Leather. Nylon. EVA foam. Knit polyester yarn. These are the materials of shoes today. But Nike wants to get in at the ground floor of the textiles (and the companies making the textiles) of tomorrow. You see, about 60% of the environmental impact from a pair of Nike shoes is sunk into its materials. When you consider that such a figure must also account for production and shipment, you realize there’s a lot of fat to be trimmed.
So Nike, in a partnership with NASA, the U.S. State Department. and USAID, is launching a search for the minds creating undiscovered, sustainable textiles of the future. It’s the latest crusade generated by Nike’s fourth Launch Challenge (which have previously focused on innovation across topics like health and water). And over the next few months, the coalition will be paring down pitches to ten textile fabricators they believe could seriously impact widespread industry. Maybe they require less raw materials to create. Maybe they use less manufacturing resources, like water, to produce. The possibilities are completely up in the air, so long as chemists can dream them.
"When you look at innovation in materials, of course there are innovations, but many are incremental, not disruptive," Nike’s VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation, Hannah Jones, explains. "When you go into the disruptive area, it comes down to chemistry. And when you go into the chemistry industry, they say ‘textiles are a miniscule part of our business.’ So the the amount of R&D chemists puts into materials is minute."
Even with a sound idea (or chemical compound), mass producing that compound can be impossible without serious industrial support. So the team is specifically looking for working material prototypes that merely need the right injection from VCs or a business model tweak to scale.
The hope is that the funded textiles could offset the waste involved in the world’s 400 billion square meters of fabric produced every year. And of course, Nike could end up with a series of new startups to add to their portfolio—companies that are conveniently capable of producing materials to improve Nike’s core products.
"We want to find a time that we can make close-looped products that can be entirely recycled," Jones teases. Indeed, what a wonderful thing that would be for the world. And so highly profitable for Nike.