- Leather has one of the highest carbon and waste footprints of any sneaker material.
- Nike’s use of leather increased by 35% last year due to demand for iconic shoes such as the Dunks.
- Despite the 10% reduction target, the average carbon footprint of Nike products has not changed between 2015 and 2020.
The biggest threat to Nike’s ambitious environmental goals might be its most enthusiastic customers.
The retro sneakers that sneakerheads can’t get enough of, including the Jordans, Dunks, Blazers, and Air Force 1s, use significant amounts of leather, which has some of the highest carbon and waste footprints.
The popularity of the shoes boosted Nike’s leather use by 35% last year and prompted the company to set a goal of using more durable materials.
“Due to consumer preference for classic Nike leather icons in fiscal 2021, leather models are outpacing the growth of the rest of Nike footwear, putting us behind our plan to meet our 2025 target. “, wrote Nike in its latest corporate responsibility report.
Nike is seen as a sustainability leader in the global fashion and sportswear industry, with some of the most aggressive aims to reduce its carbon footprint, but demand for its signature leather shoes highlights the tension continues between corporate climate goals, consumer demand and Wall Street. expectations.
“Which is more important, financial goals or carbon footprint goals? Ultimately, Nike wants to sell more Jordans because there’s demand, and companies are always looking to increase their income,” said Ken Pucker, a senior lecturer at Tufts University. and former executive at Timberland. “That precedes meeting an emissions target.”
Nike did not respond to Insider’s questions for this story.
“These are systemic problems”
As part of a new commitment to industry-standard science-based targets, Nike wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2025. But the trend is in the opposite direction.
The company’s total emissions have jumped more than 15% since a 2015 baseline, in part due to “increasing emissions intensity” from Vietnam’s coal-fired power grid and increased use of leather, Nike said in the report.
Vietnam accounted for 30% of Nike’s footwear manufacturing in 2021, more than any other country. That figure has since risen to 44%, according to an annual report filed last week with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In the report, Nike said its new science goals were “much bigger” than any of the company’s previous ambitions and required going beyond “step-downs” and unlocking systemic change – which doesn’t happen. would not be felt for years to come.
In 2019, Nike announced its Move to Zero effort, highlighted on select shoeboxes, which aims for a zero-carbon, zero-waste future to “help protect the future of sport”.
But an Insider review of two decades of reporting found that Nike had a mixed record when it comes to meeting past corporate responsibility and environmental goals.
The company typically sets five-year goals every five years for its factories, workforce, and environmental efforts. In fiscal 2020, the company said it met seven of 19 goals, made progress toward six, and missed six.
A success story: the percentage of renewable energy in facilities owned or operated by Nike increased by 34 percentage points to 48%.
A failure: the average carbon footprint of Nike products remained unchanged between 2015 and 2020, despite a 10% reduction target.
Yet Nike is regularly hailed for its environmental efforts. Sustainability experts have warned against excessive criticism of the company, given the complexity of global supply chains.
“These are systemic issues,” said Pauline Op de Beeck of the Carbon Trust, which works with fashion, retail and manufacturers to become more environmentally friendly. “These things cannot change overnight. They require collaboration and long-term strategic planning.”
“Traditional leather waste negates the gains we have made elsewhere”
One of the most popular Nike sneakers today is the Dunk, a shoe that debuted in 1985 as a basketball sneaker, but “has passed down from sneakerheads to the mainstream. “, said HighSnobiety. One of the most popular colors is a black-and-white pattern, often referred to as “Panda,” which the publication describes as “the uniform for many Gen Z and Millennials.”
Over 2,000 pairs of Pandas sold on the StockX online secondary market in a recent three-day period, most for around $200, nearly double the retail price of $110.
The Panda is made of leather.
“Leather is one of the most inefficient materials in a shoe production environment,” Nike said in the report. “To date, traditional leather waste is negating the gains we have made elsewhere and contributing the vast majority of our additional waste.”
Materials account for approximately 70% of the carbon footprint of Nike products.
And while Nike has developed next-generation materials like FlyKnit and the more eco-friendly Flyleather, classic leather designs remain the most popular with sneaker collectors who dictate consumer trends.
Nike describes Flyleather as more durable, lighter and more environmentally friendly than traditional leather. But last year it accounted for 0.1% of Nike’s leather use. Synthetic leather decreased by 10 percentage points to 26%.
While Nike’s more durable products, including the Space Hippie, which is made with factory offcuts, seem to be gaining popularity, they don’t sell out immediately and they sell below retail in the market. secondary. Nike is also introducing new sustainable silhouettes, including a sneaker that can be easily disassembled for easy recycling.
CEO John Donahoe mentioned the introduction of more durable versions of the Nike Pegasus Turbo and Mercurial Vapor, two popular shoe models, during the company’s latest quarterly call with analysts. He also teased a new sustainable material that could “change the apparel industry”.
“They could put a shoe on the moon”
Nike’s extensive environmental efforts date back to the sweatshop criticism that rocked the company in the 1990s. Press Club and committed the company to a series of reforms, including setting more environmental targets.
Since 2001, Nike has published regular corporate responsibility reports that provide detailed information about its factories, workforce and sustainability efforts.
One of the material’s biggest achievements was removing greenhouse gases from Nike’s famous Air technology, the cushioning system it uses in many of its shoes.
It took 60 experts working for 50 different organizations and tens of millions of dollars in investments to remove greenhouse gases from air bags, Nike said in reports covering fiscal years 2004 and 2006.
Nike has also stacked solar panels on corporate buildings, installed wind turbines on distribution centers, shrunk shoeboxes and printed receipts on biodegradable paper.
These actions have paid off, but nowhere near enough to offset emissions from Nike’s vast network of contracted factories that manufacture the company’s products.
Nike estimated that nearly 99% of its emissions come from factories it does not own, also known as Scope 3 emissions, a common problem for multinationals trying to reduce their carbon footprint.
Nike recognized the need to go deeper into its supply chain than ever before in its latest corporate responsibility report. The company says it plans to help convert more contract factories to renewable energy.
Nike also strives for absolute emission reductions, rather than reducing the amount of carbon per product.
“These factors create a set of carbon targets that become more difficult to achieve as our business grows,” the company said in the report.
Small, niche sneaker brands are seeing an opportunity where Nike has struggled.
Rommel Vega designed sneakers for sustainability-conscious brands such as Columbia, Keen and Merrell before launching Holo, his own line of sustainable outdoor shoes. He thinks the shoe industry is where the auto industry was a few years ago.
After Tesla entered the scene, industry giants rushed to prioritize more sustainable electric vehicles, including Ford, which now makes an electric F-150.
Of course, Nike has an advantage.
“It takes money,” he says. “They have all the resources in the world. They could put a shoe on the moon if they wanted to.”
Do you work at Nike or have ideas to share? Contact reporter Matthew Kish via encrypted messaging app Signal (971-319-3830) or email ([email protected]). Contact sustainability journalist Catherine Boudreau via Signal (802-782-9286) or email ([email protected]). Check Insider’s Guide to Sources for more tips on sharing information securely.