In 2019, Kenyan long-distance runner, Eliud Kipchoge, shocked the world by running a sub-two-hour marathon, a feat that had long been thought to be almost impossible in professional athletics. With the help of the most technologically advanced running shoe available, a prototype of the Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next%, he recorded a time of 1:59:40. While it does not stand as an official record as it was not a sanctioned race, the shoe that got him there continues to live in controversy.
The shoe itself was engineered for speed using a perfect mix of modern running shoe innovations including a carbon fiber plate under the midsole which acts as a spring and a specially designed midsole foam that returns about 85% of the energy exerted onto it called ZoomX. The result is one of the fastest running shoes ever made.
In September, Nike announced that the same high-performance running shoe will be receiving a sustainable makeover. The new shoe, known as the Nike Air Zoom Alphafly “Next Nature,” will be taking the same revolutionary design and reproducing it with sustainable, recyclable, and recycled materials. The upper of the shoe is made from recycled plastics, and the laces and tabs are made from 100% recycled polyester. The carbon fiber FlyPlate is 50% recycled carbon fiber, Nike’s high-efficiency ZoomX foam is partially made from recycled TPU, and the midsole itself is 70% recycled foam scraps. The whole shoe is at least 50% recycled material by weight, a stunning feat for a shoe designed for performance.
With sustainable footwear, there are always questions about durability, particularly when it comes to a shoe of this caliber. The shoe underwent rigorous testing, with athletes chalking up over 400 miles to ensure that it could withstand the wear and tear of long-distance running. Rachel Bull, Senior Footwear Product Director for Nike Running talks about promoting sustainability in a high-performance shoe, saying, “The exciting thing about pushing performance and sustainability forward with the Alphafly Next Nature is that we know if we can do it with our most pinnacle performance product, then so much is validated to bring that technology into the rest of the line.”
In terms of sustainable footwear, this is only the beginning. Nike has also released sustainably made basketball shoes in the Air Jordan XX3 and the Nike Cosmic unity shoes, as well as the recently released Space Hippie line. However, it seems that recycled materials will be a large focus in the future. Elliot Heath, Product Manager for Nike Running, talks about how much benefit can be derived from recycled materials for their product line, saying, “It is waste that has so much potential function, so why not use it to actually make product,” later, adding, “We are getting all those benefits while using product that was set to go to a landfill.”
However, sustainable footwear is just one small part of Nike’s sustainability-first campaign, Move to Zero. The Move to Zero campaign is an all-encompassing vision for Nike’s future. The pledge includes promising objectives like running on 100% renewable energy at all Nike facilities by 2025, diverting 99 percent of footwear waste away from landfills, and converting over 1 billion single-use plastic bottles into yarn to create jerseys and fly knit material for uppers of shoes, like the Next Nature. They also are working to meet climate standards set by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement by limiting their carbon emissions within their supply chains by 30 percent. On top of that, Nike has already made great strides in its 2025 sustainability objectives. They currently divert 99.9% of their footwear waste from landfills, 48% of their operated or owned facilities are powered by renewable energy, and they have reduced their freshwater use in textile dyeing and finishing by thirty percent, exceeding their target goal by ten percent.
Nike is helping to set a global standard for sustainability in athletics, but there are a few other important organizations that are key players. Companies like Puma, Adidas, and Allbirds are making their mark on the sustainable footwear industry. There is no doubt that other athletics brands will join this exciting trend because the future of sport lies at the intersection between sustainability and performance.
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