Waste. That's the fashion industry's biggest problem. Every year, it is estimated that 26 billion pounds of apparel end up in landfills around the world, creating a constant cycle that's undoubtedly having a negative effect on climate change.
Instead of repurposing excess goods and materials, some companies would rather cut or burn them, as way to preserve their products' social cache and long-term value. It's a sad reality, but it doesn't have to that way.
These issues have led brands like Nike to invest in initiatives such as "Move to Zero," which the company describes as a "journey toward zero carbon and zero waste to help protect the future of sport." This is an evolution of a project from 1994 with Nike Grind, a grassroots effort that started as a way to collect and recycle sneakers, and which is still alive to date. And, for Nike, the basic idea is simple: It wants to focus on, research, and create more sustainable products.
So what exactly does that look like at a mainstream, consumer-facing level? Enter "Space Hippie," a collection of four different pairs of sneakers that were designed with sustainability in mind, each made from materials and fabrics that are being transformed and given a new life, including recycled plastic water bottles, t-shirts, yarn, rubber, and factory scraps. This "Space Junk," as Nike calls it, comes in the form of "Space Waste Yarn" and "Crater Foam," the two key elements that make up the Space Hippie 1, 2, 3, and 4 — which are launching on June 11.
One of the key people behind the Space Hippie capsule is Noah Murphy-Reinhertz, sustainability design lead at Nike's Innovation Kitchen, the underground lab where the brand researches and develops special projects like its self-lacing Mag, HyperAdapt, and Adapt BB sneakers. Murphy-Reinhertz says his background has always been in design and "always things other than shoes," working on products ranging from TVs and furniture, to robots and wearable devices. But now his job is to bring products like the Space Hippie collection to life and, he says, trying to figure out what comes next for Nike in sustainability innovation.
"Really what that comes down to is the opposite of sustaining what we've got right now," Murphy-Reinhertz told Input in an interview, "It's actually trying to figure out what comes after what we're doing today. How are we designing the future in a way where sport will always be there, in a way where making products has a positive impact on the planet? My job is to sort through that on a day-by-day basis, using all of the legacy of sustainable innovations that Nike has and figuring out what the next big step forward is."
“We headed into this brainstorm with all of these materials that were basically trash, having just kind of witnessed this huge stellar event.”
Next month, that "big step forward" will be taken with the Space Hippie 1, 2, 3 and 4, which were scheduled to arrive earlier this year before Nike had to change its plans due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Murphy-Reinhertz said the idea for Space Hippie started about two years ago, after receiving data from Nike's sustainability analytics team that showed in detail some of the carbon impact of individual materials and the processes it takes to put those together in a shoe. "I looked at those with a bunch of folks and we said, 'Hey, it must be possible to do even better than the best we've ever done in terms of carbon footprint.'"
The other thing that happened shortly thereafter, he says, is there was a solar eclipse happening in the U.S., which is what ultimately sparked the idea for Space Hippie. "We headed into this brainstorm with all of these materials that were basically trash, having just kind of witnessed this huge stellar event," Murphy-Reinhertz explained over a Zoom call. "And it just totally put us in this mind-frame of 'What are the innovations of space exploration and how are they applicable not to leaving Earth but to taking care of it?' That got us started on the journey that became Space Hippie."
Murphy-Reinhertz added that the origin of Space Hippie and its entire aura — from peculiar name of the collection all the way to the packaging — is tied to the notion that we, as humans, need to figure out how to maintain and preserve our resources. "We said, 'Hey, let's take this idea of NC2 resource utilization, which is what space agencies imagine they might have to do [when they go to another planet.]," he said. "But let's say, 'Hey, the materials that we have available to us here on Earth, that's all we've got. There's not anything else coming. So let's design with those, and let's design in a way that's high tech but improvises with those materials."
That Circular Design vision from Nike, which focuses on creating “products that last longer and are designed with the end in mind," is what results in the technologies and tooling kits at the core of Space Hippie, such as Space Waste Yarn and Crater Foam. Space Hippie also features recycled ZoomX foam for cushioning, the midsole tech that's on Nike's record-breaking marathon shoe, which Murphy-Reinhertz was the one of the biggest challenges during the creation of the Space Hippie footwear.
