Change the game

Sports can change the game

There is amazing apathy about mitigating and reversing climate change. Our world is overheating like an oven and yet even I fell asleep both times I tried to watch Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth”. How can we get people excited to take action? Sports.

As said by a sectionmate recently, sports can be more uniting and powerful than religion. Sports caused 5 million Chicago Cubs fans to line the streets for their team’s World Series parade this week, over 110 million people to watch the Super Bowl, and over 26 billion people to watch the World Cup games. Sports connect to individuals at the local level, transcend international boarders and language barriers, and are powerful platforms for sparking social change.

Nike can make it cool to care about climate change and to take action against environmentally dangerous practices. While skeptics may argue that Nike is an apparel company only focused on sustainability to help its brand image and boost its bottom line, and that entering the social impact realm is outside its core competencies, Mark Parker, Nike’s CEO, hints that Nike is up for the challenge, “At Nike, we believe it is not enough to adapt to what the future may bring – we’re creating the future we want to see through sustainable innovation.”1 Nike has made strides towards reducing waste and implementing sustainable material sourcing, but I think the company can go further. If Nike embraces its rebel brand identity and taps into the existing public concern about climate change, it could motivate people to take action in their daily lives, in their business practices, and in government policy.

Climate change’s physical manifestations will impact Nike’s business primarily by causing unstable consumer demand and dangerous environments for its manufacturers. Increased national disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water will cause chaos for a consumer goods company. In addition, the Paris Agreement (21st Conference of Parties – COP21) on climate action has encouraged Nike to implement new technologies and policies that reduce the company’s carbon emissions. These threats, opportunities, and regulations have resulted in Nike primarily focusing on improving its own company’s actions.

Nike has announced three strategic 2020 goals for its Sustainable Performance Innovation Team: minimize environmental footprint, transform manufacturing, and unleash human potential. The environmental footprint initiative targets sourcing sustainable materials, eliminating discharge of hazardous chemicals, and reducing carbon, energy usage, waste, and water. The manufacturing initiative focuses on labor practices and wages. Lastly, the human potential initiative aims to invest 1.5% of pre-tax income in positive impact community programs.

Nike’s self-proclaimed “two most sustainable innovations” are Flyknit and Nike Grind.1

Flyknit is a sneaker manufacturing technology that “prevents millions of pounds of waste from ever reaching the landfill.” 1 Nike claims that Flyknit allows the company to produce an average of 60% less waste compared to traditional cut and sew shoe manufacturing. 1 It is important to notice that the company views both Flyknit and Nike Grind products as “a powerful engine for growth” because the products do not compromise quality. Flyknit shoes claim to be lighter and better fitting. 1 It is also amazing that Flyknit technology is used in every type of shoe, from soccer cleats to running shoes to basketball sneakers to fashion footwear and more.

Nike Grind is Nike’s recycling initiative that transforms old materials into new products. This regeneration process to morphs old shoes into track running surfaces and used water bottles into soccer kits. This project has already made deep penetration into Nike’s product assortment as “Nike Grind materials are used in 71% of Nike footwear and apparel products, in everything from yarns and trims, to some of our most premium jerseys and shoes.”1 Lastly, Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program encourages consumers to drop off their old shoes at Nike Factory store locations so that they can be transformed through Nike Grind.

It is my hope that Nike expands its sustainability practices beyond its own company and leverages the platform of sports to motivate a cultural movement. Through celebrity endorsements, tapping into the athlete psyche of accomplishing the impossible, and connecting with athletes at all age levels, ability levels, and geographic locations Nike could lead a social call to action.


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1 Nike Sustainable Innovation,

2 “Nike Football: World Cup 2010 South Africa” HBS case study

3 “Nike Sustainable Innovation – More with Less”

4 Nike FY14-15 Sustainable Business Report


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Student comments on Change the game

  1. I am a big Nike fan and was unaware of all the cool sustainability work they are doing, so thanks for sharing! In our recent Nike case, we learned that the company attempted to make some sort of reusable Jersey for the Brazilian soccer team that didn’t really catch on. I wonder if Nike has plans to more outwardly promote the work they are doing given this initial lukewarm reaction. How will consumers at this point in time react to knowing their new (pretty expensive) shoes are in fact made of recycled materials? I think given where general sentiment is at this time, it could be a positive marketing ploy for Nike, but it is definitely risky. Will be interesting to see wha they do next!

  2. Great post combining TOM and marketing! I agree that companies that hold tremendous amounts of social capital, like Nike, have a responsibility to behave in an exemplary manner for their consumers. The example in my mind is the eco-sneakers by Adidas which not only cuts down on the waste of production, but the fundamental materials and fibers they’re using are recycled fishing nets which are notoriously difficult to dispose of ( I wonder to what degree can Nike, with their cutting-edge product teams and resources, begin to develop a manufacturing process using waste products (-ester and -ethylene based products) – the goal being not just reducing contribution to waste, but taking waste out of the system. Nike Grind already seems to be doing that with recycled shoes. But Nike is in the unique position to drive real demand for recycled-fiber-based products. Imagine the next Jordan’s or LeBron’s made with fibers from discarded water bottles! More broadly, your post highlights a key factor: cultural / social capital and sustainability has the potential to drive real change in the consumption habits, which in turn drive changes in production and product.

  3. Nice post — I particularly agree with your assessment that sports and sporting goods companies can be the key to spreading awareness on climate change. I would like to see Nike do more in terms of partnering with key team sponsorships (i.e. Barcelona FC or Texas Longhorns football) and key individual sponsorships (i.e. LeBron James or Cristiano Ronaldo). While Nike has done an admirable job of incorporating FlyKnit and NikeGrind in to its products, I do not see the company doing this for its marquee sponsors.

