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Nike Things Considered
Joel Makower, 6 Mar 05

Joel Makower is a widely respected writer and consultant on issues of sustainable business, clean technology and green markets. His essays on environmental business and technology are a regular feature of Sustainability Sundays. Take it away, Joel:

Nike launched a new product line recently -- the curiously named Nike Considered. That’s not news; they do this all the time. What is newsworthy is that Considered represents the first time in memory that Nike has made outright environmental claims about its products.

What’s the big deal? Two things. (But first, full disclosure: For the past several years, I have served as a consultant to Nike’s footwear sustainability team, though I have not been involved with Considered.)

One of the big deals here is that Nike has kept a relatively low profile about its social and environmental policies -- a product of the 1998 lawsuit against Nike alleging that the company made "false statements and/or material omissions of fact" concerning the working conditions under which its products are manufactured. The legal question was whether Nike’s statements about its factories' workplace practices were considered free speech (which is protected by the U.S. Constitution) or commercial speech (which is not).

As a result of the suit (which in 2003 the company settled out of court), Nike all but curtailed its public outreach on corporate social responsibility, including its environmental practices. It stopped issuing an annual corporate social responsibility report, made few speeches on these topics, and generally laid low.

Beyond that problem, specific to Nike, is the larger issue of whether companies can and should take public credit for being environmental leaders when they (the companies) are far from perfect.

A brief story illustrates the dilemma. Several years ago, I learned that Levi Strauss & Co., which at the time was the largest cotton buyer in the world, had begun sourcing 2% of its annual cotton purchases organically. Levi’s wasn’t planning to manufacture an organic line of jeans (they already had tried that and failed). Rather, they were simply blending it into their conventional cotton purchases. They hoped, over time, to ratchet up its purchases with the aim of helping to grow the market for organic cotton.

This was big news and I wanted to write about it for The Green Business Letter, my monthly newsletter. I contacted Levi’s but was rebuffed; they didn’t want to discuss it on the record. I persevered and eventually prevailed.

When I finally interviewed a Levi’s spokesman, among my first questions was, “Why didn't you want to talk about this?” He explained, in effect: “Look at it from our perspective. If we start promoting this publicly, we need to explain why we’re doing this -- that roughly a fourth of all the chemical pesticides used in the United States are applied to cotton, with all of the environmental and personal health impacts that result. In doing so, we risk our customers saying, ‘So, you mean 98% of your basic materials are bad for people and the environment? Then why only 2% organic? Why not more?’ Because the organic cotton market is so small, we can't even ensure we can maintain 2% every year, so it's less risky for us to be doing this without a lot of fanfare.”

Levi’s is just an example. Most big companies doing similarly innovative environmental things are afraid to talk about them, fearing that doing so will draw unwanted attention to the unaddressed environmental challenges that pretty much all companies have.

Which makes Nike’s environmental claims about Considered all the more remarkable. Given the company’s history of human rights abuses (which appear to be pretty much cleaned up these days), seeking attention for its environmental innovations is a big risk. “That’s nice,” people might say, “but what about those sweatshops?” A valid question, but one that undermines some otherwise leading-edge work.

What’s so great about Considered? Nike says the shoes are made primarily with materials found within 200 miles of the factory, which reduces the energy used for transportation, along with the resulting climate impacts. The manufacturing process reduces solvent use by more than 80% compared with Nike’s typical products. The leather comes from a tannery that recycles wastewater to ensure toxins are kept out of the environment, and it is colored using vegetable-based dyes. Hemp and polyester are used to make the shoe's woven upper and shoelaces. The midsole is cut to lock into the outer sole, reducing the need for toxic adhesives. The shoe's outer sole includes rubber made from recycled factory rubber waste. Most of which are significant departures from how athletic shoes have conventionally been made -- by Nike and everyone else.

Considered is part of a larger effort Nike has been undertaking for several years to reduce waste, eliminate toxic substances, and otherwise lessen the environmental impact of the world's largest athletic shoe manufacturer. (This is where my consulting has played a small role.) The company has a publicly stated goal to “Minimize or eliminate all substances known to be harmful to the health of biological or ecological systems,” and it seems to be making good on that promise. Three examples: Nike is well on its way to eliminating highly toxic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from all of its products; has eliminated more than 90% of the solvents, glues, and other ingredients that are harmful to people and the environment; and is now the world’s largest buyer of organic cotton. Granted, they're far from environmentally perfect, but they seem hellbent on getting there.

