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Hannah Jones on How Nike Rethinks Materials and Methods of Make

Hannah Jones on How Nike Rethinks Materials and Methods of Make
Hannah Jones. Photo by Jeff Dey.

Hannah Jones is NIKE Inc.’s Chief Sustainability Officer and VP, Innovation Accelerator. Hannah leads Nike’s Sustainable Business & Innovation team, with a goal to decouple growth from constrained resources through sustainable innovation. Here, Hannah discusses how Nike rethinks materials, methods of make, products and business models to solve complex sustainability challenges.

At Nike everything we do is a product of innovation and design, defining design as a product of form and function. But form and function are more than elements of design. They are the fundamentals of a social and environmental revolution that harnesses beauty and performance to essentially disrupt the status quo. That is how you take things to scale and that is how you change the world.

Our ultimate sustainability vision at Nike, which is locked into our growth as a company, is to fundamentally decouple our growth from scarce resources. And design is our greatest weapon — it is one of our greatest levers of change. That’s why we’ve made the sustainability team part of our advanced innovation department. This ensures sustainability is utterly woven into our DNA and innovation pipeline. In fact, it’s often driving innovation.

Take the Jordan 23: Prior to designing the shoe, Tinker Hatfield said: This is going to be an amazing product that, by the way, I want to be a gold standard in sustainability. It was an uphill battle, because Jordan shoes need to be very well constructed to manage the intense amount of pressure they receive from players. To meet all of these demands, Tinker utilized geometry to construct the shoe—because the number one design rule at Nike is: No compromise. There is nothing that comes out of our pipeline that doesn’t meet the aesthetic and performance needs of the athlete. Tinker’s achievement gave birth to the first glimmer of Flyknit — the idea that you could use geometry as an enabler of performance and a driver of sustainability.

"A consumer’s old product will provide them with insight into their new product, and might even become their new product."

The constraints placed on the designers who developed the Flyknit shoe were: 1. Give me the lightest shoe possible that one can wear to win a marathon. 2. Make it beautiful. 3. Challenge and disrupt the concept of waste. That’s an unlikely mash-up of constraints, but if the designers hadn’t had all three in mind, they wouldn’t have arrived at the Flyknit Racer, which turned the industry upside down. Because it worked. It was designed to deliver on an aesthetic and performance ideal. And, by the way, it’s sustainable. It is an example of the unique Nike algorithm that successfully combines innovation, sustainability and design.

Nike Grind
Approximately 71% of Nike footwear and apparel products contain a palette of premium recycled and regenerated materials—Nike Grind—in everything from apparel trims to soccer kits to Flyknit yarns. For example, since 2010, Nike has transformed more than three billion plastic bottles into recycled polyester for use in Nike performance products.

We are on the cusp of the birth of the circular economy and great design is central to its success. Many people look at the circular economy as: Recycle more, but what they miss is that people will still demand an amazing experience and amazing product. We will continue to fulfill this demand through disruption, by turning waste into gold — or, rather, performance materials. Waste becomes the feedstock for close-loop products. A consumer’s old product will provide them with insight into their new product, and might even become their new product. Nike Grind is a current example of that potential. It is about rethinking what a material is, and then you play.

That’s why we are putting serious chops into the science behind the “art of innovation.” This allows people to be creative and fail fast. It also often unintentionally brings the counterintuitive together. Our data scientists are sometimes the ones who provide the insights that lead to a crucial design unlock. This interplay exemplifies how rigor and the science of innovation can actually amplify creativity.

Play is a key ingredient of the Nike design process, which is about irreverence and risk-taking. If Nike didn’t have those components in its DNA, we wouldn’t have challenged the concept of what could be done with an old sneaker. Progress in both innovation and design is about re-challenging mental models. If you challenge the mental model of what materials are, suddenly the world is your oyster.

Read More: Sustainability