Co.Design

Nike Accelerates 10 Materials Of The Future

Every year, Nike brings experts of the world together to tackle a new problem. This year’s challenge: finding sustainable textiles that could revolutionize the shoe industry.

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.

Learn more here.

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7 Comments

  • Commnt8r

    The Biomimicry 3.8 Institute just finished a semester long project at the UC Berkeley Green Chemistry Center, working on a challenge to detoxify garment manufacturing. More to come ....

  • Mike Harrop

    Natural materials... let's not forget that natural fibers also have a big footprint - water, land, agri-chemicals, agricultural labor exploitation, industrial processing, energy, political trade-offs, corruption, value of the crops you're replacing, crop yield and cost  unpredictability, transport, etc. The true ecological footprint may be worse than that of synthetic materials. Of course, making just about anything is bad for the planet, so it's a question of making it 'less worse'.
    Design... we really need a disrupt. About 80% of the material in a shoe is not a direct contributor to its primary functions, and/or can be down-graded to something with smaller footprint, maybe even to some creatively re-purposed waste product. Of course, one may need to improve the 20% so it's able to hold the 80% together, but those are simply design trade-offs. One's really trying to break out of the current functional overkill in the choice of materials for 80% of the shoe. Whenever one is using the same material for both functional and filler parts of a product, that's material overkill. Materials-based design needs to be replaced by functionality-based design. Great materials breakthroughs always lead to design laziness.

  • joe

    exactly: hemp. if chemistry then think about bio-chemistry. there's a whole lot of bio-fibers waiting to be used and composited, instead of the nylon and other synthetic petrol derivates. wouldn't it shorten down sustainability do biodegradability?
    have fun reserching and developing!

  • ConcettaBruce

    Absolutely hemp.  We have been working on a hemp technical textile project and actually debated on submitting the hemp project or the space suit project to LAUNCH 2013.  Hemp is naturally anti-microbial and there are so many other terrific attributes of the fiber.  We had an apparel label in 2008 that we suspended to do another major contract knit engineering project - but the hang tag line on the hemp was "recycle: when you no longer like it, smoke it."  It was meant to be funny.  Though hemp is completely different than it's cousin and has less than 5% THC content.  It could give you a bad headache - but not much else.  Next year - definitely hemp.