Ever since Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman
used a waffle iron to cook up a new sole for a pair of running shoes
more than 25 years ago, innovation has been Nikes bread, butter
and glory, the not-very-well-kept secret of the companys enduring
Bowermans waffle sole revolutionized the athletic shoe, bringing
energy, creativity and new technology to a field that had been running
in place for years. Suddenly, runners everywhere were trading in
their worn-out flats for fast, light-as-air Nikes. First out of
the blocks, Nike never looked back. Several years after the premier
of the waffle sole came the famed Air cushioning system.
Initially introduced in running shoes, it stormed the basketball
shoe market on the wings of Michael Jordan and became a standard
of both high performance and street fashion.
Now Nike is applying its innovative spirit to a new standard of
performance. In the early 1990s, when Air Jordans were all the rage,
a small group of Nikes designers and managers were quietly
exploring the idea of sustainable development. Centered in the Nike
Environmental Action Team (NEAT), this cadre of pioneers began to
study Nikes operations through the emerging lens of sustainability,
asking questions that would ultimately transform the companys
understanding of itself and its mission. What, they wondered, are
the long-term environmental and social impacts of the athletic footwear
industry? How does a company with annual revenues in the billions
(over $9 billion in 2001) and more than 700 contract factories worldwide
profitably integrate ecology and social equity into the way it does
business, every day and at every level of operation?
Inspiration and Ecological Intelligence
Sarah Severn, Nikes director of corporate sustainable development,
led NEAT in its early years. Working closely with Heidi McCloskey,
currently global sustainability director for apparel, Severn sifted
through emerging theories of sustainability and was drawn to the
concepts that we have come to call cradle-to-cradle thinking.
Rather than trying to limit the impact of industry through the management
of harmful emissions, cradle-to-cradle thinking posits that intelligent
design can eliminate the concept of waste, resolving the conflict
between nature and commerce. By modeling industrial systems on natures
nutrient flows, designers can create highly productive facilities
that have positive effects on their surroundings, and completely
healthful products that are either returned to the soil or flow
back to industry forever. Its a life-affirming strategy that
celebrates human creativity and the abundance of naturea perfect
fit with Nikes positive, innovative culture.
This was key for Severn. So much of the environmental debate
had addressed end-of-pipe problems and end-of-pipe solutions,
she said. Here was a strategy that was turning that on its
head. It was not about restriction or reaction. It created positive
solutions at the front of the design process. That meshes very well
with the culture here. And its an exciting message. If you
talk about environmental management systems and eco-efficiency,
people just roll their eyes. But if you talk about innovation and
abundance, its inspirational. People get very, very excited.
And get excited they did. Severn and McCloskey began to feel that
design for sustainability offered a compelling path to a new level
of performance for Nike. Their enthusiasm was contagious. In 1996,
just three years after the formation of NEAT, Nike contracted William
McDonough + Partners to design a new, state-of-the-art campus for
its European headquarters in The Netherlands. A complex of five
new buildings, the campus was designed to integrate the indoors
with the surrounding environment, tapping into local energy flows
to create healthy, beneficial relationships between nature and human
The buildings are organized around a central green and form four
smaller courtyards around the perimeter, each landscaped with native
plants. The orientation of the buildings and the window design maximize
daylight while minimizing heat gain. Ground-source heat pumps use
the constant temperature of the earth for heating and cooling. On
the roofs, cisterns collect 3.9 million liters of storm water annually
for landscape irrigation and other greywater uses. Outdoors there
are volleyball, basketball and tennis courts; indoors, a bistro
and restaurant, sunlight and copious fresh air. In short, its
an exceptionally pleasant place to work, to connect with colleagues
and friends, to come to know the surrounding natural worldto
Yet, as inspiring as Nikes European headquarters can be, the
company soon understood that even the best facilities in the world
would not change the design of their products. Could Nike integrate
cradle-to-cradle thinking into product design, manufacturing and
customer connections, too?
