Nike boosts sneakers' circularity with new Link models
In 2019, Nike released a guide for the future of fashion design. On the issue of product recyclability, the white paper notably urged product designers to question their own approach and practices. "How to tweak the design process so that the recycling [of products] can be made easier, and only the bare minimum of energy used?" asked Nike's document. It seems that the group is now starting to have some answers to this question. In spring 2022, the world's number one sport and lifestyle brand is introducing two new sneaker models, the Link and the Link Axis, both conceived to be easily disassembled.
In the case of garments, blended fabrics are an impediment to product recyclability and the possibility of creating new clothes out of old ones. For shoes, the manufacturing process is even more complex, as several dozen components are glued and welded together to make one item.
Some of the solutions used for fabrics have been gradually transferred to sneakers manufacturing. Nike, also the owner of Jordan and Converse and the world's number one producer of trainers, began using materials with a lower environmental impact, such as the various types of recycled rubber adopted for the Grind model. But Nike's ISPA research and design team (ISPA is the acronym of improvise, scavenge, protect and adapt) has designed the Link and Link Axis to make them easy to disassemble.
"Designed in partnership with engineering, digital product creation and development, these shoes are completely informed by the method of making form follow function," said Darryl Matthews, vice-president, Catalyst Footwear Product Design, adding that "our hope is that these ideas and aesthetics will become normalized, accelerating our ability to imagine how shoes will continue to evolve in the future."
Concretely, the Link and Link Axis are made up of three separate parts that are not glued together. Nike's intention is that customers should return these shoes at the end of their useful life, so that they can be quickly disassembled and the various parts easily recycled, each being made of a single material. A vision that also requires a different manufacturing approach. For brands, optimizing production time remains an important element. According to Nike, assembling the new models takes eight minutes and the process does not require glueing nor drying time, component heating or any transfer between work stations. The Link is expected to reach the market in June, and the Link Axis in early 2023.
It remains to be seen how Nike will be able to use this production method on other sneaker models. It is not clear whether the group will be able to implement similar circular solutions to produce its best-sellers, but Nike has clearly expressed its intention to pursue circular design.
“We have a responsibility to consider the complete design solution: how we source, make, use, return and ultimately reimagine products. The goal is to make matter matter more,” said John Hoke, design director at Nike.
The group also pointed out that the pioneering steps it has taken with these two models need to be applied on an industrial scale, so that this process can be replicated. "A holistic look at Nike product lines and supply chains is already determining where new approaches can be implemented to reach a wider audience," said Nike. “True scale also requires robust cross-industry collaboration to create business models and infrastructure that make it possible to recycle products. To that end, Nike is building partnerships to grow its recycling capabilities, and is investing in product take-back consumer programs across the world that will help grow its ability to repurpose end-of-life products,” added Nike.
Nike has ambitious plans between now and 2025, and will of course be judged on its ability to actually deploy and scale up considerably these encouraging solutions, aiming to make products more easily recyclable.
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