Nike’s new Joyride running shoes could prove to be an ecological disaster. The shoes, launching on 15 August, contain over 10,000 plastic beads that cushion the foot on impact. Nike say this will give the runner a softer ride, as the beads gather around the foot to give “personalized cushioning and support.”
The US sports giant has been quick to trumpet the science behind the shoe. The problem of impact, Nike say, “required a wildly creative, thoroughly innovative solution.” For Nike, that solution is plastic beads.
These are not just any beads. Nike’s team say they tested over 150 shock absorbing materials before settling on TPE - Thermoplastic Elastomers - that give just the right amount of bounce.
But during the Joyride’s development journey nobody at Nike seems to have stopped to consider the environmental impact.
Others in the fashion industry are starting to wake up to the sector’s sustainability problems, with fast fashion specialists Inditex (third largest apparel company in the world - behind Nike) committing to using 100 per cent sustainable fabrics before 2025. Nike’s rival, Adidas, recently released a 100 per cent recyclable shoe and has been producing millions of pairs of trainers with reclaimed ocean plastic for the past few years.
Sustainable fashion makes good business sense. Consumer interest in sustainable clothing has surged as shoppers become more eco-conscious. UK polling has recently shown that over two thirds (65 per cent) are happy to pay more for products that are good for the environment. The industry has been unable to transform itself fast enough.
So Nike’s plastic bead shoes feel like a regressive step. Though the beads in the shoe are larger than microbeads and TPE can be recycled, the Joyride’s complex design is likely to make reprocessing difficult. Nike shoes also have a recent history of safety and quality issues, with star athletes in the US seeing their shoes disintegrate mid-game. The risk that the Joyride’s beads escape the shoe and enter the natural environment is very real, especially at the end of their useable life.
Nike should reconsider whether the world really needs the Joyride, or at least explain why it is choosing to release a product that goes against the grain of recent positive industry and market trends.
The answer could be in how Nike innovates. Nike regularly works with elite runners to develop groundbreaking new shoes. The Joyride design process appears to have followed the same model: Nike developed these shoes over five years, focusing on the mechanics of running and with marathon runners directly involved. Very little if any regard seems to have been paid to the product’s environmental impact. References to sustainability do not feature in the shoe’s promotional materials or accompanying media coverage. Nike’s innovation process appears focused on product novelty and potential sales rather than wider consequences.
Puma are just as culpable as Nike. As Wired pointed out, their 2017 Jamming shoes use similar technology (Nike and Puma have had disputes over patents in the past).
This is simply not good enough. Innovators should take any potentially harmful impacts into account before committing to manufacture a product and bring it to market. If Nike and Puma wish to use the innovation process as part of the marketing campaign for their shoes, they should be equally clear on how their engineers and technicians factor in risks to the environment. When Gizmodo asked Nike to comment on the environmental impacts of its Joyride shoes, Nike responded by pointing customers towards its US Reuse-A-Shoe scheme. This feels inadequate and unrealistic.
Products like Nike’s Joyride and Puma’s Jamming shoes give innovation a bad name. They show how innovators can get so caught up in the potential of an idea that they forget about the broader risks. Companies like Nike have a responsibility to innovate responsibly, for broader social good.
Forward-thinking companies like Nike can lead the charge and show others how to innovate well. Here at Nesta, we work to better understand how innovation happens while helping organisations bring ideas to life to change the world for good. We champion inclusive innovation, which includes bringing citizens into the innovation process. If Nike had worked with environmental groups or brought citizens (other than runners) into the Joyride project, the shoes would almost certainly look very different to the way they do now. As it stands, the Joyride shoes have a cutting edge design, but their impact on the world is unlikely to be positive.
Fortunately, Nike still has time to think again on the Joyride shoes and halt the release of millions of plastic beads into the environment on 15 August.