Why Nike and MIT see textiles as material to climate change

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By Joel Makower

Sutterstock: optimarc
Sutterstock: optimarc

Nike has just come out of the starting gate with some new initiatives aimed at taming its corporate and supply-chain footprint, and as usual it has hit the ground running.

Its latest sprint includes a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Materials Challenge seeking “revolutionary new ideas” on innovative and low-impact fabrics and textiles, a commitment to fully power its company-owned and operated facilities with renewable energy within a decade. Oh, and an updated app so that your company can follow in Nike’s footsteps.

The MIT announcements represents the next chapter between the two organizations to study the environmental and social impacts of the key materials used to make most apparel and footwear products: cotton, polyester, leather and rubber. An MIT report, commissioned by Nike and released last week, looks at and quantifies the impacts and key hotspots where these materials have significant climate and other environmental impacts.

“There’s been a big missing part of the story around climate, which is that people have not understood the footprint of where fossil fuels show up as an imbedded part of a sector, and in particular in materials,” Hannah Jones, Nike’s chief sustainability officer and VP, innovation accelerator, told me last week. The report’s goal, she said, was “to galvanize the material industry and the chemical industry that supports them into change.”

Jones explained that despite a tremendous amount of work already being undertaken by Nike and other footwear and apparel companies, “We really need to kickstart a much bigger conversation with the industry as a whole and start to send signals to the materials vendors and the chemical companies that do the inventing behind them.”

Nike has opened a portal within MIT’s CoLab, a crowdsourcing platform “where citizens work with experts and each other to create, analyze, and select detailed proposals for what to do about climate change.” The CoLab, housed within the school’s Center for Collective Intelligence, hosts “contests,” each focusing on a Big Question related to climate change — for example, the hardware, software and business models that can increase urban energy efficiency; actions that can address energy-water nexus challenges; and how to mitigate the urban heat island effect — more than two dozen altogether, though participation in some is light.

On Friday, the CoLab began accepting proposals for “revolutionary new ideas for how to engage industries, designers and consumers in valuing, demanding and adopting low-impact fabrics and textiles.”

Material evidence

The climate and other environmental impacts of clothing and footwear don’t usually rank up there with coal-fired power plants, cement manufacturing and — well, smog-spewing Volkswagens — as major contributors to climate change. But as the new MIT report points out, the impacts aren’t trivial. Example: The emissions associated with a single T-shirt is roughly equal to the carbon footprint of driving a passenger car for 10 miles.

That puts the materials community — the companies, industries and individuals who work with or make decisions around materials — “in a unique position to enable sustainable patterns of consumption,” says the report.

The industry’s clout is driven by its size. The global apparel industry produces more than 150 billion garments in a typical year — equivalent to more than 20 new articles of clothing for every person on the planet — and is a $1.8 trillion market. In 2015, the industry is projected to use nearly 100 million tons of fiber and filament yarns, about 40 percent agriculturally derived (cotton, wool, etc.) and 60 percent petroleum-based synthetics (polyester, nylon and various blends). Both have climate impacts.

And then there’s water. It takes several dozen gallons — more than 400 pounds — to process just one pound of textiles, according to a 2009 study. Given that footwear and apparel manufacturing is concentrated in a handful of regions, that can lead to significant water stresses. For example, in 2009, textile production ranked third among major industries in China in terms of total wastewater discharge, primarily from the dyeing and finishing steps of manufacturing.

All of which, says Jones, “is a major concern, and it’s also a major business opportunity.”

Jones views the MIT challenge as a means of unearthing innovative solutions — new technologies, novel materials and the like — but beyond that, she says, “We’re really looking at it from a system-change perspective and at how we can kickstart this revolution in the materials industry.”

This is hardly the first initiative by Nike to transform its industry and supply chain. Indeed, the company’s materials and manufacturing innovation initiatives and achievements, led by Jones, has a long history, as we’ve reported for years. The company is one of the top buyers of organic cotton. Its factories have moved to water- and chemical-free dyeing. It has stopped sourcing leather from the Amazon rainforest. It has recycled countless millions of plastic bottles into garments. It has been on a journey to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals throughout its supply chain.

And the company has shared its innovations, from scoring the environmental attributes of materials to sharing patents. A few years ago, Nike partnered with NASA and two other U.S. federal agencies to identify game-changing innovations, such as sustainable fabrics, or how to transform waste systems in both developed and developing countries.

Walking a fine line

Two years ago, the company publically released an app, called Making, to allow designers to research fabrics or materials on such things as water consumption, chemistry, energy and waste. Last week, Nike released an updated 3.0 version of the app, which includes comparisons of the energy used and greenhouse gases created during the production of each material.

I asked Jones how the company walks a fine line between sharing such information and staying a step ahead in a fiercely competitive sector.

“It’s definitely a delicate balance,” she said. “And we’re constantly walking along that line of where is this competitive and where is this pre-competitive? As a sustainability practitioner, I actually love it when things become competitive because that means it’s going mainstream. It means that it’s a pull from the market versus us pushing.”

But much of this transcends competition, she says. “We do the industry a whole lot of good by actually helping create clarity and standards and transparency around the footprints. We build industry coalitions. Oh, and by the way, we’re absolutely going to compete on some of the other things.”

Nike is far from alone in seeking materials innovations. Patagonia, for one, has been continually pushing the limits of innovation — everything from “ethical goose down” to Yulex, a substitute to petroleum-based neoprene for wetsuits, derived from guayule plants indigenous to the southwestern United States. Kering, which owns brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent and Puma, last year opened a Materials Innovation Lab in Northern Italy, dedicated to helping making more sustainable choices in their supply chains and products. Adidas announced last week that it will use worn-out cleats and combine them with scrap materials from other industries to make new cleats.

Increasingly, such innovations are coming from sources outside the company walls. “Somebody once said to me, ‘There are a lot of really smart people out there. And most of them don’t work for you,’” says Jones. And, she adds, some innovations even come from outside the sector, requiring Nike to tap nontraditional sources for innovation. The CoLab challenge is part of that effort.

“You need to fail early and fail fast many, many times to get to the one thing that you can change and disrupt an entire market,” says Jones. For example, she says, Nike approached a number of companies asking, “Can we knit an upper using 3D geometry and complex algorithms that will help the athlete and support the foot?” It took many iterations until they succeeded.

Says Jones: “We fell forward all the time on that one. It’s now a major platform for the whole company. And it’s having a massive impact on waste reduction.”

Clearly, Jones is thinking big. “My end goal is ultimately creating an entirely closed-loop business model,” she told me, adding that the making of materials will be key to reaching the goal of “renewable, reusable materials that have an infinite life and that can be re-launched and rebuilt. And do that at scale.”

Another goal, she might have added, is to make sure that mindset becomes mainstream, the way the race is run.

*This story first appeared on GreenBiz.

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