Last week, Nike unveiled its new Flyleather super-material, a project that came to life as part of its effort to reach $50 billion in sales by 2020 as well as halve its environmental impact. With these long-term business and sustainability goals in mind, in partnership with a UK-based firm named E-Leather, Flyleather might be a greater revolution for the brand and both the industry than you’d think of.
In a classic modern factory making leather for shoes, 30% of a cow’s hide can end up as scraps on the floor, in pieces too small or blemished to be used. Instead of sending the scraps to trash, Nike is beginning to turn them into a new material. Similar to its partner’s process to make recycled leather for seats on airplanes and trains, Nike’s latest super-material uses at least half recycled leather, has a carbon footprint 80% lower than traditional leather and uses 90% less water. It’s also lighter than leather, and more durable. As the company’s latest attempt to reduce the carbon footprint of its shoes, the material was made by turning scraps into fibers, and then blended with synthetic ones to conceive less damaging, more durable shoes.
More specifically, To obtain these results, the material is made with recycled leather fibres melded together with a polyester blend, allowing for more flexibility than traditional leather. Leather waste is crumbled into fibres and then formed into a paste with the power of water jets. That paste is then rolled into sheets of leather, and any scraps that remain after cutting are added back to the scrap heap, creating a closed-loop cycle.
This tremendous new material might, at first, seem like nothing new, since it inevitably reminds us of Flyknit. Indeed, Flyknit uses knitted fabric on upper of the shoe and have reduced more than 3.5 million pounds of waste since they were introduced in 2012. However, Flyleather can also be produced in a way that avoids as many scraps while cutting, since it is made in rolls rather than having the irregular shape of a hide. As of now, one of the very next step for Nike, is to figure out how a Flyleather shoe can be recycled at the end of its life.
“Nike’s vision is that our products will be ‘closed loop’–that is, they will use the fewest possible materials and be assembled in ways that allow them to be readily recycled into new products. Our long-term vision is to create a continuous loop without waste. As a company, we are innovating materials and manufacturing processes as we work towards finding a solution to this complex issue, and exploring how Flyleather can be recycled and reimagined back into new materials in the future.” Hannah Jones, Nike’s chief sustainability officer and vice president of the company’s innovation accelerator in Fast Company, September 2017
This breakthrough, which goes way beyond upcycling, promises to have a great positive environmental impact. It also comes along with huge business opportunities. Indeed, the biggest challenge to date is to make it its new standard, incorporating Flyleather in a range of performance categories. Even so, it also implies convincing athletes that Nike has built an enhanced leather that will outperform traditional one, which may allow the company to further penetrate certain categories. In the meantime, it will have to convince consumers as well that Flyleather is more comfortable and wears just as well, if not better than the real thing. Both of these challenges sets one of the most famous brand in the world in full startup mode.
“How often do you manage to get sustainable, performance and aesthetic in one go?” Jones continues. “If you were running a portfolio of startups, this would be your unicorn.” Hannah Jones in BoF, September 2017
The first Flyleather style, an $85 version of the Tennis Classic, is available to purchase at Nike.com and at the brand’s flagship and Nikelab stores in New York’s SoHo neighbourhood, as well as Dover Street Market. Nike has also created limited editions of the Air Force 1, Air Max 90, Cortez and Jordan 1 in Flyleather, which were on display in New York during Climate Week.
Armed with this new material, Nike might now be poised to reinvent face its most ferocious competitor (Adidas and Under Armor) and, at the same time, reinvent the whole industry’s industrial practices. While this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this take on sustainability, it always comes with a certain satisfaction to see a leader of its own market making such efforts. Let us know hope that this standard spreads and guide us toward a more sustainable footwear market. Whatever happens in the future, it already seems like nike is winning it’s 2020 bet.