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Primer

How Circularity Drives Sustainable Innovation at Nike

Like the athletes* it serves, Nike is always in pursuit of progress. And in our era of climate crisis, progress means creating products and methods that have less environmental impact, and eventually, no impact or even a positive impact — a circular future.

To make that future a reality, Nike’s circular vision is rooted in bold, science-based targets built on more than 30 years of exploring ways to reduce impact on the environment. This deep commitment to sustainability is driven by the belief that protecting the future of sport means no less than protecting the future of the planet.

Why a Circular System Is the Ultimate Challenge

Imagine an industrial value chain — that includes product design, materials, manufacturing, shipping, retail and product take-back — with no beginning or end. Waste is a main source for new materials, virgin materials are bio-based, and the manufacturing process itself creates zero carbon emissions. Product is created not only without impact on the environment, its creation uses waste that would have gone to a landfill. And every shoe, shirt, short and pant is designed with the future in mind, anticipating how it will be broken apart or transformed into something still valuable at the end of its useful life.

This is a true circular system, and it’s NIKE, Inc.’s long-term aim.

To get to that goal, the company views designing for circularity as the sum of many deliberate, interconnected choices. “By focusing on progress and not perfection and by making better choices, we embrace the chance to reconsider our craft in hope that it forms a groundswell of change,” says John Hoke, Nike Chief Design Officer.

That means sourcing better materials and rethinking design methods, manufacturing processes, and how Nike gets products back from athletes to refurbish or recycle them.

If it sounds overwhelming, it’s because it is. And even with an enterprise of 75,000-plus employees and global partners working together, Nike doesn’t have everything figured out yet. But it knows how to progress forward. “We are galvanizing and empowering everyone to make smarter changes, and we’re building diverse, inclusive teams to drive relentless innovation for athletes and the planet,” says Noel Kinder, Nike Chief Sustainability Officer. “That step-by-step, holistic approach is the key to keep moving toward a circular future,” says Kinder. “And the creative innovations it yields are in full swing.”

How a Circular Vision Transforms the Company

What’s Next

“We’re constrained only by the pace that we and our industry can dream up materials to move us farther,” says Kinder. “How quickly can we develop additional alternatives to leather, alternatives to cotton? How can we work with our key supply-chain partners to create and mandate manufacturing methods that facilitate lower-carbon or lower-energy production? Right now, materials account for 70 percent of our carbon footprint. This is one of the reasons we’re investing heavily in the materials research and innovation space — we know it’s the single biggest unlock to us achieving our goals.”

Already, Nike has definitive numbers from its 2021 fiscal year to show its success: Recycled polyester now makes up 38 percent of Nike footwear’s total polyester usage, double what was used in the 2020 fiscal year; Nike recycled more than 55 percent of its manufacturing scrap across footwear and apparel, thanks to increased demand from local recycling markets and global Nike Grind customers; and the company donated more than 1 million items through its donation channels, double the number from 2020.

To be sure, there are real and myriad challenges to building a circular system and economy. Global logistics are a complex web. Recycling isn’t perfect. And consumers need accurate, easy-to-access information so they feel empowered about what circularity is and how they can contribute.

Still, Nike believes driving toward a truly circular system is its role and responsibility. With each stride, it builds the innovation and the operational and collaborative muscles needed to solve the challenges. Driven by the ingenuity and grit of Nike’s teams, the company is committed to keep moving toward this circular future.

*If you have a body, you’re an athlete.