At Nike, we know that if you’re serious about serving athletes, then you have to be serious about protecting the planet. As Chief Sustainability Officer Noel Kinder puts it, “Sustainability is the beating heart of everything we do today — it’s central to our purpose as a company. It isn’t just what we do or what we believe; it’s who we are.”
Those sentiments translate into real-world targets: By 2025, Nike has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions in owned and operated facilities by 65 percent, to recycle or donate 10 times the amount of post-consumer waste through new circular business models, and to increase the use of environmentally preferred materials to 50 percent of all key product materials (which would cut half a million tons of greenhouse gas emissions).
You don’t hit those numbers, however, without a clear plan. Here, Kinder explains how integrating sustainability into every part of the business — and empowering every employee — creates accountability, consistency and breakthroughs that will lead Nike to meet, or beat, its goals. The real win: preserving the playground we all share.
Why Operationalizing Sustainability Works
Planet-friendly business practices don’t just happen because you say they’re important. If you want a more sustainable business, you have to integrate sustainability into every aspect of operations. Everybody has a role to play, and you must give people tangible, specific, measurable goals to strive for. Sustainability has to be a performance indicator alongside cost per unit, delivery precision and quality.
In a board meeting back in April, Michael Spillane, President of Consumer Creation, said to me, “Noel, it’s like we’ve deputized the entire company to drive sustainability.” I’d never thought of it that way, but he was absolutely right. 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.
Putting It Into Practice
Threading sustainability throughout the business requires being deliberate and committed to the outcome. I think of our sustainable innovation team. They shifted their mantra from “Make athletes better” to “Make athletes better and make the world better for athletes.” That’s basically adding a design parameter into what they do. We also have leaders like John Hoke, our Chief Design Officer, who says, “We’re making sustainability features an edict,” and then he’ll tell his teams, “From this season forward, we’re using recycled materials in this garment.” Embed your intentions into your work, and the result is progress.
Relentlessly Focusing on Innovating Materials
I think we’re already at the point where we understand that you don’t have to compromise performance for sustainability. That doesn’t happen overnight, though. Take recycled poly — I think the first time we used it was at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in one running singlet. The singlet looked a little scratchy, not like a high-performance garment. Twenty years later, we’re the single biggest user of recycled polyester in our industry to the tune of recycling roughly a billion plastic bottles a year. Nike recycled polyester garments look, feel and perform as well as anything we make. And through services like Nike’s Recycling & Donation — taking back gently used footwear and apparel and recycling or donating it — we are also offering consumers a way to close the loop responsibly.
We’re constrained only by the pace that we and our industry can dream up materials to move us farther. 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.
Two Keys to Drive Progress
To me, sustainability shows up in product in two ways. There’s the overt piece: directly demonstrating to consumers that you’re serious about materials that are better for the planet. Space Hippie is a great example of that. It’s an aesthetically unique shoe that’s demonstrably sustainable. That’s important to show. What really drives impact, however, is a product like the Legend T-shirt, which is made of recycled materials, and we sell millions and millions of it every year. This is how we scale sustainable solutions to multiply their positive impact.
Collaborating to Make Bigger Changes Happen
Our industry has a groundswell of momentum toward helping to mitigate the impact of climate change. Nike’s always been a leader in this regard, partnering across the industry to make big changes happen through multi-stakeholder initiatives — think about the Global Fashion Agenda or the Fair Labor Association. Now, we’re talking to peers beyond our industry, such as Unilever, Starbucks and Microsoft, to get even more done.
This is essential work to drive climate action. Because once you’ve energized your employee base to change how you make products and how you power facilities, and you’ve carried those changes over to the suppliers you partner with, reaching the next level of impact comes down to collaboration.