Nike’s customers can design their own products so they can gain an idea of how to make the most ecologically responsible hoodie, shorts or shoes with materials currently available on the market. A dive into Nike’s MSI gives both men and women an idea of how their favorite Nike items have an impact on the environment due to chemicals, energy, water, and waste.
Start with the shorts. Nylon is the least preferred fabric, with polyester only marginally better due to the decreased amount of energy needed to manufacture a similar amount of fabric. But recycled polyester, when made out of used beverage containers, comes into the mix the need for energy drops while less waste is created.
Next comes the hoodie. One would assume wool was a safe choice since it is just sheered off a sheep. Cotton is only a small improvement overall on Nike’s MSI. But when Nike switches from conventional to organic cotton, the biggest difference is the reductions in chemicals needed to make that same hoodie.
In fact, during 2010, Nike’s consumption of 15 million pounds of organic cotton meant that 3 million pounds of chemicals were diverted away from fields and factories that would have otherwise been used. That avoidance of petrochemicals led to a reduction in energy, though the amount of waste and water used for both conventional and organic cotton remain the same.
Finally, the opportunity arises to design a pair of shoes. True, leather is a byproduct of the beef industry, so shoes using leather are using a material that otherwise would have gone to waste. But tanneries go through heaps of chemicals, and the impact that cattle have on water and energy is well known.
Switch out polyester for leather and the required amount of energy, water and chemicals decrease. But once again, recycled polyester is the overall winner here, even though lightly more water is required compared to virgin polyester. Nevertheless, the effects are huge: Nike claims its use of recycled polyester in 2011 had doubled from the previous year, with the result that the equivalent of over 280 million plastic bottles were kept out of the waste stream.
So could brands such as Nike and Puma do more to encourage the recycling of those bothersome plastic water and soft drink bottles? Will we eventually see the day when we can walk into an athletic gear store and swap some bottles for a credit towards a new pair of shoes?
The most exciting fact is that what we wear when we go for a run is not only improving in performance, but is becoming more environmentally responsible. With Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz announcing that the company is aggressively seeking an alternative to leather, Nike may not be far behind. A more humane shoe may be even the best outcome of all.