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Design and Performance, Reconsidered

With its Considered design ethos, Nike is increasingly developing and reimagining shoes in innovative ways to reduce waste and chemical use, all while maintaining the brand's high performance standards. Lorrie Vogel, the General Manager for Nike's Considered products, explains what makes a product Considered, and how the company has turned trash into treasure.

In addition to a steady stream of environmental achievements covering many aspects of the company's operations in recent months, Nike in February unveiled two new models of athletic shoes highlighting environmental sustainability.

Nike's Trash Talk and Jordan 23 models showed two of the facets of Nike's Considered design ethos, which applies new ways of looking at products and manufacturing processes to reduce waste and chemical use while maintaining high levels of performance. Lorrie Vogel, Nike's General Manager for Considered products, sat down with GreenerDesign to explain how a product can be considered Considered.

Matthew Wheeland: Lorrie, thanks very much for taking the time to speak today. I want to talk primarily about Nike's Considered products, and I guess the best place to start would be looking at the latest shoes in that line, the Trash Talk and the newest Air Jordan shoes.

Lorrie Vogel: Let me just clarify first that we don't look at Considered as a product line. We kind of look at that as a design ethos.

MW: So it's not just X-number of products, it's a way that Nike makes shoes?

LV: Exactly, because one of the things for us is, if you produce four or five green shoes then you're still not ultimately reducing your environmental footprint, which is really all about what we're trying to with the Considered team.

So along those lines, the Trash Talk actually was really a fun project where the design team really was inspired by looking at some of Nike's largest environmental footprint. And one of those areas is around reducing our waste. So what the team did was to look at the manufacturing waste that was occurring and they thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting if we could utilize that waste again and ultimately create a product?"

And when they were working on the Trash Talk they ultimately took the leather scrap from the floor and synthetic leather and they zig-zagged stitched it and decided to see if they could create a performance product out of that. And what they managed to create is a real success: It was a great way of looking at our reducing our environmental waste. And they ultimately partnered that with Steve Nash, who has really been a champion around the environment, so it was a great marriage all around.

MW: And how much of the shoe is made from materials that would otherwise be trash?

LV: The upper itself is made all out of manufacturer's scrap waste. The mid-sole itself is also made out of scrap from the polyurethane [PU] and foam processes. And then ultimately the out-sole also incorporates Nike Grind, which is our manufacturing waste as well.

MW: And in addition to the Trash Talk, the newest show in the Air Jordan line also has significant environmental benefits. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

LV: The thing that's interesting about the two different products is that what we try to do is reduce our environmental footprint. And what the Jordan really has done is the team focused on reducing waste in the product. They also focused on using environmentally preferred materials and attaching the product in such a way that we're able either to not have to use or to reduce the amount of solvents in the product, the adhesive solvents. So they came up with a brand new stitching process.

And what's interesting between the Trash Talk and the Jordan product is just the fact that Jordan is all about reducing the amount of waste that we produce, whereas the Trash Talker was really at the end of the line around manufacturing. So it shows how on both ends that Nike's trying to focus on reduction. The Jordan, I would say, is probably the future state of where we're focusing all of our efforts around our products, which is using environmental preferred materials, reducing waste, reducing toxics in our products.

MW: And that seems to me more or less a summation of Nike's Considered ethos: tell me a little more about Considered and what goes into that process.

LV: Our Considered ethos for the company is really about using less toxics, less waste, more environmentally friendly materials. And it's all about sustainable product innovation. So Considered -- even when we used the term "considered" -- Considered is all about considering your choices and considering the impact. Our team is all about making sure the designers know how to make better choices so that they understand how to reduce their impact.

MW: And what was the genesis of Considered? How did it come about, and were there any challenges in implementing it?

LV: You know, it's interesting: Nike has always been about our performance innovation and what we're able to provide to the athlete. So we started really measuring our environmental footprint back in 1998, and once we gained that insight, we were able to innovate for both the benefit of the athlete and for the environment. So we've been really aware of our footprint since around 1998, and we've done a lot of work around reducing that.

But I'd say in spring '05 is when we introduced the first Considered shoe, which was the Considered boot. And basically it was a single shoelace woven between the leather part, stitching and assembling the upper to the sole without adhesive, allowing for easier assembly. That was really the genesis for Considered.

And that's when it ultimately became kind of the language that we used for the product. So for us when we use the term "Considered" along with our products they're kind of the change agents within our line that are really showing the most environment stewardship that we have currently within the company. So for us, Considered is a journey about reducing Nike's environmental footprint.

And we put out considerable targets around Considered. For example, in footwear we said that we will be 100 percent bronze by fiscal year 2011. We have a rating system for our products, and if you were to imagine a baseline standard that we look at along our products, when we say "bronze" it's all about raising the bar.