Change and Integration
In the Nike culture, people tend not to flinch at the prospect of
change. Like the elite athletes they serve, Nikes leaders
are more likely to embrace a challenge and set new standards than
look for easy excuses or piecemeal improvements. Sparks of inspiration
flying up from new ideas about sustainable business had to be translated
into action and innovation across the board, into long-term strategies,
new common goals and novel ways of measuring success. Nike was changing
We had come to see that our customers health and our
own ability to compete are inseparable from the health of the environment,
said Darcy Winslow, one of the early leaders of the sustainability
movement within the company. Product innovation and performance
remained Nikes first priority, she said, but our sense
of design excellence had expanded to include a commitment to ecological
intelligence, to fully understanding the impacts of our products
on the natural world.
Nikes first steps toward ecologically intelligent product
design began with materials assessments undertaken with McDonough
Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC). Together they sought to determine
the chemical composition and environmental effects of the materials
and manufacturing processes used to produce Nikes line of
athletic shoes. Focusing primarily on Nikes global footwear
operations, the process began with factory visits in China, where
teams collected samples of rubber, leather, nylon, polyester and
foams to begin assessing their chemistry.
In this ongoing partnership, when Nike and MBDC identify materials
that meet or exceed the companys emerging criteria for sustainable
design, those components are added to a growing palette of materials
that Nike will increasingly use in its products. These Positive
List ingredients are those designed to either be metabolized
by natures biological systems at the end of a products
useful life or be perpetually recovered and reutilized for new products.
We call the former biological nutrients and the latter technical
nutrients. Using natural flows of energy and nutrients as models,
these product materials are designed to flow in closed loop cycles,
eliminating the concept of waste while enhancing and replenishing
both nature and commerce. Biological and technical nutrients, and
the systems in which they flow, are the foundation of our concept
of Cradle to Cradle DesignSM.
Ultimately, Nike is working toward a cradle-to-cradle manufacturing
and product life cycle system. A two-phase collaborative effort
between MBDC and Nike, launched in 2000, is already setting new
design guidelines and auditing all of the companys major material
suppliers. Since 2001, research has focused on the chemicals used
in the manufacturing process and the development of a list of materials
that will comprise a positively defined materials palette.
Our goal, said Winslow, is to take responsibility
for our product through its entire life cycle. To do so, Nike
has begun to align the life cycles of all its footwear, apparel,
equipment and accessories as closely as possible with natural cycles.
When that goal is reached, Nike and MBDC will have identified a
palette of chemicals and materials with wholly positive effects
and designed systems for their perpetual retrieval and re-use. Products
will then flow in discrete biological and technical cycles, nourishing
the soil or circulating as high quality technical nutrients from
producer to customer and back again.
Sound ambitious? It is. But, as we have seen, innovation is what
Nike is all about. And the companys publicly-stated corporate
goals strongly suggest it means business. By 2020 Nike aims to:
- Eliminate the concept of waste in product design, using materials,
energy and resources that can be readily recycled, renewed or reabsorbed
back into nature.
- Eliminate all substances that are known or suspected to be harmful
to human health or the health of natural systems.
- Close the loop and take full responsibility for its products at
all stages of product and process life cycle, including the end
of a products useful life when consumers are likely to dispose
w Develop financial structures that promote greater product stewardship
in design, engineering and manufacturing, as well as create new
financial models to reflect the full cost of doing business.
Many Nike leaders are energetically pursuing this new direction.
As Ed Thomas, director of advanced materials research, said with
typical Nike exuberance: Youve got to take the stake
and youve got to plant it somewhere big and youve got
to say thats what were driving for. Its not just
going more slowly. Its not just going to zero. Its actually
turning around and picking a new direction.
Nike has responded to this self-imposed challenge with a series
of far-reaching initiatives aimed at integrating principles of sustaining
design into all its day-to-day operations. While ongoing learning
programs usher sustainability into Nike culture, the company is
also reaching out to its partnersfrom suppliers to factories
to distributorsto develop a driver of continual improvement
and a common understanding of the goals of sustainability.
With its Management of Environmental Safety and Health program,
for example, Nike has merged health and safety metrics with a Nike
management model to create a framework for sustainability suitable
for its Asian contract factories. Through a series of training workshops,
Nike is helping factory managers and employees in four countries
learn how to employ sustainable work practices and eliminate the
problematic impacts of manufacturing athletic shoes and apparel.
