In recent years, Nike, as well as many other major footwear companies, has been making headlines for its creative use of waste as a means to create sustainable sneakers. From its Space Hippie 04 model—which has a sole made of at least 25 per cent recycled material and an upper part that is around 75 per cent recycled content that includes recycled plastic bottles, t-shirts and yarn scraps—to its Move To Zero programme, which document’s the multinational corporation’s journey towards zero carbon and zero waste, it’s clear that Nike understands the new generation’s need for more sustainable alternatives, even when it comes to fashion.
So much so that it has now announced a partnership with Newlight Technologies, a biotechnology company that has developed a process to convert carbon into a leather and plastic alternative named AirCarbon. Not only is Newlight’s material carbon-neutral, but it’s actually carbon-negative. And because AirCarbon is bio-based, it’s 100 per cent biodegradable. So far so good, right?
“AirCarbon offers an opportunity to further reduce our impact on the planet,” Noel Kinder, Nike’s chief sustainability officer, said in a press release. “Materials account for 70 per cent of Nike’s total carbon footprint, and we’re accelerating our efforts and exploring new opportunities in this space because, in the race against climate change, we can’t wait for solutions, we have to work together to create them.”
As of right now, AirCarbon is used as a substitute for plastic and leather—a carbon-negative alternative that can be melted down into a variety of forms, including solid shapes. The partnership between Newlight and Nike will see the latter explore the use of the material in a variety of ways, contributing to the company’s goal to create products that are better for both the environment and athletes.
In order to create its ‘magic’ material, Newlight extracts microorganisms from the ocean that consume oxygen and carbon and convert them inside their bodies to polyhydroxybutyrate, also known as PHB. After more than a decade of research and development, the company figured out how to dry PHB into a white powder that can then be melted into various forms which include fibres, sheets, and solid shapes as stated above. AirCarbon is made up of around 40 per cent oxygen and 60 per cent carbon derived from greenhouse gases.
While it will probably take a while before we see AirCarbon in Nike products, Newlight already has two retail brands under its umbrella which use its AirCarbon material. First up is the brand Restore, which sells AirCarbon straws and cutlery. The second one, Covalent, uses the material for handbags, wallets, sunglasses, and tech accessories. Using blockchain, Covalent also allows customers to trace each step of their individual product’s production.
Speaking about this new partnership’s potential, Newlight’s CEO Mark Herrema said, “Our mission is change at scale, and there are few better partners in the world than Nike to help achieve that. We are excited to explore how AirCarbon can help Nike decarbonize its products and achieve its ambitious carbon-reduction goals.” And although things might take a while, considering the fact that the fashion industry represents roughly 10 per cent of global carbon emissions and nearly 20 per cent of wastewater, according to a 2020 BBC report, it’s ‘better late than never’.
That being said, it’s also crucial for us as consumers to be wary of trendy catch-phrases like ‘carbon footprint’ which will undoubtedly become the fashion industry’s next victim on its greenwashing journey. As renowned author Rebecca Solnit once explained in The Guardian, the term carbon footprint was coined by Big Oil to shift the blame onto us and our lifestyles instead of their actions. And it worked!
In June, Whitney Wolfe Herd, the founder of the dating app Bumble, gave her 700 employees an extra week of paid leave to give her “burnt-out” staff time to destress and switch off. Now Nike is following her lead in the US by giving its head office employees a week off to “destress” and recover from the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The world’s largest supplier of athletic shoes and apparel said workers at its headquarters in Oregon would be “powering down” until Friday 3 September, with senior leaders encouraging staff to ignore all work responsibilities in order to aid their mental health.
“Take the time to unwind, destress and spend time with your loved ones. Do not work,” the Nike senior manager of global marketing science, Matt Marrazzo, said in an open message to staff posted on LinkedIn.
“In a year (or two) unlike any other, taking time for rest and recovery is key to performing well and staying sane,” Marazzo continued. He acknowledged that “this past year has been rough,” adding that staff should recognise that “we’re all human” and living through a traumatic event.
Marrazzo said the perks and support for staff at Nike were “good business but it’s also the right thing to do.” “It’s not just a ‘week off’ for the team… it’s an acknowledgement that we can prioritise mental health and still get work done,” he added.
It puts Nike among a growing number of businesses offering extra time off, or making concessions around working responsibilities, to combat the burnout caused by home working and constant video calls that have blurred the line between personal and professional lives for so many employees.
In March, shortly before Bumble announced its own mental health break initiative two months ago, global investment bank Citigroup banned work video calls on Fridays to help employees break free from the “relentlessness of the pandemic workday.” The bank also designated 28 May as a company-wide holiday, which it called ‘Citi reset day’ and encouraged staff to book more time off.
Meanwhile, workers in other industries have complained about working long hours and the effect this has had on their well-being. Earlier this year, a group of younger bankers at Goldman Sachs warned they would be forced to quit unless conditions improved. They said they were working an average of 95 hours a week and slept five hours a night.
A spokeswoman for the investment bank said at the time, “A year into COVID, people are understandably quite stretched, and that’s why we are listening to their concerns and taking multiple steps to address them.”
Roughly one in three workers back in the workplace said the recent return-to-office shift negatively impacted their mental health, according to a McKinsey survey of 1,602 employed people conducted in June. Meanwhile, another one in three workers said going back to an office had a positive impact on their mental health, with the primary benefit being they feel more engaged upon their return. This proves that every worker has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in varied different ways.
Researchers have also cautioned that returning to a physical workplace can increase burnout, which can show up in three main ways: exhaustion (a depletion of mental or physical resources), cynical detachment (a depletion of social connectedness) and a reduced sense of efficacy (a depletion of value for yourself).
Additional time off, flexible work schedules and hybrid work arrangements are three ways employers can help their staff feel more supported in their return-to-office transition. Bumble and Nike are leading the way. Who’s next?