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Nike, Converse and Jordan Brand Discuss the Future of Sustainable Design and Innovation

From game-changing football kits made of recycled plastic bottles to the more climate-friendly development of Nike Air, NIKE, Inc. has a decades-long history in sustainable design and innovation. With a rally cry to help protect the future of sport, the charge to envision a better world has inspired a steady progression of ambitious benchmarks and more radical product. 

With Move to Zero, NIKE, Inc.’s journey toward zero carbon and zero waste, our mindset is clear. Accelerated investigation of the varied opportunities in circular design combine with an unwavering optimism.

A creative spark permeating through NIKE, Inc.’s product line managers, materials design directors, color materials graphics directors and innovation and sustainable design leads reminds that, at its core, the future of sustainable design and innovation is driven by human ingenuity.

New product from across all three NIKE, Inc. brands underscores the energy around circular design principles and the unified end-to-end effort required for progress. Exploratory design is highly visible through Nike’s Space Hippie and Revival lines, the Jordan Brand Crater collection and Converse Crater and Renew footwear

While each of these examples offer an overt aesthetic statement on the dynamic promise of circular design, the promise of a better future is no less apparent in subtler articulations. 

Across Converse, Jordan and Nike, teams are sweating the details and enacting creative solutions at all levels of product creation. Considerations are made for trims, dye techniques, pattern efficiencies and material sourcing. Individually, on any given product, the impact is near hidden to the naked eye. However, when combined and scaled, the effect of these changes is significant. Check out the highlighted sustainably-designed products on nike.com for evidence.

Here, representatives of Converse, Jordan Brand and Nike discuss the challenge and joy of the effort. 

Innovation Starts with Problem Solving

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Seana Hannah, Vice President, NXT Sustainable Innovation There are plenty of problems to solve when it comes to sustainability. It requires radical thinking, experimenting and failing over and over again until we come up with new solutions. The future is just waiting to be defined and we love that opportunity.

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Brandon Avery, VP, Global Innovation, Converse When you think about design or innovation, you're solving a problem or a challenge. Creativity in this regard comes with some guidelines or parameters. Creativity grows when you see a measurable impact that you can make.

Embracing the Creative Challenge

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Jessica L’Abbe, Senior Director, Color Materials Graphics, Converse Designers are really great at creative problem solving. We try to challenge the design teams to think about ways to make things better. We found that by putting principles of circularity as a core tenant of our creative strategy, it really helps keep it front and center throughout the product creation process. 

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LeMar Anglin, Senior Product Line Manager, Jordan Brand We're trying to reduce waste and inefficiencies, but we also are embracing what Jordan fans are considering in terms of longevity and durability. The problem of designing with sustainability in mind applies a lovely pressure that will, you know, help us make some diamonds. 

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Noah Murphy-Reinhertz, NXT Sustainability Design Lead, Nike That idea of pressure and how that drives us to something beautiful speaks to the power of creativity in sports too. In sport there's practice. There's preparation. But then there are moments in competition where you’re up against an incredible challenge, and the improvisation required to surmount it becomes magical. 

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Julia Barrett, Textile Director, Nike My inspiration comes from looking at a process that has been set. Everybody thinks it's the most efficient way to do it; it's perfected. And then to put a whole new lens on that process that allows you to see it differently. You see the waste that comes out of it differently and all the byproducts. It allows you to say, "Hey, hold on."

Seeing Differently, Working Differently

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Linai Vaz, PhD, Global Director Textiles Apparel, Nike I have an interesting, varied background, having a PhD in biomechanics and sports performance. I tend to look at things from a different angle. And that is a great way to guide your work when you are thinking about sustainability. We need to look at more creative ways to solve the problems and to really think in terms of a holistic approach.

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Jessica Lomax, Senior Creative Director, NSW Women’s Apparel, Nike We are approaching apparel design with new questions. “How can we use as little of a fabric to create what we’re after?” It's almost like a math problem. It’s really interesting, because it can affect shapes and how you lay things.

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Ivan Martini, Product Line Manager, NSW Footwear, Nike Principles of sustainability have become a mindset for how we create products now. We may want the end result to look like it could fit naturally in a Nike catalog, but when we add a design filter of sustainable parameters, we’ve got to view the process differently. For instance, we can look at pattern efficiency, as Jessica mentioned, as a vehicle for reducing waste.

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Murphy-Reinhertz We're working at this very upstream part of the process right now, trying to reimagine the toolkit people use in product creation. We need to look at things with a big, wide view. Because we’ve got to provide something really flexible. We are thinking about a circular design that is flexible, accessible and doesn't require much technical investment. It can’t be prohibitive for other people to use. 

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Lomax I think the power of materials is really important. We're always looking at low-impact materials and trends. But another thing we focus on is longevity, how we design things that can last for a long time. That includes durable materials, but also how you reinforce seams and apply graphics. All of the steps matter. 

Small Shifts, Big Impact

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Barrett I come from a history of trims. It's a space where that’s sort of the end of the line for a lot of designers, but changing the process there has a huge impact. We're dealing a lot with the raw material, the base that everything starts with. I’m invested in figuring out the small aspects in our portion of the product creation that we can then funnel back into the other things we’re making. 

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Martini Working in the most foundational level of footwear, we see value in small changes to things that are sort of unseen. For example, we convert the sockliner of all our shoes to a 100-percent recycled liner. It could have a massive, massive impact for Nike.

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Hannah In product innovation, we are thinking about the small solutions and the big concepts at the same time. We also think of solutions that add to our tool box. These are the different elements that we can put together in new ways. Some examples are materials like FlyLeather, which incorporates the leather scraps from hides combined with synthetic fibers into a new engineered leather material. Space Waste yarn is another example; we combine recycled polyester with T-shirt and yarn scraps to create a new yarn that can be used in both footwear and apparel.

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Avery There are lots of pieces to this puzzle. You have to think about them all together.

The Power of Emotion

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Anglin Creating an emotional connection is one of the most important ways to create an authentic and honest relationship between new ideas and consumers.

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L’Abbe A lot of times we think about materials at their inception, but what about all the materials that already exist? Could we look at those just the same, and really embrace the value that those can still hold?

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Avery We call it emotional innovation. For example, if we reuse a material, something that’s already had a journey and a life, there's a really interesting story to tell — trash becomes treasure.

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Vaz It's now okay to show that a product is made with sustainable materials, it's out in the open.

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Barrett Before, we thought imperfection wasn’t good. Now, we're embracing it and that is what makes for a really emotional connection with our products.

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Hannah We aren’t interested in the moon and moonshots, there’s way more opportunity to focus on the Earth with our big ideas. Earthshots are expressions of the future. They show what’s possible and push us to all think differently. Space Hippie is the perfect example of this. The team took on the huge challenge of trying to create the lowest carbon footprint shoe Nike’s ever made and created a shoe that is made with at least 25- to 50-percent recycled content. To do that, they started with what was right in front of the them — the waste from the creation of other shoes. The constraints they put on themselves were really, really tough and they ended up breaking the boundaries of design and sustainability to achieve their goal. We have many more Earthshots in the pipeline, so there is plenty of inspiration coming.

Read More: Sustainability