Despite Much Fanfare, Nike’s New ‘Move to Zero’ Sustainability Campaign Falls Short

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Last week, 250,000 New Yorkers – many of them teens – flooded the streets of Manhattan to participate in the youth-led Global Climate Strike, fashion darlings like Jaden and Willow Smith among them. The strike took place ahead of the UN’s Climate Action Summit (or “Climate Week”), where 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg delivered a moving speech on Monday to world leaders.

In short, one needn’t look far for a sense of what issues matter to the next generation.

Nike is one company that has wised up to this fact. Last week, the brand unveiled its ” Move to Zero” campaign, which was pegged specifically to Climate Week and revolved around the idea that “if there is no planet, there is no sport.”

The campaign launch saw Nike’s New York headquarters decked out with installations covered in information about how climate change is making athletics more difficult by doing things like shortening the snowboarding season. To promote the launch, Nike invited celebrity athletes to speak to members of the press about their own experiences playing sports on a warming planet.

The name “Move to Zero” is meant to refer to Nike’s “journey towards zero carbon and zero waste,” but anyone hoping to hear that these are concrete targets that Nike has formulated a game plan and timeline for achieving would be disappointed by the presentations.

“It’s not really intended to be a target per se,” Nike’s Chief Sustainability Officer Noel Kinder explained to Fashionista. “It’s the vision that we want to throw out there like, ‘Hey, look, if we have this crazy dream and march toward it, then we can achieve it together.'”

Reading between the lines: It’s a marketing campaign that repackages old commitments without offering new ones.

Whether or not they were a focus of the presentations, there were some concrete numbers shared around waste in a press release: it claimed that Nike “diverts 99% of all footwear manufacturing waste from landfills,” and has given one billion plastic bottles per year new life as yarns that become sports jerseys and Flyknit shoes. Kinder also shared with Fashionista that the brand intends to “reduce our water consumption in our entire supply chain by 20% per unit by 2020.”

Perhaps more pertinent in the context of Climate Week, the release noted that the brand hopes to reduce carbon emissions across its global supply chain by 30% by 2030. That’s not zero, but it’s something. Still, Kinder admitted that Nike may not actually hit that mark.

“The mix of energy consumption and supply chain is proving to be a challenge,” he said. “You set those targets out there knowing that hopefully they’re gonna be achievable but what we would call ‘a stretch goal.'”

When asked to expound on how Nike is focusing on reducing its footprint, Kinder talked mostly about switching to green energy in the brand’s owned and operated facilities. A good move, but one that seems like a drop in the bucket when you consider that, as a Nike spokesperson confirmed via email, the supply chain – which Nike does not own or operate – makes up 90% of the brand’s footprint.

An examination of Nike’s Impact Report for the 2018 fiscal year revealed more of the specifics of how the brand is looking to reduce emissions in its supply chain, from making boiler systems in footwear factories more efficient to joining apparel factories in China in their efforts to procure solar panels.

But when it comes to the emissions impacts of raw materials, Kinder claimed, the brand can’t do much without “industry commitment.”

“There’s no brand leverage in that space anymore if you’re talking about cotton or you’re talking about spinning of yarn,” he said. “They’re not purchased by a brand for a product, they’re kind of purchased on behalf of an industry or multiple layers of indirectly.”

How is it possible that the world’s largest sportswear brand, which raked in $39.1 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2019, has “no brand leverage” over the emissions impacts of the raw materials in its supply chain?

When pressed on this point, Kinder kept referring to organizations like the Leather Working Group or Better Cotton Initiative that have the opportunity to improve raw materials across the industry. As nice as it was to hear an executive talk about collaborating with his peers, it’s a bit odd that Nike – which claims to lead the industry in technical innovation and design (not to mention sales) – can’t point to anything it’s doing to lead the industry toward more sustainable raw material sourcing.

Perhaps that’s too much to expect of a brand that, as recently as this summer, avoided taking responsibility for problems in its own supply chain. In June, a report by watchdog group Transparentem uncovered human rights abuses in subcontracted factories that were producing Nike products. Nike’s response – to essentially claim it wasn’t responsible for the subcontracted factories, since it didn’t authorize them to make its pieces – is a common one from apparel companies.

But the fact that other brands implicated in the charges worked to rectify the situation with the factories making their products, even if they hadn’t authorized them, made Nike’s response look particularly lackluster.

When asked if Nike would take responsibility for the carbon emissions of its entire supply chain – meaning all the facilities making the brand’s products – or if it would employ a similar “we didn’t know they were making our stuff, so it’s not our fault” philosophy with regards to subcontractors, Kinder repeated his earlier assertion that “the way that you drive leverage in those situations if they’re far removed from your direct supply chain, is to do it as an industry.”

In short: If you’re looking for a great marketing campaign with well-designed graphics about how climate change is going to make snowboarding harder, Nike’s got you. But if you’re looking for industry leadership on climate action, other brands are more deserving of your attention.

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