Nike Is Designing Biodegradable Sneakers Out of Carbon

'In the race against climate change, we can't wait for solutions'.
Brad Bergan
Thick smoke rising from a gigantic smokestack.georgeclerk / iStock

Nike is moving up in the world, if you can believe it.

The sportswear giant has already made shoes out of trash, but now it's set sights on using greenhouse gases as a material source for Nike shoes, according to a recent press release.

While, yes, the carbon-based shoes will be biodegradable, this also serves as an interesting example of major corporations reducing their own "carbon footprint", instead of convincing private individuals to blame themselves for climate change.

Nike partners with AirCarbon manufacturer Newlight

This comes with a new announcement from Nike of a new partnership with Newlight, which is a biotech firm focused on developing a means to convert carbon into a plastic and leather alternative. Newlight has a proprietary AirCarbon material that's something more than carbon neutral: It's literally carbon negative, since it's bio-based, and 100% biodegradable. "AirCarbon offers an opportunity to further reduce our impact on the planet," said Nike's Chief Sustainability Officer Noel Kinder, in a press release. "Materials account for 70 percent of Nike's total carbon footprint, and we're accelerating our efforts and exploring new opportunities in this space because, in the race against climate change, we can't wait for solutions, we have to work together and create them."

To manufacture its AirCarbon, Newlight extracts microorganisms from the oceans that eat oxygen and carbon to transform it inside their bodies into polyhydroxybutyrate, also known as PHB. After 10 years of maturing its craft, the company discovered how to dry PHB into a white powder that can then be melted into several useful forms, like sheets, fibers, and even solid shapes. As of writing, the company has two retail brands capable of implementing AirCarbon, across two of the most waste-heavy industries. One of them, Covalent, uses Newlight's AirCarbon to produce wallets, handbags, sunglasses, and tech accessories, while the other retailer, Restore, manufactures AirCarbon cutlery and straws.

Limiting corporate greenhouse emissions is key

Of course, Newlight doesn't expect to save the world in one fiscal year. But it is an ambitious method of proliferating more climate-conscious practices from the top down. "Our mission is change at scale, and there are few better partners in the world than Nike to help achieve that," said Mark Herrema, Newlight's CEO. "We are excited to explore how AirCarbon can help Nike decarbonize its products and achieve its ambitious carbon-reduction goals." To be clear, this is a good thing. The clothing and accessories industries produce an unconscionable amount of greenhouse gases, with the fashion industry alone representing roughly 10% of global carbon emissions and nearly 20% of wastewater, according to a BBC report.

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However, we should always be wary of trendy catch-phrases like "carbon footprint", since the term was invented by a PR firm on British Petroleum's payroll, specifically to help it convince us, private individuals, to blame ourselves and our impact on the environment, instead of fossil fuel firms that represent the overwhelming majority of responsibility for the environmental catastrophe currently sweeping the world in massive fires, unusually extreme weather patterns, dying animal species, and rising average sea levels. This means Nike partnering with Newlight to manufacture shoes directly from carbon waste, instead of merely telling consumers to blame themselves for their toxic spending habits, is a net good in a rapidly warming world.

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