    Recently, its main competitor, Adidas, announced that Real Madrid — the most popular soccer team in the world — will wear Adidas jerseys made from 100% recycled plastic in the ocean ( This is the sort of front-and-center attention that I hope Nike will do in the future. While FlyKnit and NikeGrind are great, the impact of the world’s most popular soccer team wearing 100% recycled jerseys is much more influential and will generate massive worldwide attention. I would like to see Nike roll out a more tangible sustainable product for its most famous athletes and teams.

  4. Interesting take that sports (and perhaps entertainment in general) can be a key contributor to getting the messages of climate change to a broader audience. I was not aware of all the actions Nike was doing in this space. My concerns are do you think these steps are enough to actually spark a debate, or should they take further action?
    Perhaps Nike can apply pressures to various sports leagues or use their larger profile athletes to spread the word on sustainability. One of the largest concerns I see from a sustainability standpoint long term is the current processes for the Olympics and World Cups in which countries are spending large sums of money to construct facilities that generally are never used again. This is a large waste of resources, money, and labor that could potentially be used for better services. Is there a way to change this, or perhaps use these platforms to promote sustainability in other ways?
    A lot of leagues have their “month of service” and other type of green initiatives. Do you see a way of expanding this branding? (whether it be with partnerships with a company like Nike, or the leagues doing it on their own)

  5. Love the idea Coach, and agree that Nike has been a leader at pushing for sustainability in their products and business over the past years. I think the biggest hurdle for them is going to be getting a major sponsored athlete to join them in the campaign. For example if you had Lebron James version of the Flyknit or Jordan brand released a special “sustainable” edition of a retro shoe – these would be great ways for immediate public awareness of the new initiatives and start driving sales towards more sustainable products. As we have seen with the recent election coverage, these athletes are not afraid to go out and make a public stand on a social issue (ex. Lebron was at a Hillary rally in Cleveland over this past weekend), so it is just a matter of getting them to buy into the mission.

  6. Great post – I also wrote about Nike and was very impressed by the actions they’ve taken to date, as well as the ambitious plans for the future. They’ve obviously been a leader introducing sustainability measures into the supply chain, but I worry about the company/industry’s ability to take the sustainability lens to product innovation/design/development at scale.

    For example, Nike’s Flyknit and Grind initiatives have show sustainable innovation can work but haven’t truly forced consumers to make a real trade-off (whether in price or product). I worry that while these innovations have been great for Nike’s cost structure and public relations, they aren’t truly rooted in consumer demand (at least yet). Do you agree? To what extent do you think athlete’s can influence decisions with regards to sustainability?

  7. Yes – thank you for sharing! I was also unaware of these initiatives and think it is a great move for Nike as a company. As you said, sports truly unifiy people. Unlike anything else in our society, sports capture the attention of so many people and it as an ideal platform for spreading awareness and making a difference. Like you mentioned, I think Nike’s initiatives could be very impactful because not only do they minimize waste and recycle used materials, but as a global brand that is relevant in all sports, it can truly reach so many people and drive awareness of an important issue facing everyone in the world.

  8. Thanks for sharing Coach! To what extent do you think Nike can overcome the stereotype that eco friendly products are lower quality than traditional products ( a theme that came up in our Nike case)?

  9. Great post, thanks for sharing. I completely agree with you that Nike can do more to make being green and environmentally friendly be cool. I spent most of my childhood in one of the countries where football ‘is religion’, similar to what your post references, and I believe that there will be a great impact if Nike uses its brand image or sports celebrity promoters to more actively the ‘coolness of being green’. Adidas, Nike’s main competitor, has made a bit more progress on the idea of using its brand to promote the ‘coolness of being green’, and now sells ‘Climacool’ apparels endorsed by sports stars such as Lionel Messi (

  10. Great post coach! – I had no idea that Nike had these initiatives in place. It was great to hear that Fly Knit is so sustainable – I wouldn’t have guessed that because it is such a quality product that fits and feels great. It goes to show that you don’t always have to compromise. Innovation can create products that are both more functional and more sustainable.

    Nike endorses the most dominant and iconic athletes – it would be great to see one of them promote this sustainable image.

  11. Interesting post! Like many of the comments above, I was not aware of the sustainability initiatives of Nike. My only wonder is if Nike is really committed to this sustainability projects – are they conducting Flyknit and Nike Grind just for CSR purposes? If Nike was truly committed to these initiatives, they would initiate aggressive marketing campaigns (like they usually do). With their (almost) lack of promoting these projects, it almost seems as if there is a limit in sustainably manufacturing an innovative product. I wonder if there is a level of trade offs with these products – whether it be for professional sports teams or for the mass consumers.

  12. Great article. Nike has certainly taken the initiative on incorporating sustainability into their supply chain. I share the concerns expressed in some previous comments regarding the company’s ability to embed the idea into their entire corporate philosophy. Cynical as it may seem, Nike’s current consumer demographic might not prioritize sustainability as a key decision factor. Additionally, pushing for sustainability might also create some degree of tension with the shareholders as it likely might not lead to shareholder value maximization. Curious to see how Nike’s initiative will develop in the future.

  13. I completely agree that Nike has the potential to make caring for sustainability ‘cool’. There is an entire demographic of the younger population who is already more environmentally conscious and Nike is in the powerful position of shaping their thoughts on sustainability through its campaigns and products. Unfortunately, what I see Nike as right now in popular media (TV ads and print) is largely a performance driven company used by various star athletes- it’s community focus is strong in its ads, I would really like to see it focus more explicitly on how sustainability is absolutely core to their business and get a conversation started not just among its fan, but the players, coaches, sponsors etc.

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