” Jones said. “If you sacrifice performance or style, you’re doing a disservice to the consumer and to the sustainability movement (Gunther, 2008).”
What Nike have achieved after so many earlier problems regarding factories and child labour, is to forge ahead using that negativity to spur them onto a better more holistic solution. They have gone beyond compliance and social auditing to make radical changes to the way they conduct their operations by deeply embedding sustainability. They realised that they already had great designers; the innovation needed was in equipping them to make better decisions. Instead of dealing with problems at the end, the aim was to design those problems out of the equation entirely. As Nicolas Casey says in his article, instead of monitoring the use of face masks by workers handling toxic chemicals in factories, there was an opportunity to design shoes that don’t use them. (Casey, 2008) Key to the functioning of the apparatus is a clear vision stipulating the aims for the tools with an emphasis on closed loop production, an approach that Nike worked on with Michael Braungart and William McDonough (Braungart & McDonough, 2003). But to understand how to effect change, Jones and her team started to monitor everything Nike created and produced footprints measuring toxics, waste, water etc. (Henderson, Locke, Lyddy, & Reavis, 2009)
The development of the Considered Index helped Nike to create the football jerseys for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa from recycled plastic bottles enabling Nike to save some 82 million PET bottles from going to landfill in the 2010 calendar year, although now some PET bottles are now never actually used for their intended function but are instead sent to be immediately recycled (Environmental Leader, 2010). The significance of Nike’s development in this area cannot be underestimated. Its portfolio currently includes Cole Haan, Converse, Umbro and Hurley meaning that best practice can be shared across companies and as already mentioned Nike is a founding member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
Nike should be applauded for the progress that it has made. It was in 1998 when Phil Knight, then CEO, admitted that the scandals behind slave labour had become synonymous with the Nike brand and as a consequence the corporate responsibility functions were realigned. The effect of the scandals had a massive financial impact on Nike as their net income dropped from $795m in 1997 to $399.6m in 1998 accompanied by approximately 20% drop in share price (Heal, 2008). One of the key elements found during an analysis of the work flows was that staff at Nike was in fact responsible for the very behaviours that they were trying to eliminate. Bonuses for the buying teams were set by “price, quality and speed of orders, implicitly encouraging them to ignore suppliers’ code compliance” (Henderson, Locke, Lyddy, & Reavis, 2009). One of the observations made by Hannah Jones, the VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation, was that Corporate Responsibility had to be part of the DNA of the business, a mechanism which allowed people to see that there would be a return on investment not a strategically unfocused policing apparatus with no business value.
Although Nike may not be seen as part of the fast fashion scene, they can be held up as an example for people and companies within the clothing sector. Nike cross the line between sportswear and fashion and it is partly for this reason that they have been so keen to clean up their act. The outdoor apparel is a massive market for sportswear firms providing gear to people who have a true love for nature and want to see the providers of their equipment doing all they can to maintain a healthy relationship with the environment. Yet the same processes at work here can provide the foundations for clothing companies to deeply analyse their methods of design and production and act accordingly. For Nike there is no finish line when it comes to sustainability, this iterative process has already had an impact on the way design and production is done, yet for Nike it is clear that this is just the beginning. They have already reduced their Carbon Footprint by 75% but the real aim is its intent to attain zero waste, zero toxicity status and 100% recyclability across its entire portfolio (Senge, 2010).
Moving beyond compliance Nike, along with other retailers such as H&M, has joined the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) (Better Cotton Initiative, 2009) (Khan, 2011). Realising that organic cotton production was only 1.5% of the global cotton market, the BCI was created to reduce the environmental and health related impacts of cotton production. With organic cotton being so difficult to grow, a middle way was needed. The BCI has taught producers the importance of avoiding pesticides and has also given the farmers access to science labs so that soil can be tested to see what nutrients are missing in order to add the correct type of fertilizer. Though the production is not free of pesticides, it does reduce environmental impact as well as enabling the growers to increasing chances of income for producers (Khan, 2011).