So for example, if we say we're going to be bronze 100 percent by fiscal year 2011 that means that we're going to reduce waste by 17 percent. We're going to increase the use of environmentally preferred materials. And we're going to maintain our reductions around BOCs by 95 percent. So we have set out targets to ultimately reduce our footprint all across footwear, apparel, and equipment.

MW: How does Considered affect the design process? Does it lead designers to look at old shoes in new ways or look at entirely new ways of making shoes that may be completely different from previous products released by Nike?

LV: The way that Considered affects the design process is just basically as -- first of all, we do a lot of education so people understand what is Nike's environmental impact, how they can make better choices. So when they go and they choose their materials, we have an environmentally preferred materials list that we show them, "Hey, bamboo better than recycled polyester. Better than organic cotton." So we lead them down the path so that they can make better choices.

We also help them around pattern efficiencies, how can they reduce their waste. And so what we do right away when they create the first sample is we score the product to show them how they've done around the environment. And we give them alternatives to how they can make better choices. And one of the things when we created this whole system is we didn't want to give people number scales to tell them how they had done.

What we wanted to do was show them, "Hey, this is pretty good. But this is a better choice you could make." So within the process it's all about making it very clear to the designers what are the better choices out there.

MW: And what kind of surprises have you seen as a result of thinking in the Considered manner?

LV: You know, what's interesting is, I think what I'm most surprised by the fact that when we first set these company targets out there people were a little hesitant to think how quickly could we get to our goal. I have to tell you I have been blown away by the fact that people are hitting these goals in a much faster rate.

And I think the fundamental reason is that once you make it very clear to designers what are the problems, then solutions can happen very quickly after that. Because at the end of the day, designers are problem solvers, and all too often it seems that they don't actually know what the problems are.

But when we make them aware of what the problems are, it's amazing how they can design around that. And they can really reduce our impact at a much faster pace. That has been really, really surprising -- to the point, actually, where at first we thought maybe we set the goals too low. What I think has really happened is we're kind of creating a movement within our own company where it's a learning exercise. So the more you learn about how to design for the environment, the more you build on this baseline.

As an example, I'd say I could have brought this up maybe two years ago and people wouldn't even understand what the term BOC is. Now I've got designers coming to me with new innovations on how to reduce waste. Just like the Trash Talker: That was an innovation that came from the designers. So to me, what I'm amazed with is once you share kind of education on how to make better choices, I've just been amazed at how quickly it has really started to transform the whole design community at Nike.

MW: That's something that I hear quite often, actually. Whether you inform workers or designers about the issues you're trying to overcome, or really even just let go of the reins and let them run with it. These are issues that they see on the floor all the time so they are always thinking about, "How could I reduce that pile of waste that happens every time I make a shoe?" Were there any interesting examples of sort of bottom-up design innovations that you've seen?

LV: Well, it's interesting because in all of our products we give people an additional score, kind of a bonus score if a team comes up with a new innovation that we believe is more sustainable. And so what I've been amazed with is just the fact that people have come to us with completely new ideas around how to reduce molds, such that that they're able to reduce the amount of molds that they produce by 50 percent.

Part of this is them working in partnership with our contract factories. They go to the factories and they say, "You know what? I'm really struggling. I'd like this product to be Considered. Can you give me some ideas around that?" And so just by having our partners looking at that process and then providing new insights has been really, really beneficial.

MW: And as far as the other end of the chain, in terms of marketing these to consumers. Were there any surprises that you encountered in marketing the product? How did customers respond to a new Considered shoe given that they're more likely to shop for Nike based on performance instead of greenness.

LV: Well, an interesting example would be a Nike product like the Jordan 23, which is a pinnacle performance product. The reality is, sometimes people believe that when you do green products that it might be less than the best. And as a result, I think what has been surprising is people are shocked by the fact that some of our highest-level performance products are more sustainable. So from that standpoint I think that we've really tried to make a point to say that there is no compromise around creating a green product.

And from the standpoint of the consumer looking at this, the great message from Nike is to say that when we ultimately create performance-level products, that there is no compromise around being green. And that has really been something that the consumer has been able to take away from Nike's sustainable products. Because you see a lot of green products out there and you have to make tradeoffs. But we've really made a point at Nike is that there is no tradeoffs, there are no compromise: This ultimately will be the best performance product. And, oh by the way, it happens to be more green.

That said, I still believe the consumers are at the point where they're still looking for the best performance and innovation. And I don't know if I would say that the consumer's at the level right now where they're choosing a green product over another product. I think they're still at the stage where, if both products are equal, green will tip the scale. But I wouldn't say that by creating a green product that would force people to ultimately make that purchase. I don't think the consumer is there yet.

MW: ... But if you can have both then that's obviously a big selling point.

LV: Yeah. Exactly. It's the highest level of performance and oh, by the way, it's better for the world. So it's kind of a win-win.

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