Nike’s chief design officer on why the company is going all in on sustainability

John Hoke says the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be a springboard for recycled products.

Nike’s chief design officer, John Hoke, doesn’t do media interviews often. But on January 29, he spoke to dozens of reporters at Nike headquarters in New York City about a pursuit and endeavor he says began 25 years ago: the company’s plan to focus on, research, and create sustainable products.

Hoke says it all started in 1994 with Nike Grind, a grassroots initiative to collect and recycle sneakers that is still alive to date. It's since transformed into an extensive project that’s paving the way for recycled goods, eco-friendly football stadiums, and more.

This from Nike and Hoke to push sustainable products forward will be more visible than ever at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this summer, when the brand is set to debut recycled apparel and sneakers that its athletes will wear before, during, and after their competitions. This includes uniforms that are made from 100 percent recycled polyester and yarn, as well as a collection of sneakers dubbed “Space Hippie” that were created out of factory yarn scraps, recycled plastic water bottles, and t-shirts. These garments are made from literal trash, and yet, they look as good as any Nike product — which, Hoke says, is the perfect balance Nike needs to strike.

The recycled "Space Hippie" collection.Nike

“We've made meaningful steps along the way to be really thoughtful about material science and usage,” Hoke told Input in an interview in January during a preview of Nike’s Tokyo 2020 capsule. “We want everything that we do to be more thoughtful about the precious resources that we have, because we're fighting for keeping the playgrounds here, and the clean air and the space to play, and being able to participate in sports in a warming environment.”

He added that, while Tokyo 2020 will mark an important step in Nike’s sustainability efforts, it won’t be the first Olympic summer games where the company has shown off its green innovations. Hoke pointed to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, when Nike designed a tank top for long-distance runners made out of 75 percent recycled plastic bottles. “We want to protect the future of sports,” he said. “And so as a design organization, we want to make better choices. We want to have less of an impact [on the environment].”

"This is a fundamental pivot in the way we design and think, from how we source materials to how we make profit."

While Nike will be going all in on sustainability in Tokyo, Hoke says the company can’t stop there, and it plans to use these Olympics as a springboard to launch more recycled products in the future. He said he couldn’t disclose what other products we may see soon, but noted that Nike’s sustainability pipeline is “alive and well,” and that the recycled garments and sneakers that will be featured at the 2020 games is only a small taste of what’s to come. “A lot of the technologies and ideas that we've displayed today are already well into the line,” he said. “But this is not a once and done. We got this behind us. But this is a fundamental pivot in the way we design and think, from how we source materials to how we make profit, etcetera.”

Nike's recycled shoe boxes.Nike

To better understand what exactly Nike and Hoke are trying to accomplish, you have to go back to May of 2019. That’s when the company introduced its “Circular Design” guidelines, a set of principles intended to help designers create “products that last longer and are designed with the end in mind.” It focuses on 10 key areas:

  1. Material choices
  2. Cyclability
  3. Waste avoidance
  4. Disassembly
  5. Green chemistry
  6. Refurbishment
  7. Versatility
  8. Durability
  9. Circular packaging
  10. New models

Nike and Hoke know they can’t save the planet alone, and, with their “Circularity: Guiding the Future of Design” project, they’re and they’re calling on others in the industry to come together for the greater good. “The guide and its related workbook share principles that support a universal call to action for our industry: We must all come together and have a more positive impact on our planet,” says Nike. “We have an obligation to consider the complete design solution, inclusive of how we source it, make it, use it, return it, and, ultimately, how we reimagine it.”

“It's our commitment as a design organization to think of ourselves more as citizen designers."

“We feel so strongly that sustainability is going to be an ever-important constraint for designers to be thoughtful of,” Hoke said about the Circular Design guide. “It's our commitment as a design organization to think of ourselves more as citizen designers. We have a role to play, and that role is to make better choices and be thoughtful of the circular notion.”

That “circular notion” Hoke speaks of consists of thinking about what materials and processes are being used in the entire lifecycle of a product: “How do you design, and what materials do you select, make and manufacture, distribute, so people love it and wear it forever? And then, how do we disassemble [product] and bring it back to its source material to let us reimagine and remake that matter into something else?” Circularity, in essence, is the idea of using and reusing materials into what's not possible anymore, and that’s the message Hoke and Nike hope to spread with Circularity: Guiding the Future of Design.”

Team USA's recycled medal stand uniforms.Nike

Nike isn't alone in its fight to make the world a better place, one recycled product at a time. Adidas, its main sportswear rival, has initiatives of its own. In 2015, Adidas started a partnership with Parley for the Oceans, a nonprofit organization trying to preserve marine life that made it possible for the brand to create a sneaker made entirely of yarns and filaments reclaimed from ocean waste, as well as other recycled apparel. Since then, Adidas recently announced plans to eliminate its use of all plastic waste and committed to design products with 100 percent recycled polyester by 2024.

These are all ambitious plans from both Adidas and Nike, but their commitment to the sustainability cause seems to be genuine.

Hoke said that although he’s aware of what Adidas and other competitors are doing in the space, his focus is solely on Nike’s efforts. “I'm 100 percent confident that the impact we have will continue to drive this larger conversation,” he said. “Climate change affects all of us, everywhere, in every brand. So I think if we're making steps together in different ways, that's a good thing.”