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Nike’s Move to Zero Mission Gives Underwear an Overhaul

Nike’s Move to Zero initiative is zeroing in on undies.

The sportswear Goliath unveiled last week the Nike Dri-Fit ReLuxe men’s boxer brief, which comprises at least 75 percent recycled polyester to reduce waste and carbon emissions. German footballer and FC Bayern Munich winger Leroy Sané will be the face of a new campaign to highlight Nike’s latest effort to transition to net-zero carbon emissions and “help protect the future of sport.”

The Reluxe fabric, the Swoosh firm said, was created “for the everyday athlete and inspired by the outdoors and nature.” It’s designed to wick sweat away, keeping its wearer “dry and confident throughout the day.”

Move to Zero has already inspired a line of sneakers, dresses, hoodies, T-shirts, joggers and shorts featuring reclaimed materials and efficient manufacturing methods, but it doesn’t relate only to products. Unveiled during Climate Week NYC in 2019, the initiative promises to power all Nike-owned and -operated facilities with 100 percent renewable energy by 2025, and to reduce Nike’s global supply-chain emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The Oregon firm says it already diverts 99 percent of its footwear-manufacturing waste from landfills and recovers more than 1 billion plastic bottles per year to create yarns for new jerseys and uppers for its Flyknit shoes. Both its Reuse-A-Shoe and Nike Grind programs transform waste into new products, playgrounds and running tracks.

“At Nike, we believe that climate change is the defining issue of our generation,” Noel Kinder, the company’s chief sustainability officer, said at the program’s launch. “And the reality is if there’s no planet, there’s no sport, and as you can imagine, sport is very important to us.”

Producing recycled polyester is less carbon-intensive than its virgin counterpart, which is a plus. But some environmental campaigners have cast doubt on its environmental bonafides. In July, the Changing Markets Foundation published a report describing textiles made from plastic bottles as a “false solution” and a “one-way street” to the landfill or incinerator because they’re difficult to recycle again at scale. Although many brands have increasingly adopted recycled polyester as an “easy fix,” fiber-to-fiber recycling remains “minuscule,” representing 0.1 percent to 1 percent of material use.

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“Indeed, because mechanical recycling makes the fiber lose its strength, recycled PET clothes are not guaranteed to be infinitely recyclable, and often lose durability when repurposed multiple times,” the report’s authors wrote. “In other words, downcycling PET bottles to clothes is not a circular solution, and eventually these products end up in [the] landfill. In comparison, PET bottles can be recycled back into PET bottles many times if they are part of clean, separated waste streams.”

With legislation from the European Union and elsewhere mandating recycled content targets for plastic bottles, any competition from apparel production will disrupt the amount of recyclable PET feedstock being used for bottle-to-bottle recycling, the Changing Markets Foundation said. The concept of recycled synthetics also doesn’t address the problem of “perpetuating disposable solutions and overconsumption of natural resources.”

“While it is crucial for the industry to ramp up investment and focus efforts on truly circular recycling technologies, the only way to bring down the growing waste and plastic-pollution crisis—which these industry tactics supposedly aim to achieve—is to curtail overproduction in the first place,” the authors said.

Some brands are trying to shake off their own reliance on petrochemicals, both virgin and recycled, by investing in plant-based alternatives such as bio-based nylon, leaning into time-tested materials like wool or experimenting with fibers made from eucalyptus pulp or food waste. The urgency to decarbonize fashion has become more urgent in light of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which sounded a “code red for humanity.”

“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned earlier this month. “Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.”