Among the many high-profile brands and speakers at the event, Nike’s presentation on its vision for a circular future was an interesting insight into what it takes to be a catalyst for change in the industry.
Vien Truong, global sustainability and senior director of engagement at Nike kicked off proceedings. She revealed that by working with athletes every day, the company understands how climate change affects the way that they train, compete and perform.
“We have a responsibility and opportunity to accelerate the growth towards a sustainable future, namely a zero waste and zero carbon future. We are driving innovation in the use of recycled materials and simultaneously working towards making sustainability more desirable to our customers,” she added.
Truong explained that Nike is a company that can make change at scale. In 2021 alone, 99.7 per cent of waste from Nike’s strategic finished goods were diverted from landfill, including 100 per cent of waste from manufactured footwear. The brand has also increased the use of recycled polyester in its apparel by 12 per cent and recycled over 55 per cent of its scrap materials across apparel and footwear, thanks to the increased demand from local recycling markets and global Nike growing customers.
Recycling and restoring
Truong revealed that over 750,000 pounds of rubber waste was recycled through a program with US retail giant Home Depot. ‘Nike Refurbished’, a new initiative launched in North America, allows the company to take back worn and slightly imperfect products from consumers to repair and restore, then sell on its marketplace.
Nike is planning to scale this program globally soon. The company has also launched a re-creation program in Los Angeles which revolves around collecting deadstock and vintage Nike products, and restoring them to wearable condition, then exclusively distributing them to local customers in the city. Truong said this program contributed to reduction of the company’s carbon footprint.
“When it comes to rewriting the planet’s future, it is our aim to change the industry’s standards, and our products and our processes,” she said. “The faster we can collectively do more for the environment, the better it will be for the future generations. It is why we are partnering with suppliers across the industry to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.”
Collaboration is key
According to Noel Kinder, chief sustainability officer at Nike, climate change is such a complex problem that it requires companies to come together – even direct competitors – to find solutions together.
Kinder revealed that the company’s supplier climate action program covers 11 strategic suppliers that represent more than 50 per cent of the overall volume of products produced for Nike. The company works directly with them to improve their overall carbon footprint and this goes a long way in the greater scheme of things.
“Well, I think Nike has always considered itself an innovator and disruptor. If you go all the way back to the origins of the company, its co-founders really wanted to disrupt track and field and use the innovation capability to drive change. I think that’s true in sustainability as well,” he explained.
Fearlessness is paramount
Seana Hannah, vice president of sustainable innovation at Nike, strongly believes that when it comes innovating and designing for the future, brands have to be fearless.
“We have to be willing to not be constrained by the current structures…we have to be thinking very very differently so that we can get to a new place,” she said.
John Hoke, chief design officer at Nike, is excited about this new era.
“We sit at the dawn of an incredible age. An age where being empowered by technology, being inspired by nature, being really thoughtful, about pushing sports and athletes forward all kind of combined together in this unique way and that’s just amazingly exciting,” he said.
Even Eliud Kipchoge, the famed Kenyan professional long distance runner chimed in: “We live on this planet and you need to take care of this planet. One way to care for the planet is to conserve. Everybody across the sporting world will one day team up and fight climate change.”
Kinder stated that Nike’s biggest area of opportunity lies in the materials that are used in their products. He feels the future really depends on designing products differently, not only in mechanical terms, but also from the materials that are incorporated into them.
Hannah echoed this sentiment.
“Where do the materials come from? Where are they sourced? How are they made? How do we put it all together? Once an athlete is finished using it and loving it, how do we get that product back so that we can use it again and again?”
According to Kinder, 80 per cent of the company’s carbon footprint comes from the material that it uses, so the material innovations team is always looking for alternatives to core materials like leather, cotton and polyester.
“To move to zero, which is zero carbon and zero waste, we are also looking way out ahead. What’s beyond zero? What is beyond doing no harm? What else can we be doing that actually helps the planet?” Hannah stated.
Togetherness is vital
Kipchoge believes that it’s time for the community to come together as one to work for better conservation goals and work collectively on the climate change issue.
“One person can’t do it on their own, we need to bring our minds together, our resources together and do a great job,” he said.
Kinder feels that Nike is uniquely positioned to bring momentous changes to the industry given its size, breadth and scale.
“It is really the passion and energy of 75,000 employees across the world that bring this commitment to reach these goals and help create momentum.”
Hoke noted Nike’s ability to empathise with its communities, making it possible for the team to cater to them in terms of design.
“It’s the DNA of the company, it’s the way we have for 50 years solved problems by listening to the voices of our athletes and that listening builds empathy. It’s an essential first step in creativity, listening. What is needed? What is our response going to be?”
The future beckons
Hannah urged leaders to make sustainability a priority within their businesses today.
“We have to plant the seeds now, we have to invest in technology now, we have to change our behaviour now, so that we can ensure that the future comes as fast as possible,” she said.
Finally, Kinder emphasised the commitment that the industry needs to make towards fighting climate change.
“There is no finish line. That’s an old Nike adage. I think it’s especially true in climate change. It’s a massive challenge and our speed and scale requires us to think differently about it to really lean into this problem and leverage all the tools that we have at our disposal.