The Nike Cosmic Unity is Nike’s newest offering in their basketball division. The Cosmic Unity is also Nike’s first foray into producing a sustainability-minded basketball shoe. Nike proudly claims that this shoe is comprised of 25% recycled materials, representing huge material savings. Nike also attempted to minimize materials where possible to further reduce the environmental impact of the shoe. However, a price tag of $150 for a non-signature shoe, I am personally dubious about how well the Cosmic Unity will fare in stores.
The Cosmic Unity is made of the same materials as every other Nike basketball model. Rubber for the outsole, plastic components for the Zoom air, and various synthetics comprise the upper. However, this model differs in the exact composition of the materials. The Cosmic Unity features a full-length Zoom Air Strobel to provide maximum, yet responsive, cushioning. Nike made a neat innovation with the Zoom Air by making the decision to stitch the unit directly to the midsole instead of encasing it in foam. By doing so, Nike eliminated the use of difficult-to-recycle synthetic foam and also increased the responsiveness of the Zoom Air by placing it closer to the athlete’s foot. Nike does use foam in the midsole, but used a more sustainable material. Nike implemented their new Crater Foam, which is largely recycled foam with bits of Nike Grind rubber- which is rubber that has been sourced from worn out shoes. Nike really went to impressive lengths to make this shoe sustainable.
In the shoe’s upper, Nike is vague on the recycled components used, but contend that the upper is “at least 20%” recycled material by weight. Furthermore, Nike used a thin and sleek design to minimize the amount of material even needed to create the shoe. Lastly, for the Cosmic Unity’s outsole, Nike used rubber that was melted and infused with recycled rubber from their Nike Grind initiative.
Nike’s basketball shoes are made by a process called “Cold Cement Construction.” At first, the shoe’s upper is constructed, and then steamed. Simultaneously, Nike pours rubber into a mold to create the outsole. Nike’s Zoom Air creates another resource-intensive step. The Air units must be constructed and inserted into the base of the outsole. The Air units require plastic pellets are made into sheets using a special heat and pressure treatment. Polyurethane and pressurized gas are injected into the rubber units to create Zoom Air.
Now with the upper and outsole completed, they are coated with primer and cement. Special machines pull the front and back of the outsole just over the edge of the upper to create a snug, unified piece. Three separate pressing operations are conducted to ensure that the upper is melded tightly to the outsole. Lastly, the shoes are placed in a cooling tunnel to set the glue.
The Nike Cosmic Unity requires additional production steps in order to collect the recycled materials and blend them into the new raw materials to create hybrid-recycled materials for the shoe. Nike does not disclose these additional steps, but I am curious if the energy needed to extract the recyclable materials and then “blend” them into the raw materials is an energy intensive process that inherently reduces the overall energy savings that result from using recycled materials. At the very least, Nike is still staying true to their word- they promised a shoe made of recycled materials, not a shoe made using significantly less energy.
Nike has been embroiled in numerous allegations over the past 20 years in regards to their use of East Asian sweatshops to produce products. In 2016, Nike was reported for exceptionally poor working conditions at their Hansae Vietnam factory. In 2020, the Washington Post reported that some of Nike’s Chinese factories were operated with forced labor from the Uyghur minority group; a group that the United States government has officially accused China of committing genocide against. Needless to say, Nike has a less-than-clean track record.
In terms of eco-friendliness, Nike claims that 76% of their footwear includes recycled materials and that 99.9% of footwear manufacturing waste is converted to energy or recycled. “Converted to energy” however, can simply be a coded term for incineration, which also releases harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. Despite Nike’s flaws, the company has joined RE100, a group of businesses that pledge to use 100% renewable energy. The Nike Cosmic Unity boosts Nike’s rating here. By introducing a shoe marketed around its sustainability into its largest and most lucrative market (basketball), Nike is taking a strong stance about their future and their beliefs as an organization. However, this does not absolve them of greenwashing elsewhere in their environmental report.
Nike reports that in North America, their plants are 100% powered by renewable energy and plans are in place to make their European operations 100% renewable-reliant by 2020. However, Nike does not make note of their Asian operations, which is problematic considering the vast majority of their products are produced in Asia. As a large corporation that traditionally relies on unsustainable practices, I do believe that Nike is taking appropriate steps toward become a more eco-friendly producer of goods.