What has all this training added up to? It is difficult to measure
the impact of a cultural shift within a company, and harder still
to measure the impact of such a shift on a companys supply
chain. But Nikes systematic effort to develop a positive materials
palette has begun to produce tangible results, such as the phasing
out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
PVC, commonly known as vinyl, is a cheap, durable material widely
used in building construction and a variety of consumer products,
including toys, apparel and sporting goods. As Nikes Web site
explains, the vinyl chloride monomer used to make PVC is a suspected
carcinogen, while incineration of PVC can result in dioxin emissions.
MBDC is also very concerned about the many problematic additives
commonly used in PVC.
After two years of scientific review, Nike set its sites on the
elimination of PVC from footwear and non-screenprint apparel by
the end of 2002. In spring 2002 Nike highlighted two of the companys
PVC-free products, Keystone Cleats and Swoosh Slides, as a way to
begin a dialogue with consumers about its PVC-free commitment.
Another example of positive materials development at Nike is its
increasing use of organic cotton in its apparel products. By 2010
Nike plans to use a minimum of five percent organically-grown cotton
in all cotton apparel and will introduce its first collection to
incorporate 100 percent organically grown cotton this fall.
A key element of the cotton program is the positive perspective
that drives it. When we looked at what type of beneficial
impact we could have on the environment, says McCloskey, organic
cotton was a key area.
Unlike many apparel companies, Nike is aware that nine of the most
toxic pesticides are used on cotton, producing a huge amount of
groundwater contamination and community pollution. From a responsible
business perspective, those are costs no company would want to bear.
By taking responsibility for the chemicals and materials that
make up Nikes products and designing out the things that have
long-term cost to peoples health and the environment, were
in a much better business position, McCloskey says. In the
case of agricultural products like cotton, designing in positively
defined cotton fiber is, in effect, designing out toxic characteristics
and larger negative impacts. For example, by 2000, Nike was purchasing
nearly one million pounds of cotton annually from organic farmers.
This positive alternative to managing the use of toxic pesticides
helps build a safe, new industry, provides a quality product to
customers, and creates a new niche market for Nike.
As promising as all these changes are there is still much work to
do. While the integration of sustainable design principles continues
at a remarkable pace, sustainability has yet to truly find a home
in the minds of all of Nikes designers. The task of
taking design concepts that are new and complex and putting them
into the repertoire of all the decisions a designer has to make
in a hectic environment is extremely challenging, said Bill
Malloch, general manager of footwear sustainability.
Nikes in-line designers understand the concepts of sustainability,
but they dont necessarily know how to apply them today,
he explained. We hope, in the next couple of years, that we
will be able to simplify sustainability into core ideas that allow
designers to consistently make the right decisions.
There are also the challenges surrounding the management of more
than 700 contract factories worldwide. No one is quite certain how
to guarantee that every producer is using materials selected from
Nikes preferred palette. The story of Keystone Cleats and
Swoosh Slides, however, suggests that successfully monitoring product
materials is certainly within reach, and could well lead to a deep
and profitable understanding of Nikes vast supply and manufacturing
Managing materials presents some of the same logistical challenges
Nike is facing in its management of labor practices in the factories
of its suppliers. These efforts can go hand in hand; as Nike implements
its palette of positively defined, healthful materials it creates
healthier workplaces and communities.
Though questions abound, we have no doubt that Nike can reach its
ambitious goals. It has already shown, time and time again, its
ability to turn inspiration into fruitful action. It will do the
same as it takes on each new challenge on the path to sustainability.
As Nike vice president Tinker Hatfield said, the companys
discovery of the concepts of sustainable design woke up this
It is a wonderful thing, he said, for us to take
this aggressive, ambitious, powerful group of people . . . and just
change that basic level of expectation to a better place.
We agree. And whether the once-sleeping giant is now striding along
in Swoosh Slides, Air Jordans or organic cotton socks, weve
been delighted to see it rise to its feet.
William A. McDonough, FAIA, and Michael Braungart
are founders of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a consultancy
that works with a wide variety of companies to implement eco-effective
design and commerce strategies. For more information, visit www.mbdc.com.