For about eight years now, Nike has selected materials for apparel and shoe products by using an in-house sustainability index, developed by researchers from a gigantic database of scientific research and analysis of the life cycles of products. It lives as an open-source tool within the sportswear company and charts the amount of water a given material will use, or the waste produced by a certain manufacturing process. By consulting the index during its design process, Nike has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 18% from a decade ago.
As of today, these corporate gems of wisdom are accessible to designers anywhere, via the new Nike Making app, available in the iTunes store. The app is a pocket toolkit for product makers to give their projects an environmental score. Even within Nike–an R&D driven company–designers say they aren’t always sure which materials yield the greenest products, says Hannah Jones, Nike’s VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation. The Making app lets designers sort through 22 different product materials such as cotton, silk, grass-fed leather, rayon-viscose, and so on. Each material is then scored within four buckets of environmental impact: water use, energy, chemistry, and waste. To keep designers on point, the app also figures for performance and aesthetic needs.
“It’s all part of a single strategy to change the palette of the world’s materials,” Jones tells Co.Design. “If we could put information out there and empower our design community to make better choices, it would be an important lever we could pull.”
The app runs in tandem with Nike’s fourth Launch Challenge, which wrangled minds from NASA, the U.S. State Department, and USAID to help find newer sustainable materials. The need is acute: Despite the emphasis typically placed on the environmental harm of shipping (heard prominently within movements for local farming), materials account for 60% of the environmental impact incurred from a pair of Nike shoes.
The issue is, of course, not exclusive to Nike. “In 2010, there were 150 billion garments produced in the world. A dye house uses 200 tons of water,” Jones tells Co.Design. “We can impact the industry to think in a very different way about how it values materials.”
It’s hard not to wonder why Nike invests so much in this index when other companies are finding new ways to consume less, such as in Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative. Jones says that’s only one of a few pathways to achieving a sustainable company: “There’s always one set of arguments that say we should all consume less. The next says let’s make better, longer, more durable products. The third is the one I think is most interesting. How do we actually close the loop? How do we create products that could be infinitely recycled?”
Nike did just that for their 2010 World Cup soccer jerseys, which were recycled from plastic water bottles. To date, the company has kept 1.1 billion plastic bottles out of landfills by developing products from recycled polyester. They’re also exploring partnerships with progressive startups that are investigating new techniques, such as dying garments without using any water. All of which will inform the Nike Materials Sustainability Index and the Making app.
The Making app rolled out first for students at London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion, and a separate app for shoe designers is anticipated in the future. As much as Jones and her team intend to influence choices made by designers, by strategically putting the knowledge in the hands of a new generation of designers, it’s clear that they (smartly) aspire to plant the seed for future materials innovations. “What about alternatives to cotton that don’t impede on performance, or radical new materials that don’t generate any toxic chemicals?” she asks. This kind of thinking is “becoming intuitive for the students. Teachers can build it into classes, and a whole generation of designers will be change agents.”
Making is available through iTunes.