The Nike KD 13 basketball shoe is one of Nike’s many offerings in the athletic shoe market. The shoe is priced at $150, which is more expensive than a majority of Nike’s other basketball sneakers. The Nike KD 13 is made using common shoe-producing processes, most of which are very energy and resource intensive. Throughout this article, I will also discuss the way Nike is making very big strides toward sustainability, but that most of these efforts are not concentrated in their basketball performance division as of now. Nike also does not offer significant information regarding the processes and materials used in the construction of their basketball shoes, which left me to rely on outside sources to evaluate the sustainability of the KD 13. This shoe is made using “minimal material” for the upper, but is still produced using unsustainable synthetics and has a Zoom Air unit that requires a lot of heat energy and plastic to make. Furthermore, this shoe does not make any headway in using sustainable sources and is overall made using energy and resource-intensive processes. Nike as a manufacturer, although making headway in their corporate sustainability in the US and Europe, has not claimed to move toward renewable energy in Asia, where the majority of their goods are made and energy is used. Nike also has serious workers’ rights abuse allegations, so together, it is fitting that this product receives only a 1.3 overall rating.
The Nike KD 13 boasts of utilizing a full-length Zoom Air unit and an additional Zoom Air unit in the forefoot. Zoom Air is Nike’s cushioning technology, which can be described simplistically as plastic pouches that help absorb contact. The upper of the shoe is described as being made of “minimal materials”, though this is not done in the name of resource conservation, but to give the shoe a “broken-in feel” that makes the shoe “court-ready right out of the box”. The Sneaker Brief reports that the KD 13’s upper is composed of 2 layers, a nylon base for support and a simple canvas-like material overlay. The KD 13 utilizes Nike’s standard rubber outsole. Overall, Nike utilized many of their signature elements, such as Zoom Air and a TPU mid-foot plate. In the creation of this shoe, Nike did not make any significant strides in using recycled materials or sustainable practices.
Overall, Nike’s sustainable materials, such as Fly Knit, are not suitable for basketball shoes. The material is simply too weak to contain the forces generated on the foot during a basketball game. This leaves consumers in a bind: purchase a less-than-sustainable product to maximize performance, or buy from a more sustainable brand that might have weaker materials. I believe that other Nike basketball shoes are more sustainable because they avoid using the double-stacked Air Zoom unit found in the KD 13. This part of the production process seems to be the most resource intensive, so choosing a product with less cushioning can be beneficial not only from an environmental perspective, but also a performance perspective. Less Zoom Air gives shoes a more low-cut profile and increases court feel and responsiveness, which are of great importance for guards and perimeter players.
Nike does not have a great history of producing environmentally-friendly and sustainable products. Manufacturing shoes is simply a resource and energy intensive process. Oil must be processed to create rubber and plastic parts. Synthetic materials often require additional treatments. 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.
Nike does not disclose the individual machines and processes used to produce their shoes, but they do note some exciting innovations that are pushing the company toward a more sustainable future. Nike announced the implementation of laser cutters, which in place of traditional die cutting, is expected to reduce footwear material waste by more than 1 million kilograms annually. Nike reports that the average US citizen produces 4.4 pounds of waste per day, meaning that the material savings from using laser cutters is the equivalent of over 500,000 Americans producing zero waste for one day. Furthermore, Nike has pledged to ensure that over 50% of footwear waste is recycled, which is substantial, given that Nike footwear accounts for two thirds of their manufacturing waste.
Although Nike has faced difficulties implementing their renowned Fly Knit technology in basketball shoes, Nike has begun using Fly Knit for many running and lifestyle shoes. Fly Knit is now made using 100% recycled polyester. Overall, Nike is attempting to create a more sustainable supply chain, but many aspects of shoe production simply remain resource and energy-intensive.
I give the Nike KD 13’s production process 1.2/3 planets because the processes are very energy intensive, involve the use of many chemicals, and also requires the use of non-recycled and non-reusable materials. I do not see the production process as having great potential to be more sustainable (although using renewable energy in Nike’s Chinese manufacturing factories would help). However, progression in Nike’s development of durable, recycled materials that are strong enough to create basketball shoe has great potential to improve Nike’s sustainability.
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. 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.
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