To Tom Hartge, the fax that inched out of the machine in Nike's Inc.'s (NKE
) Beaverton (Ore.) headquarters back in 1992 came like a kick to the gut. As the product manager for the company's running-shoe division, Hartge had devoted much of his career to perfecting Nike Air, a lightweight plastic air pocket attached to the heel that had kept the company's sneakers at the front of the pack for more than a decade. Now a German environmental magazine was attacking companies that used a super-potent greenhouse gas called sulfur hexafluoride, or SF6. Makers of refrigerators and air conditioners bore the brunt, but the magazine pointed out that Nike's air pockets contained not just air but SF6, too. The accusation stung all the more, coming right as other critics had begun to slam Nike for using sweatshop labor in its contract factories in Asia and elsewhere.
It took Nike nearly 14 years to overcome the SF6 problem. This summer, after quietly devoting tens of millions of dollars and countless frustrating days to research that went nowhere, Nike finally perfected a way to create SF6-free air pockets. The technology now cushions fully half the 200 million shoes it sells each year. Although Hartge and researchers worked closely over the years with several green groups, they chose not to brag about their environmental victory to consumers or the public. Instead, Nike sees the effort as part of a broader strategy to embrace social responsibility without compromising profits or product performance.