The household brand, Nike, is making strides to become more sustainable, but how much does their work extend beyond an eye-catching sustainability site? Compared to other mainstream fast-fashion brands such as Zara, on the surface, Nike does seem to be making a genuine effort towards implementing sustainability goals and following through with them. Nike has public data reported via Microsoft Excel to supplement their company sustainability report. While Nike’s sustainability report documents their ambitious yearly goals and current environmental and social programs, their data tells a different story. Though Nike is bringing creativity to the table by hosting climate change discussions with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Billie Eilish, the company has a significant amount of work yet to do.
Transparency is an important factor in environmental and social sustainability. However, Nike’s website only lists the recycled materials included in the shoe which may have to do with the fact that it is reported within their sustainability design site. The materials explicitly mentioned include 100% recycled polyester laces and at least 20% recycled materials by weight. The speckles on the rubber outsole are made from Nike Grind, a recycled waste from footwear manufacturing scraps. Nike’s Impact Report Datasheet proves that their methods of repurposing and recycling are not enough. Data from 2020 showed only 1% of cotton, 1% of Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate (EVA) Foam (sole material), and 20% of the polyester is recycled. In addition to this, Nike reports using “environmentally preferred” rubber which is based on a specification they create and define by using certain chemical formulations. From 2019 to 2020, data shows that landfill waste has increased while materials recycled have actually decreased.
The Nike Air Force 1 ‘07 LX shoes are said to be responsibly designed, utilizing recycled materials from post-consumer and post-manufactured waste. One of Nike’s goals is to be smarter with their materials as they account for more than 70% of any product’s footprint. Nike emphasizes that by reusing plastics, yarns, and textiles, they are significantly reducing their emission, so their goal is to use as many recycled materials as possible without comprising performance, durability, and style. Well, according to their data, they could only compromise 1% of cotton, 1% of Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate (EVA) Foam (sole material), and 20% of polyester. With this data in mind, they also state how they have made great progress in three key materials: cotton, recycled polyester, and leather. Since Nike states that they rely on their own proprietary assessment tools to measure their sustainability performance, they can perceive any of their changes to be the greatest difference in the world. The perception of their sustainability practices is what we see marketed on their website.
NIKE’s Code of Conduct prohibits forced, prison, and indentured labor. They also have specific supplier requirements to address the risks of forced labor. Such requirements include prohibiting workers to pay fees for employment and providing terms and conditions to employees prior to starting work. One of the ways Nike sources employee feedback is through their Engagement Survey program, but questions regarding one’s “emotional engagement with the company” due to the pandemic seem to be of greater pertinence to Nike than gaining an understanding of whether employees feel respected at work, which can be obtained by asking hard questions such as: “do you feel respected and safe at Nike?”.
Nike’s goals include introducing programs designed to address risks in their supply chain to eliminate and prevent forced labor specifically for vulnerable groups such as foreign migrant workers. Nike says they will advocate for meaningful improvements to laws governing responsible employment for vulnerable workers. To supplement this, Nike mentions the reports of forced labor connected to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China and states that they do not source products from there. For context, XUAR produces around a fifth of the world’s cotton supply, being the largest exporter of textiles and apparel. Although Nike says they will continue to address issues surrounding labor, much of the programs and requirements they have already set in place are inadequate, and certainly not worth striving for. Nike needs to be more transparent on the working conditions of their workers, stricter with who they partner with, and implement programs with direct and traceable benefits for their employees. In terms of advocating for meaningful improvements for vulnerable workers, Nike can start by taking real action by partnering with NGOs to change what is happening in XUAR.