It will be interesting to see how the world considers Considered -- whether the public (and the activist community in particular) sees the glass as half full (“Nike has taken some impressive steps, even though it has plenty of room for improvement.”) or half empty (“Nike has no business making environmental claims because it still has problems it hasn’t yet addressed.”)

The verdict, whichever way it goes, will be watched by scores of other leadership companies in similar straits -- companies that have good environmental stories to tell, despite their imperfections, and whose executives ponder the question, “How good is ‘good enough’?”

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They look kinda rustic though, don't they?

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 6 Mar 05

Baby needs a new pair of shoes. Maybe considering Considered is a good idea.

Given the lack of overwhelming success for products like all-help clothing, it's best to praise success wherever it occurs.

Posted by: Paul on 6 Mar 05

Interesting... I ran into the same kind of issue with Costa Coffee (in the UK) and Fairtrade. Costa sell Fairtrade as an option, but don't promote it significantly:

Posted by: Luke Razzell on 7 Mar 05

So Nike is making enviro-friendly shoes. Looks to me like a pretty transparent attempt to rehabilitate their image. Tell me, are these "Considered" shoes made using sweatshop labor found within 200 miles of the factory? And doubtless the manufacturing process reduces worker wages more than 80% compared with Nike’s typical products.

Maybe those are cheap shots, but it raises a question that I'm still wrestling with: when is it okay to purchase products from an untrustworthy company like Nike? Does their new-found religion for the environment cancel out past sins? How do we, as consumers, reward more-or-less positive steps like "Considered" while also making it clear that we're still concerned about labor abuses?

I don't know. I do know that Nike's got a long way to go before I'll spend one thin dime on any of their products, no matter how nifty.

Posted by: Dr_Maturin on 7 Mar 05

I think I'll hold off until they stop using leather! It's weird to me that they go enviro, but still make the shoes out of leather. That's not very enviro, and it's very not hippy (which I would presume is the expected market)! It's like an amazing new nuclear plant powered by locally grown plutonium, so they don't have to ship it too far and waste precious oil.

Posted by: Mike Hommel on 7 Mar 05

It's weird to me that they go enviro, but still make the shoes out of leather.

Why is it weird? Leather is a renewable resource and the article indicates that they've substantially reduced the toxicity of the production process.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 7 Mar 05

leather is natural, renewable, and biodegradable.

this is what i think is weird: most people concerned with sustainability in footwear have a very negative attitude toward nike for numerous and obvious reasons. i haven't bought nike products for many years but the one thing i really miss out on is exceptional athletic clothing and shoes. nike is consistantly years ahead of everyone else in terms of materials and design in high-performance sportswear. there are plenty of options for general purpose footcoverings like this 'considered' line made by companies that i would feel better supporting.

it's a nice step they've taken, but given our long-term resistance to seeing a swoosh on our feet, why would we buy these? now a 'considered' RUNNING shoe would be a whole new story. i do hope that is in round 2.

Posted by: hijiki on 8 Mar 05

Interesting facts about Levis and the organic cotton...goes a long way to explaining the issues around the supply for the company I wrote about a few weeks ago, Loomstate.

Maturin and hijiki, you bring up good points. The question they bring to mind for me is: so what is the incentive for companies like Nike to gradually go green, if consumers will continue to judge them based on past sins that have since been ameliorated? Shouldn't they have an opportunity to "rehabilitate their image?"

In my experience, there's an emotional component to a boycott--I still have a very hard time buying GE products, after absorbing a boycott habit in the 80s over GE's investments in nuclear energy. But GE's getting heavily into wind now; should I buy them to support that? (A simplistic example, given the depth of GE's corporate interests, I realize.) A boycott does no good, ultimately, if the company does not see a return of business after it does the right thing.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 8 Mar 05

i've had the same thoughts on GE, emily. the fact that they are providing high-profile R&D in wind energy is a solid step toward redemption in my mind.

my point is not about boycotting, but marketing and understanding the needs of their demographic. people love the athletic performance that nike designs into their products and this line doesn't utilize that expertise. i would buy 'considered' shoes if they were something more than natural foot-covers that i can already buy from other companies.

to change hearts, they need to offer something new for the market, not just new for nike.

a sustainably produced and recyclable running shoe doesn't exist (that i know of). i would certainly buy them if nike offered them. i just think it's silly to expect ideological conversion based on a very average (in terms of use) shoe.

