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How Nike Embraced Sustainability and Labor Rights

Eric Sprunk, chief operating officer at Nike, wasn’t always the champion of sustainability he is today. In fact, getting to the point was an occasionally fraught journey.

Speaking at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in Denmark in May, Sprunk recounted how the sportswear giant, still bruising from a spate of bad publicity over its labor practices in Asia in the early ‘90s, hit another snag when it realized it was buoying its cushioned heels and soles with a potent greenhouse gas.

“We knew we had to transition to a more climate-friendly solution,” Sprunk said. “[But] at first I admit to being a bit reluctant to pursue this course of action because I was having a hard time figuring out how it made business sense.”

Hannah Jones, Nike’s chief sustainability officer, however, proved to be “quite persuasive,” he said.

It took about 14 years and tens of millions of R&D dollars before Nike perfected a way to create SP6-free air pockets, but the brand now holds up its Air range as proof that you can embrace environmental responsibility without skimping on performance or profitability.

Air, Sprunk said, is now Nike’s “most sustainable platform,” with soles that contain at least 50 percent recycled material. He’s especially proud of the Air VaporMax, a shoe that’s comprised not only of a sole that is 75 percent recycled but also an upper made from 100 percent recycled yarns, knit together for minimal waste.

“It’s a beautiful example of innovation and design in sustainability that delivers performance to athletes in an unprecedented way,” Sprunk said. “We would not have gotten where we are today without being driven by sustainability.”

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Going clear

For Sprunk and Jones, the next “massive shift” proved to be transparency, which Nike took a crack at in 2005 by voluntarily disclosing the locations of its contract factories.

“Once again, it’s possible I needed a little bit of encouragement from my friend Hannah,” Sprunk said. “But that was a watershed moment for us, internally and externally, helping us pave the way for continued innovation and industry collaboration.”

Three years later, Nike made headlines after an investigation revealed allegations of abuse and wage garnishment at one of its Malaysian contract factories. A few months after that, 1,800 laborers lost their jobs in Honduras after two factories that made shirts for the brand suddenly shuttered—without paying the workers the $2 million in severance and unemployment assistance they were owed by law.

“We decided to do a Nike-wide review of how we could influence improvements in working conditions in all of our contract factories,” Sprunk said. “At the conclusion of that review, we determined the most powerful shift we could make was changing our own culture and rewiring our organization.”

From then on, Nike decided to embed sustainability within its business, making the sourcing and manufacturing team accountable for the impact of the company’s decisions on the health and well-being of workers in its factories.

“This revolutionized how we think,” Sprunk said. “It led us to change our entire business strategy to reduce our supply-chain partners in favor of those who shared our vision. To invest in lean manufacturing, to experiment in new models of compensation for our workforce, and to think about our country’s sourcing strategies completely different than we have been.”

Nike also changed the way it rewarded and penalized its factory partners, “locking their business success into the metrics of labor rights and sustainability,” he added.

Today, Sprunk sees a larger purpose to Nike’s work, which is to “use the power of sport to move the world forward.”

Lean and green

In the years since, Nike engineered the Flyknit technology, which manufactures uppers in a single, seamless piece and leaves behind 60 percent less waste. It created the open-source Nike Materials Sustainability Index, which catalogs and compares 57,000 different materials from more than 700 vendors. And it’s one of the world’s biggest users of recycled polyester.

“Since 2012, we have diverted more than 5 billion plastic bottles, including 1 billion in the past year alone, from landfills and recycled them into new fabrics,” Sprunk said.

Most recently, Nike debuted Flyleather, a composite material, derived from ground leather scraps, that uses 90 percent less water than traditional full-grain leather. It’s also five times more abrasion resistant and 40 percent lighter than its conventional counterpart.

“Since Nike’s vision is to elevate human potential, and because we have the brand, the scale and the resources to make a global impact, we recognize we have a responsibility to partner and help with this transfer,” Sprunk said. “And we embrace that opportunity.”

As the fashion industry pivots toward a circular economy, Nike is also taking a deeper look at its products’ end of life. With its Nike Grind program, which turns castoff trainers and other factory scrap into athletic or recreational surfaces, the company has so far saved about 33 million pairs of shoes from the landfill.

But that’s only the beginning, Sprunk said. 

To take Nike Grind to the next level, we launched the Nike Circular Innovation Challenge, our biggest-ever innovation competition for sustainability,” he said. “Through the challenge, we invited makers, designers, and engineers to help us turn Nike Grind into new products, as well as develop new technologies to advance footwear recycling.”

Nike is now sifting through hundreds of applications to reveal a winner, which it will announce this fall.

The future of sport

Sprunk says that Nike, as a sporting company, can get a “little bit competitive,” but he also believes in the power of collaboration.

“At Nike, we have a belief we can innovate our way through any problem, but the problems we have talked about today and yesterday are extraordinarily challenging and extraordinarily complex,” Sprunk said. “Every single one of us has a role to play, because if we dare to design the future, we must do it together.”

Tackling the hurdles ahead will require a united front from all stakeholders, he added—no single company, person, or government should expect to do it alone.

“Seizing this opportunity is one of the greatest challenges of our time,” Sprunk said. “Together, we can transform the industry by reducing our footprints, collaborating on innovative partnerships, and reinventing our supply chains, all with the ultimate vision to create an industry fit for the 21st century.”

At the same time, there’s a through line of pragmatism that connects all of Nike’s endeavors.

I believe we also have a responsibility to maintain an environment where all athletes can train, live and thrive,” he said. “If we can’t run outside because of pollution, flooding or fire, or we don’t have clean water to drink, or if our children don’t have a place or a chance to play, then we don’t have sport.”