"Why does it have to have a shelf life? Why does anything?" The theatrical voice asks about shoes, and about world-famous Nike footwear in particular, over dreamy, inspirational images of athletes pushing themselves. It's the kind of delivery only Nike ads (and maybe The Nature Conservancy's campaigns with the late Paul Newman) can deliver. But the real question underlying the commercial is whether Nike is genuinely committed to positive change, or trying to prop up a bruised public image.
The promo played on the stark white wall of the 45th floor of 7 World Trade Center, a USGBC LEED gold-certified green skyscraper overlooking the ongoing chaos of Ground Zero. Nike had assembled journalists to learn more about its Considered Design, the company's evolving commitment to social and environmental sustainability.
Lorrie Vogel, general manager of Nike's Considered team, told the audience that the initiative is an ethos. "It's not about creating two or three green shoes, it's about improving all our products," said Vogel. She said this year has seen by far the biggest roll out of Considered products, with entries in tennis shoes, football shoes, training, running and sportswear examples of which hung from wire mobiles or rested on well-lit, recycled-looking blocks, or in one case on a glowing pillar in the middle of a darkened room, mimicking an idol in Indiana Jones' Temple of Doom.
Vogel said 10 years ago, for every pair of shoes Nike made, there was enough scrap material left over to make a second pair. Now, that waste has been halved, with two-thirds of that recycled. She said the company has been working to slash packaging by 30% (she said they've already saved $6 million with reductions in that department). Interestingly, Vogel said detailed analysis revealed that of the company's energy profile, 57% is due to the embodied energy of the products, 23% comes from manufacturing processes and 10% comes from transportation (no word on the final 10).
Look Mom, that's my shoe!
Therefore, said Vogel, Nike has been focusing on decreasing the biggest piece of that power pie, by moving to water-based adhesives (which are also less toxic), slashing VOCs by 95% across the board. Vogel said she had been working with well-respected green business consultants The Natural Step for 10 years, as well as listening to a wide range of stakeholders.
Part of the process has been developing the in-house Considered Design Index, which Vogel said was organized around the principals of selecting "environmentally preferred materials," reducing waste, using less-toxic solvents and spurring innovation. In a theme that has been echoed by many businesses who have sampled going green, Vogel said once you start on the sustainable path you discover how infectious it is, and want to keep learning more and becoming even more eco-friendly.
Underlying the press event was a sense for the history of Nike Considered. In fact, it was really amusing to see one of my favorite shoes on display there, as if in a museum. I had planned on wearing my Nike Considered Boot to the event, but it was pouring rain in NYC, and the woven lace mesh of the shoe's top isn't the most waterproof of footwear.
So yes, I admit it, I have a pair of Nikes (I've actually bought two pairs since high school, the other being running shoes). My gray Considered Boots have held up very well over several years of regular, though not daily, wear, and I actually love them. The vegetable-tanned suede is supple, they are extremely comfortable, and I love the fact that they are a sort of hybrid of Middle Ages or Renaissance shoe and modern design.
People don't know if they are sneakers or not, no one believes me that they are made by Nike (the tiny imprint of the swoosh is very hard to see), and I've received more comments about them than all my other footwear combined. They caught my eye in one of my favorite stores, The Cell in South Norwalk, CT.
My shoes have started many conversations about Nike Considered, which almost no one I've met has heard of, even active greens. Those few in the biz who are familiar with the initiative seemed to think Nike had abandoned the program in recent years, since people feel like they hadn't heard anything about it for some time.
Interestingly, Nike's creative director, Richard Clarke, provided some insight into why that may be the case. Speaking from under a large black ballcap, the soft-spoken, thoughtful Clarke said my beloved Considered Boot had not performed well in the market. He said the aesthetic was not what Nike customers were used to, and he boasted of the fact that recent iterations of Considered were more integrated into a traditional sportswear look and feel. Since I haven't much cared for traditional sportswear (or team sports) since about the eleventh grade, I did not find this encouraging.
Though on the other hand the new approach for Considered is interesting. Maybe it does make sense that Nike stick to what Nike is known for: relatively high performance, mass-market, sport-crazed, flashy gear. Musing after the event, another environmental journalist friend of mine asked what he was going to write about, since Nike doesn't seem to currently offer a super-green option. "I guess it's good that Nike is now one of the largest buyers of organic cotton, but if you step back a second, and read that you wrote Nike is selling a lot of their apparel with 5% organic cotton, that still sounds kind of pathetic," he said.
It's an identity issue and disconnect between the green press and major multinationals. Nike is the world's largest footwear company, and one of the planet's most powerful brands. It has been long targeted for aggressive globalization, outsourcing to free trade zones in countries with poor conditions for workers or environmental regulation, and its sizable contribution to consumer culture. Greens are used to telling their friends to shop local, from small indy shops, and to reach for the super-green, like Hempadrilles or Earth shoes. It can stick in our craw to say anything nice about a multinational with a checkered past, after being targeted by Michael Moore and after years of mistrust (admittedly probably on both sides).
I thought I heard Angels singing
So how does Nike get off calling their stuff Considered these days? Richard Clarke demonstrated how the relevant shoes are made of fewer pieces of material, so they result in less waste, less adhesives and are easier to recycle. He talked up the vegetable-based, clean-process tanning of leather, showed us a cool cork foot cushion, and recycled polyester lacing. He pointed out some interesting webbing designs (especially on a running show designed for the China Olympics), which result in less material and more strength. The blingy Air Jordan 23 (which I found hideous) even has some recycled material in the sole.
Designer Andreas Harlow of the latest Pegasus running shoe talked up that product's reduced weight, which also boosts performance. He said Nike has been using interlocking materials inspired by M.C. Escher's mathematical designs, and a new water-based film for binding.
Mark Parker, Nike's youthful-looking CEO, said Nike has recycled some 21 million shoes into 285 sport courts for kids, and that the company's global warming emissions are 18% lower than they were 18 years ago. He pointed to the firm's European distribution center, which is powered (with a surplus!) by six massive wind turbines.
Parker said the ultimate goal is for Nike to close the loop, to recycle old shoes back into new blue suedes and jerseys. Sounds like he has heard of Cradle to Cradle, which is a good thing. Of course, the company has a long way to go to get to that point, and it has an uphill battle convincing greens along the way. It's a Herculean task that may make Microsoft's current rebranding campaign look like trying to sell smack or eyeliner to Amy Winehouse and her husband.
In the meantime, should you buy Nike Considered? If you're going to buy Nike, it's certainly the best choice. Should you choose it over all the other options under the sun? You'll have to decide for yourself.
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