Posted by: hijiki on 8 Mar 05

If some independent design student came up with the Considered design, worldchanging would feature it as desirable, and golly gee why can't companies make more sustainable products like this. Because it's Nike, however, we see a bunch of handwaving about the *political* aspects.

Once upon a time, I was surprised to learn that McDonald's has done more for humane treatment of livestock than just about any other single entity (besides, maybe the government). The reason? They're not just the market leader, they *are* the market for livestock. External activism and internal reform led McDonalds to demand greater humane treatment and slaughter of livestock from their suppliers, and lo, it was done. Something that no amount of activism alone could do.

There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting sneakers with a swoosh on them, and there's plenty that's inherently good about sneakers designed with sustainability in mind. So here's what you do: You say, yes, that's very good. You've done a good thing, Nike. Now do more good things, because just as we reward you now, we will reward you in the future, too.

Corporations are like children. Give them your values by 'raising' them.

Posted by: Paul on 8 Mar 05

paul, a design student would not get attention for this product because there's nothing new or innovative about it. it's only new for nike. it sounds like you want consumers to bail nike out of their own jail as some kind of charity case.

it's just not that impressive of a product and it's even less impressive when you slap a symbol of corporate greed and inhumanity on it. surely you understand why politics is an issue here as well as nike must. if nike used the innovation we know they are quite capable of and produced sustainable performance athletic shoes, that would be reason to buy in. something new, not simply repackaging and marketing someone else's effort. sure it's a good step, but it's also a tiny, half-hearted one for such a giant. if you prefer the shoes over the competitors', and you're comfortable with the swoosh, then you should buy them and feel good about it, but i don't think you should buy them simply to send a message to an over-grown child.

i disagree with your trivialization of activism. mcdanald's only sponsored more humane treatment after massive public pressure starting with activism. the activism created the response, yet you attribute it to the corporation as their own responsible decision. it was merely a necessary PR move for them. i doubt that they care about humane treatment, they merely had to cut their losses to minimize an impending scandal. more importantly, they have done more for humane treatment of livestock than anyone else simply because they did more harm than anyone else. they still do.

if i were a serial killer who spared the life of one victim because s/he begged and pleaded, would i deserve a reward?

Posted by: hijiki on 9 Mar 05

You guys are misunderstanding my objection to leather - I'm saying I HAVE an objection to leather (i.e. I won't kill animals for food or clothing when there are perfectly great non-animal substitutes), like many people who are big on enviro-stuff. Thus this is a dumb marketing move. They're aiming a product at the one market that is the most likely to find their product completely unacceptable. The only way they could aim it worse is to imprint "I'm a vegetarian!" on the side. Not everybody into environmental issues is against leather, but it's certainly the market with the highest concentration of such people! I think they're not "considering" the market quite as much as they oughtta be.

Posted by: Mike Hommel on 9 Mar 05

If you need to wear dress shoes for work, then you're going to need to wear a vegetarian synthetic of some sort, which is probably petroleum-based with perhaps other sorts of nasty chemicals. From an environmental standpoint, that could be much more damaging to the environment than leather which is produced with far less toxicity than normal leather. And since the whole world isn't going to stop eating meat overnight, there's going to be animal hides out there and they might as well be used.

Again, environmentally, you're comparing renewable with non-renewable, natural with non-natural, and biodegradable with non-biodegradable materials. I used to have these discussions with the vegans in my vegetarian cooking school program, since I felt that butter produced by humanely-raised cows fed with organic feed was far better for your body, as well as the planet, than canola (rapeseed) oil which is an industrial product devoid of any human touch.

What's good for the global environment, what's natural, and what's humane towards animals are often very different things. I think it's a good thing when a big company decides to shift any given paradigm in a positive direction, however token it may seem.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 10 Mar 05

This is a great move for Nike! Maybe not for customer loyalty.

The surface is enviro friendly lovey dovey, but the transparent intention is very apparent for us dumb consumers. The shoes are cheaper to make... and still Nike can charge a premium for it. So their goal is to be more profitable and also trying to win over consumers.

We are not as stupid as marketers think we are.

It's not design ingenuity (it's dead ugly also). It's a "cheap" shot marketing driven lie.

Posted by: Calvin Ho on 10 Mar 05



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