There are few innovations more iconic to Nike than Air. And it’s remained one of our most revered product lines for decades. Made primarily in the U.S., it’s a technology we’ve continued to improve with a focus on better looks, better performance, and being better for the planet. Today, it is one of the best examples of sustainable innovation in Nike footwear.
A Look Back
In 1977, aeronautical engineer Frank Rudy presented a crazy idea to Phil Knight: placing air inside of shoes for cushioning. Phil went for a test run, and Nike never looked back. Since then, Nike Air shoes have been a staple sneaker in closets around the world.
Nike Air technology consists of pressurized air (nitrogen) inside a tough yet flexible bag called the Nike Air sole unit. The Air sole units are located in the midsole beneath the heel, forefoot or in both areas.
Nike Air Manufacturing Innovation manufactures its most advanced Air sole units from three Nike facilities in the U.S.—two of which are based in Oregon, near Nike’s World Headquarters, and one near St. Louis, Missouri.
Since the early 90’s, manufacturing waste from Air sole units has been re-engineered into every new Air sole made. Just as every second counts for an athlete, every ounce of material matters for us. Excess material scraps are collected from Nike’s proprietary manufacturing process and put back into a machine that grinds the scraps down so they are able to be used again. This is a circular process which allows us to reuse more than 90 percent of the materials used in the creation of our innovative Air soles, so materials stay on the feet of athletes and out of landfills.
While we’ve been recycling manufacturing waste for decades, Nike continuously invests in technologies which allow us to do more with less impact. For instance, the first Air soles were inflated with hexafluoroethane (Freon 116) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), harmful greenhouse gases. As part of Nike’s commitment to creating a clean and healthy playing field for all athletes, we knew we had to transition to a climate-friendly chemical compound. After years of research, Nike transitioned to using nitrogen in all of its Air soles in 2006.
A Sustainable Icon
Since 2008, all Air sole innovations contain at least 50 percent recycled material. Today, Nike Air Manufacturing Innovation facilities divert over 95 percent of manufacturing waste from landfills. That’s over 50 million pounds of materials, the equivalent of nearly 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools per year alone. We also invented a dye coloring process for Air soles which allows 99 percent of recoverable dye water to be recycled. Our facilities use LED lighting and employ teams who are constantly seeking ways to further reduce our impact such as minimizing packaging waste and reducing carbon-intensive shipping methods.
The Air to Move Us Forward
We never stop iterating and improving our products and our business, streamlining our design process so we can deliver high-performance products with fewer, more sustainable materials. For instance, in the new Nike Air VaporMax shoe, we’ve pioneered a concept that removes the need for a foam mid-sole. The shoe delivers on our most daring dream: helping every athlete feel the unparalleled sensation of running on air via a unique cushioning system with Air across the entire bottom of the shoe.
Nike primarily manufactures its most innovative Air soles in our U.S. facilities, which gives us the ability to continuously develop sustainable materials and new methods of make to minimize our environmental impact and maximize performance. But we’re not stopping there: as of mid-2019, all of our North America Nike Air Manufacturing Innovation facilities purchase 100 percent renewable energy. We’re pushing our limits and setting the bar higher than we ever thought possible, all while holding ourselves accountable to pushing the industry forward.