Nike to fashion industry: Just do it (with our app)

Fashion designers can now benefit from years of Nike research into sustainable materials. The giant sportswear company is releasing a free mobile app called Making that offers feedback on fabrics they might be considering for a pair of pants, shoes, dress or other piece of apparel.

Making, available initially for Apple iOS, works by allowing designers to research fabrics or materials they'd like to use. The software publicly exposes information from an internal database amassed over the past eight years, the Nike Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), which has also been embraced by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition as part of its Higgs Index.

So, in theory, the app could also be used by consumers to check out the materials choices that their favorite apparel brands are making.

MSI was originally created for internal use, but decided to open the information to other designers to accelerate creation of sustainable products. "We hope Making will inspire new platforms for open data sharing," said a Nike spokesperson, in response to a question about future plans for the resource.

Most common fabrics are covered

So far, the application offers feedback on the environmental impact for 22 commonly used apparel materials in four different areas: water consumption, chemistry, energy and waste. You can consider each item separately, or in aggregate. Making offers comparisons against alternative materials. Over time, Nike will add more items, but it hasn't provided a timeline for those modifications or how it will choose what to include.

For example, say your team is thinking about using cotton for a new shirt. Making will tell you that this will be a better choice from a chemistry standpoint than nylon 6 and that it’s more desirable from a waste standpoint than hemp, but that either linen or lyocell would make more sense when it comes to water conservation. In fact, cotton is a dismal 17 out of 22 when it comes to water, but it ranks third for waste management or recycling potential.

On Nike's MSI, cotton earns a total score of 25.8 out of 50 (the higher the score, the less of an impact the material has on the environment, so cotton doesn't perform all that well against the ideal scenario laid out in the ratings). Down, on the other hand, gets a 37.5 score on the index, which was the highest one I could find.

Informed design decisions

Making was developed by Nike, with feedback from students at the London College of Fashion's Center for Sustainable Fashion, which have been testing the application.

"It was incredibly insightful to use the data in Making while creating our designs,” said Alasdair Leighton-Crawford, one of a team of students who used the software to create and construct a layerable tracksuit. “The app helped us identify materials that have lower environmental impacts, without compromising the design process. Making shows that sustainability is not a limit, but an inspiring new way to look at product creation.”

Why does this matter? Nike cites figures suggesting that the global apparel industry may produce more than 400 billion square meters of fabric annually by 2015, enough to cover the state of California. The dying process already uses up to 200 tone of water for each tone of fabric processed.

The apparel industry's water usage practices and chemicals choices have been the subject of the highly visible Detox campaign by Greenpeace, which has prompted 15 of the top apparel companies in the world – including Nike, AdidasPuma, H&MM&S, C&A, Li-Ning, Zara, Mango, Esprit, Levi's, Uniqlo,Benetton, Victoria's Secret, G-Star Raw and Valentino – to commit to addressing water pollution.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is taking a broader approach to the reducing the environment and social impact of fashion industry. It represents 80 leading apparel and footwear brands, retailers, suppliers, nonprofits and NGOs.

The issue of how technology can accelerate sustainable design has taken on new urgency in the past several years, as manufacturers seeking to accelerate the development and prototyping process. Computer-aided design giant Autodesk, for one, is making it a big focus and offers a series of software applications and cloud resources toward this end.