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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