"The first response we got when we showed Crater Foam to a couple of the engineers was, 'Okay, well, how much better do we have to make it look?'" he said, pointing to the non-traditional look of the blue and gray, thick, and speckled foam midsole that's on the Space Hippies. "And the challenge that we gave back to them was like, 'No, we don't want you to change the way it looks at all, but we want you to make sure that it works every time.' The innovation organization totally embraced this idea of a completely different look and feel but making sure that it held up to our standards, to our performance standards and to our quality standards."
Naturally, and thankfully for the sake of our planet, Nike isn't the only sportswear brand working on sustainable products. Its main rival Adidas has a major project of its own, in which it is investing heavily in making sneakers and clothes with recycled ocean plastic, as part of a partnership with the nonprofit Parley for the Oceans that kicked off in 2015. And just earlier today, Adidas announced a partnership with Allbirds to co-create a performance sneaker with the "lowest ever carbon emissions."
“Our brands don’t want to just participate in the sustainability conversation, we want to continue being catalysts and creators of substantial improvement,” James Carnes, VP of Adidas Brand Strategy, said in a press release. Adidas and Allbirds didn't share many details beyond that, however, aside from saying their plan is to release their shoe collaboration in the next year — so we'll have to wait and see what that product actually looks like.
Even with these efforts from Nike and others, there are fashion and sustainability experts who believe that as long as the companies' goals are to push more and more product, using recycled materials and fabrics may not be enough to make a positive environmental impact. People's buying habits need to change, too. "Brands need to have responsibility for end-of-product-life recycling," Adriana Gorea, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Delaware, Fashion and Apparel Studies department, says. "[At] the same time, brands need to reach the consumer in a more personal way, to create emotional bonds that make it less likely to dispose of the product."
“We shouldn't assume that the products of tomorrow will necessarily be anything like the products of today.”
If there's any company familiar with creating products that emit the feeling of an emotional attachment, it's Nike, what with sneakers including the Air Jordan, Air Max, SB Dunk, and the list goes on and on. So, perhaps, that's what Nike is onto with the Space Hippies, which have a futuristic aesthetic on top of being comfortable, durable, and, of course, sustainable. Yes, they're made out of literal trash, but trash in a sneaker has never looked so good — and those details won't be lost on consumers, especially sneakerheads who already appreciate Nike technologies like Flyknit, Flyease, and ZoomX.
"We shouldn't assume that the products of tomorrow will necessarily be anything like the products of today," says Murphy-Reinhertz. "And maybe we can get to a future where everything that we make is actually better for the planet. That's the kind of future that we want to imagine and innovate towards. When Nike talks about a Move to Zero, the goal is that we can enable as many athletes around the world as possible to engage in sport and to use our product to do new things without that being something that harms the earth. So that is that future vision that we need to be moving towards."
At the same time, to Gorea's point, Murphy-Reinhertz said there is indeed immediate impact to consider.
"Let's design products that connect directly to people's passions, so that when they decide to buy one of our shoes or wear one of our shirts, they're doing it because it speaks to them on a level of their values and what they feel is their purpose in life, so that those products become disposable," he says. "And so it's not driven by what somebody else says is important. It's driven by what people genuinely feel and believe in and why they connect with our product. Then, when we do that, then people buy products and they use them. And that's what we've really got to do is focus on being sure that products serve their full, useful life and are used and used again."
As for whether we'll see aspects of Space Hippie make their way outside of footwear, Murphy-Reinhertz seemed to suggest that's Nike's plan. "The really important thing in creating these shoes was that they proved out the possibilities of these materials," noting that the Space Junk material toolkit is versatile and can easily be applied to any kind of shoe form or cut-and-sew garments. "Our focus was to make something that was versatile and really scalable in doing these [applications], so that it doesn't have to be limited to just one collection."