While we often hear about the environmental endeavours of electronics and furniture companies, there are other product based industries doing worth-while research and design, including commercialisation.

The reality is that eco-design needs to take hold across all areas of industrial activity and manufacturing, if we are to see some positive environmental outcomes achieved.

The sporting and footwear sector is no exception in this case, with considerable work being undertaken by companies such Patagonia, Recreational Equipment Industries, and of course footwear and apparel producers such as Nike.

Nike has adopted and implemented a more responsible corporate environmental agenda. Some of their programs, projects and products reflect a substantial financial and intellectual investment in the process of minimising the environmental impact of the company’s products.

Nike has a thoughtful program that appears to address many of the key environmental concerns affecting the footwear and apparel industry.

It’s not only comprehensive, but aims to pursue an innovative and design based model to explore what environmental responsibility can mean for its business, its products and its users. Indeed, ‘sustainable product innovation’ appears to sit at the core of Nike’s environmental strategy.

Nike’s efforts cover the spectrum, from practical manufacturing measures and waste elimination through to more ambitious initiatives that are life cycle oriented and more closely focus on product stewardship and sustainable consumption. This includes proactive strategies and targets to eliminate waste from production and toxics from materials and products.

By far the most interesting work from an eco-design perspective is Nike’s explicit attention to sustainable product innovation and intervening at the design stage. Whether it’s through straightforward eco-design principles or more sensitive materials selection, Nike is doing more than most care to acknowledge.

Executives at Nike talk about the importance of integrating positive environmental features and decisions early in the process i.e. product design without compromising overall product desirability, performance and cost. Their language is that of ‘sustainable product innovation’ and ‘product life cycles’.

This is partly reflected through their strategies to reduce and/or eliminate waste and toxics. In an attempt to be systematic and rigorous, Nike has also developed a matrix to help understand where they have the greatest impacts, enabling them to make sound decisions about priorities.

As the literature highlights: “We’re beginning to explore ways to fold sustainability criteria into more of our standard business discussions. For example, our footwear teams use a sustainability index to assess each footwear category’s progress toward reaching their sustainability goals.

"We currently use the index to measure the five best-selling shoes per category, as a way of focusing on where we might have the greatest impact. Reviewing this index is now standard operating procedure in footwear’s seasonal planning, which takes place three times a year.

"We regularly gauge our progress and, yes, we compete with each other (as well as work with each other) on sustainability issues.”

"Nike has also established a dedicated group and program to help ensure that sustainability effectively permeates across operations and all product design. This is especially refreshing when we see isolated and opportunistic eco-design where a company may commercialise only one ‘eco’ product among a broader range of non-ecodesigned lines.

"Known as ‘Nike Considered’, it is both a product line and a team of people and expertise “committed to integrating sustainable product innovation across all Nike branded product.”

Nike put forward a strong case backed by knowledge and investment to help achieve a more sustainable future when it comes to footwear and apparel:

“Nike Considered is a product line, and it’s also the driving force and ethos behind a newly established team committed to integrating sustainable product innovation across all Nike branded product”, according to Nike.

“The range launched last Spring as a response to the growing consumer demand for products that tell stories about materials and design intention. We saw it as an opportunity to create product that speaks to both premium design and sustainability.

"It was the natural next step for us to take based on more than a decade of rooting our environmental commitment. It has compelled us to create a consolidated team called Considered. The team is dedicated to infusing this sustainable product design ethos across all product categories. This is obviously a huge challenge – one that will inspire us for years to come.”

Creating a team

As a company, Nike has developed programs around shoe recycling, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing toxics in the manufacturing process and continually looking for ways to reduce waste in the design and manufacturing processes. “Nike has had success with past sustainability teams in product and operations.

"However, their efforts and lessons learned were sometimes diffused. By bringing these teams together, into one team called Considered, our aim is to create a learning lab for the future that will not only elevate sustainability within the product divisions, but also will drive the further creation of apparel, equipment and footwear built on the platforms of both performance and sustainability.”

According to Nike, the team will be comprised of a creative director, senior-level and industrial designers, and several materials and development specialists.

"The team will be housed within the global footwear division, but will have direct avenues for dialogue and influence into all product divisions. Also, by elevating sustainability to one of the core tenets for innovation within product design at Nike, the stakes are much higher to achieve clear wins that articulate the Considered ethos within the company, and to our consumers.”

Consumers will see Considered as a footwear collection with literal nods to Nike’s past by rethinking iconic shoes says the team at Nike. “There are also some visual cues to the apparel and equipment lines to come. For example, consumers of the Fall and Holiday ’05 collections received an organic cotton messenger bag for their shoes.

"The challenge, is how the ethos of sustainable product design will manifest itself in Nike branded product. For the Spring 2005 launch of the Considered line, our intent was to make an immediate and bold statement to the consumer that signalled our intention to make products that look different, because they are different."

"As the Considered team works within the categories and product lines in the future, the outcome from an aesthetic and communication point of view will be entirely new again. The goal is to bring sustainable design principles into performance product, letting sustainability speak to innovation.”

Other noteworthy environmental initiatives at Nike include stronger efforts to specify more organic cotton as well as a program to phase-out the use of PVC. According to the Organic Exchange, it is reported that Nike is the largest retail user of organic cotton in the world. For the 2004 retail year, close to thirty per cent of Nike apparel cotton materials contain some percentage of organic cotton fibre. 

Nike has also established a ‘take-back’ scheme known as “Reuse-A-Shoe”. This is about product stewardship and extending producer responsibility by diverting old and worn-out footwear from landfills and transforming them to basketball courts, tennis courts, athletic fields or running tracks.

“Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program is a key component of Nike’s long-term commitment to waste elimination by helping to close the loop on the life cycle of literally millions of pairs of old, worn-out or otherwise unusable athletic shoe materials, the company explains.

“'Reuse-A-Shoe' also plays an important role in Nike’s long-term commitment to help increase the physical activity of young people to improve their lives by reusing this old athletic shoe material in new places for kids to play and be active.”

Nike is developing, implementing and refining an exciting environmental program that includes significant attention to eco-design and sustainable product innovation. The Nike website offers reader-friendly information and data about environmental efforts and how they are moving forward.

Within the context of mainstreaming eco-design while maintaining high levels of consumer appeal and functional performance, Nike has made progress and is still open to further ideas, improvements and innovations.  

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