Nike Makes Space-Age Sustainable Materials Data Available To All

The shoe company has a lot of data about different materials, where to get them, and what they do to the planet. And now they’re making that info available to try to improve the world’s supply chains.

Like the electronics industry, the footwear and apparel industries are plagued by opaque supply chains with questionable environmental (and human rights) impacts. But when companies like Nike—accused in the past of using sweatshops—starts making changes, it’s a sign of a larger shift.

Nike announced this week the Nike Open Challenge for Sustainable Materials, which asks anyone who might be interested to use its dataset of sustainable materials (developed over the past eight years) to "let anyone select materials beautifully, simply, and accurately, based on sustainability," according to Random Hacks of Kindness, Nike’s partner in the challenge. Ultimately, RHOK imagines a tool that could let manufacturers compare non-organic cotton from a great supplier to organic cotton from a decent supplier on the fly.

Says RHOK: "We’re specifically focusing on tools that can engage designers, developers, etc. to make better decisions, and that incentivize suppliers to give better visibility to their practices. Think of every company that uses materials to make something: with this data you have the potential to change what they make, for the better."

Even if you don’t have the chops to develop a tool for the Open Challenge, Nike still may have some useful information for you: the company’s recently launched Material Choice and Impact site. We can see, for example, that Nike’s nylon women’s shorts have a high waste and water impact, but don’t have much of a chemistry or energy impact.

A women’s cotton hoodie is high on waste impact and low impact on everything else. But here’s where it gets tricky. A women’s organic cotton hoodie is just as high impact on waste—but has a higher energy and chemistry impact than its non-organic counterpart. Even the seemingly better choice has its drawbacks.

At the very least, however, the Nike Open Challenge may yield a tool to give manufacturers the option to take sustainability into consideration—along with quality and price—instead of leaving it as an afterthought.

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  • nell

    This is great, but what is Nike doing about the sweatshops thing? It's nice that they're trying to go green but personally I'm more concerned about the human impact of my sneakers before I'm thinking about energy/chemistry/water/waste. Not trivializing the importance of those issues, but curious what Nike is doing to address their rep for sweatshops.

  • QuestBFS

    After checking out the "
     Material Choice and Impact' site I have some questions, the main one being how are things calculated such as water usage?

    The example being a wool hoodie.  Obviously the sheep drink some water to make the wool to make the hoodie.  Then the wool has to be cleaned with presumably more water.  So how can making a wool hoodie be low on water usage?

    Then post consumer rating on the site is also interesting.  That too is a mistery on how it is calculated.  I'm assuming there is some kind of formula.  I'd think a brand like Nike could score really well in some of these areas by just having their name on the product and the product being reused. Example:  Someone buys a new wool hoodie.  Because it is Nike or a brand name the hoodie is then used by 2 other North American Citizens.  It is then donated to a relief effort for a 3rd world country.  The hoodie is then warn for several more years before it is disposed of in a fire (low environmental impact because it is substituted for cooking fuel, used as pet bedding, or is cut up and reused into other items.  

    A non-brand item may only be used once.  

    I'm not saying this is what happens all the time, but I'd say it does happen... at least to some degree at our house.

  • Austinfd

    I'm reading the chart differently. The WOOL score for water is 0 or very near to it. The entire bar is cross-hatched meaning it has a high environmental impact, and a low MSI (material sustainability index).
    Water is a huge issue for all textiles - not just cultivation or hydration, but dyeing as well.