Quality over Green: Nike's New Air Jordan

The latest in the popular line of basketball shoes hits stores as part of Nike's sustainable design line. But the company is hyping performance, not green

Nike's (NKE) new Air Jordan XX3 sneaker, which arrives in stores on Jan. 25, won't have a trace of the color green on it. Rather, the limited-edition shoe will be available in the color combination of white, blue, and gray. And although the shoe was made with earth-friendly materials, and even inspired the invention of a sewing machine to help manufacture footwear with fewer chemical glues, the company is not focusing on the "green" aspect of the sneaker.

Instead, the athletic-goods behemoth hopes that athletes, sports fans, and so-called "sneaker heads" (fanatic collectors willing to pay top dollar for limited-edition shoes) will be drawn to the Air Jordan XX3 as they have been to previous shoes in the Air Jordan line—because of its performance and brand connotations, rather than the green factor. After all, this sub-brand of Nike has been so popular that a new version has been released every year since its launch back in 1985, the rookie year of the basketball superstar whose name graces the shoe. Michael Jordan not only participates in the line's design, he also tests its performance. And although Nike won't disclose sales figures, Tinker Hatfield, Nike's vice-president of innovation design and special projects, says the line's shoes "are some of our fastest sellers. And they're top sellers."

Focus on Performance

The new sneaker is, then, meant to be perceived more as a high-performance, collectible shoe than as a green product. Twenty-three pairs of the first, limited-edition version of the 23rd shoe in the line will be available in only 23 stores. Its high price, $230, will reflect the rareness of the shoes. Then, on Feb. 16, another edition (in white, black, and red) arrives in selected stores, priced at $185. Finally, the full nationwide launch of shoes with a black-and-red color scheme, also $185, is set for Feb. 23. The scattered released dates are intended to increase anticipation for the product.

Officially, the XX3 is the latest in the three-year-old line of Nike Considered shoes, the company's line of green footwear. But, be it from concerns of tampering with a proven branded success or fears of a backlash from consumers tired of "greenwashing," executives chose to focus on the performance of the shoe. Its green factor is an added bonus. Nike does not release specific sales figures for any of its lines, but it suggests that despite the hype, green is not in and of itself enough to provide the sales figures the company requires from its product lines. "Being green isn't enough," says Hatfield, who oversaw the design of the Air Jordan XX3. "We want to be a change agent, but also profitable and [to] make good business moves."

Nonetheless, the eco-friendly innovations of the Air Jordan XX3 are certainly worth attention—even if they might not interest legions of sports fans and sneaker heads.

Earth-Friendly Shoes

Hatfield and his design team in Beaverton, Ore., prioritized designing a shoe that would cut down on toxic chemical adhesives and wasted material. They used material derived from the waste of manufacturing footwear outsoles, as well as materials from recycled used sneakers—known as "Nike Grind," a tactic the company has used since 1993. To push the design even further into green territory, they designed the Air Jordan XX3 with an outsole, midsole, and other elements that fit and hold together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, without relying solely on glues.

"We didn't completely eliminate adhesives, but came close," Hatfield says. The design team also developed a proprietary, water-based bonding process to reduce the use of chemical cements and glues. The company says it's the first time this system was used on any Nike performance footwear.

And, because the Air Jordan XX3 relied primarily on stitching, rather than on adhesives, Hatfield and his team also had to come up with a way to efficiently sew the sneaker together.

So they invented a sewing machine that could stitch the sneaker upright, making "3D" stitches around the whole shoe rather than just on flat sections. The machine has a patent pending. And although there's only one machine in existence now, Hatfield says the company plans to use it for other shoes in the future.

A Step Beyond "Air Hobbits"

The shoe is certainly a world apart from the first Nike Considered boot, released in 2005 and which in hindsight looks like a painfully obvious "eco-chic" product. With its brown hue and hemp lacing, it made a splash at the time, winning a gold IDEA award for consumer products. Judge and respected industrial designer Tucker Viemeister, currently lab chief at the Rockwell Group, praised the boot because it "looks ecological, looks functional…Nike transformed granola and broccoli into voguish shoes!"

But the boot, essentially a "concept shoe," according to Nike's PR department, hardly became a must-have shoe like the Air Jordan sneaker. Some design fans made fun of it. "My friends called the Nike Considered boot 'Air Hobbits,'" says Marc Alt, a sustainability consultant in New York, though he goes on to praise the initiative and Nike's attempts to accept responsibility for its much-criticized actions in the past. "Nike was attacked for its labor practices, and now it's turning 180 degrees," Alt says.

Now, the emphasis is less on "crunchy," more on performance. And the Air Jordan XX3 isn't the only non-obvious green shoe from Nike. Earlier in January, for instance, the company released the Nike Zoom running shoe for women, which looks like a regular Nike sneaker—although the laces are made from 100% recycled polyester and, in fact, 32% of the shoe is recycled.

As other big-brand companies are discovering, wearing green aspirations on your sleeve isn't enough these days. Netflix (NFLX), for example, is often cited as a relatively green service company because it helps consumers not have to drive to rent a video, but it doesn't market itself as such. Apple's (AAPL) iTunes music-downloading service cuts down on CD packaging, but isn't touted as an eco-chic initiative. On the product side, Nike's approach to designing the Air Jordan XX3 as a sustainable shoe that's primarily a must-have sneaker might just help signal a new era of corporate green strategies that cater not only to a healthier planet, but healthier balance sheets, too.

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