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Nike Makes a Play for ‘Carbon-Negative’ Footwear

Footwear is seeing a negative trend—a carbon-negative one, that is.

As climate anxiety begins to peak, more shoemakers are desperate to overhaul a supply chain increasingly drawing flak for spewing pollution and shoveling waste into overflowing landfills. One popular tack is finding nature-inspired substitutes for materials made from fossil fuels. And innovation appears to be if not the answer, then one of them at least.

On Wednesday, Nike announced that it has inked a partnership with AirCarbon manufacturer Newlight Technologies to explore the possibility of adding the California firm’s carbon-negative plastic-and-leather alternative into its swoosh-stamped lineup. A bioplastic made by mixing captured greenhouse gases, such as methane, with microorganisms in a bioreactor, AirCarbon has insinuated itself into a host of applications, including a line of purses, wallets, sunglasses and smartphone covers that Newlight markets under the high-end label Covalent.

Nike said it will experiment with AirCarbon in a variety of ways with the goal of creating products that are “better for athletes and the planet.” The sportswear juggernaut, which recently copped a C-minus from environmental campaigners for its climate efforts, has promised to slash greenhouse emissions by 65 percent in owned-or-operated spaces and by 30 percent across its extended supply chain by 2030. Part of its strategy is bumping up its use of so-called “environmentally preferred” materials to half of all key components.

AirCarbon pellets and AirCarbon leather by Newlight Technologies.

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“AirCarbon offers an opportunity to further reduce our impact on the planet,” Noel Kinder, the Just Do It company’s chief sustainability officer, said in a statement. “Materials account for 70 percent of Nike’s total carbon footprint, and we’re accelerating our efforts and exploring new opportunities in this space because, in the race against climate change, we can’t wait for solutions, we have to work together to create them.”

Newlight employs naturally occurring microorganisms from the ocean that enjoy chowing down on air and greenhouse gases. The digested bits are converted into an “energy storage” polymer, known as polyhydroxybutyrate, that comprises by weight roughly 40 percent oxygen from the air and 60 percent carbon from greenhouse gases. This is essentially the stuff AirCarbon is made of. Certified carbon negative by SCS Global Services, meaning it pulls more carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere than it produces, AirCarbon can be melted down to create numerous forms, whether fibers, sheets or solid shapes.

“Our mission is change at scale, and there are few better partners in the world than Nike to help achieve that,” said Newlight CEO Mark Herrema. “We are excited to explore how AirCarbon can help Nike decarbonize its products and achieve its ambitious carbon-reduction goals.”

Canadian footwear purveyor Sole, meanwhile, is approaching the petrochemical problem from underfoot. On Thursday, the company feted CO₂negative, an initiative to “promote and facilitate” accurate climate-impact labeling on consumer products and certify carbon-negative goods. Sole is also launching, in tandem, its first CO₂negative Certified Carbon Negative collection: the Performance footbed collection. Its secret ingredient is ReCork, made from castoff wine corks that have been ground down and reformed.

A single Performance Medium footbed, Sole said, has a carbon impact of -2.28 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, meaning that the product’s creation knocks that amount of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. Products created using enough cork will often be carbon negative, the brand noted, because cork trees are carbon-trapping fiends, sequestering an average of 55 kilograms of CO₂ for every kilogram of cork harvested. Cork is also removed without cutting down the tree, which is another plus.

Sole ReCork
Sole’s Performance Medium footbed has a carbon impact of -2.28 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent. Courtesy

Sole’s CO₂negative program, it added, will offer carbon-negative certification to any product or company that has demonstrably offset its impacts by a minimum of 110 percent. Sole itself has pledged to be carbon negative starting in 2022 by offsetting 110 percent of its emissions from 2021 through ReCork tree-planting initiatives. Carbon offsets as a climate solution are a controversial issue, with critics of the schemes saying people are essentially paying to pollute. Businesses frequently rely on them, however, to meet emissions-reduction goals that would otherwise be out of reach. There’s usually a hierarchy of mitigation involved—whatever cannot be avoided, minimized or rectified is offset.

“Simply reducing harm is not enough, we need to repair and remediate the damage that has been done to our planet,” Mike Baker, founder and CEO of Sole, Recork and CO₂negative, said in a statement.