Interview with Lorrie Vogel of Nike's Considered Design

It’s a hard knock life for companies in this dropping market economy. With resource scarcity and an uncertain future, it can be difficult for companies to maintain their sustainability standards. Not at Nike. The world’s leading sports company has actually upped the ante by shooting for even more ambitious sustainability goals and reaching them flawlessly.

These goals manifest themselves in how they fabricate their products. They have doubled their use of recycled polyester over the last year, for example, and diverted 285 million plastic bottles from landfills. Nike jerseys in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, in fact, were the most environmentally friendly in the sport’s history – 100% recycled polyester from nearly 13 million plastic bottles. Doesn’t it feel good to think your recycled Sprite bottle may contribute to Landon Donovan’s off-the-cuff jersey goals?

Such sustainable products don’t sacrifice quality and performance. Nike provides designers with even better tools to make products as part of its Considered Design ethos. Instead of usingmoney to kiss babies, Nike has invested six million dollars in its Environmental Apparel Design Tool, which allows designers to make environmentally friendly decisions with the resources at hand.

But this tool isn’t locked up in the tool shed, Nike made it open source and available to other designers and companies, thus creating open innovation. Nike leads the pack and raises the bar while bringing others with them. Now that sounds like a sustainable stimulus package.

Osaama Saifi at BARE magazine had the distinct pleasure of talking with Lorrie Vogel, General Manager of Nike’s Considered Design.

Lorrie Vogel, General Manager of Nike's Considered Design, presenting the company's sustainable products at Poptech. Image courtesy of Reuters.

Thanks for being with us Lorrie, could you please give us a background about Nike’s Considered Design?

Thank you for having me. Nike has been on a journey since the early 90’s to become a more sustainable company. We started our journey by gaining a better understandingof where we had the largest environmental impact, like materials, water and energy waste. We knew the solution had to start with product design so we created tools for designers to make simple, smart and sustainable choices at the beginning of the product creation process.

Considered Design isn’t a product line but is an ethos of the company – it’s about making sure we make the highest level of performance product for our athletes with the smallest environmental footprint. Ultimately, Considered Design is about moving to a more closed looped model – it’s about taking material from an old shoe and converting it to a new shoe. As we work to lower our overall impact and achieve a closed-loop future, we know that it has to start with design. So we ensure all of our designers share the same vision and that they have the tools to bring that vision to life.

“Going Green” seems to be a recent fashionable phenomenon, yet Nike has been doing this since the early 90’s.What prompted Nike to be a forerunner in the sustainability movement?

It really comes from our innovation background. Nike is not about just looking at today but about looking at the future. We see a future with declining resources and an increased demand for those resources. Therefore, we see sustainability and an ability to thrive in a resource constrained world as key to Nike’s growth now and into the future.

Right, and Nike seems to be doing this in innovative ways. Just like how Bill Bowerman made waffle shoes for Prefontaine, something that was innovative at that time period.

Yes, it all ties back to our heritage. Bill Bowerman was a legendary track coach at University of Oregon and one of the company’s co-founders. He was an innovator and was relentless in his quest to create a more light weight running shoe. Less weight equals better performance and less waste.

That’s great. So we have this great idea of Considered Design, and we have this great idea of going open source. This seems to be going against the aspect of capitalism and competition. Nike instead is showing the way to create a greener world collaboratively. What do you think will be the future of Considered Design ten years from now?

Nike’s North Star vision is closed loop products. We believe transparency and collaboration will accelerate innovation in the industry to bring that vision to life. That also means a future where people are more aware of their own personal environmental impact.

Nike designers consider every element of a product to find out where they can cut down on waste and implement more sustainable methods.

I feel that there is such a need in this day in age, that if companies don’t give back, then they can’t thrive. Going to the logistics of Considered Design, how does the process itself work and what are some of the products that came out from it?

The materials we use are rated to render a score that determines the sustainability of the final product, so at the moment designers begin to sketch a shoe or shirt, we give them instant feedback on how they are doing around choosing more sustainable materials and reducing waste. With the Considered Index, a version of which we launched externally as the Environmental Apparel Design Tool, designers can compare materials to make the most sustainable choices possible.

We have also set target goals for all of our products. As of the Spring 2011 season, virtually 100% of our footwear meet baseline Considered standards; by 2015 we want 100% for our apparel to reach these standards.

To give you an idea of what that means in terms of impact, we saw a 19% reduction of waste across the board in our footwear. That is the equivalent of not producing 15 million shoe uppers. And we’ve doubled the use of recycled polyester this year over last year, divertingmillions of plastic bottles from landfills.

Because of the huge reduction Nike has seen in its environmental footprint we opened up our Environmental Apparel Design Tool to the industry. We really believe that transparency can promote sustainable innovation and fast track the adoption of environmentally friendly processes.

During the 2010 World Cup it was exciting to see the impact of Considered products. We were able to make 100% recycled polyester National Team Kits (jerseys) - approximately eight plastic bottles went into each jersey. The athletes talked about how much they loved the jerseys, both for the high performance value and the fact that they had a limited impact on the planet.

As they say, one man's trash is another man's treasure - Nike takes this philosophy very seriously, and for the 2010 World Cup produced jersey uniforms made of melted down plastic bottles. All images courtesy of Google.

That’s definitely a big statement to make on that large of a scale. To create jerseys of that standard at that level really sets Nike apart. What else sets Nike’s Considered products apart from other green product lines?

Considered isn’t a product line. It’s Nike's ongoing commitment to design without compromise – either to performance or the planet. It is a continually progressing standard, applied every day to everything we do.

Right, so it’s not something that we should be proud of but something we should be doing anyway.

We want it to be part of Nike’s DNA. We’ve always talked about performance and making the best products for athletes. Now Nike products also have to have the smallest environmental footprint.

You can access the Environmental Apparel Design Tool here and learn more about Nike’s closed-loop vision here.

Osaama Saifi
BARE Reporter

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