Making a sneaker typically involves cutting sheets of leather or other fabric into pieces that can be sewn together—and ending up with a pile of scraps on the floor. A new ’90s-inspired shoe from Nike called the Atsuma reduces waste by rethinking the pattern. “The team experimented with patterns to see if we could make cutouts fit together like a puzzle,” Noel Kinder, chief sustainability officer at Nike, says in an email.
When the company’s swoosh is cut out for one side of a shoe, the piece that’s left becomes part of the design on the other side. Another piece of fabric is split in half with a wavy line; each piece becomes the “heel counter,” the leather that wraps around the back of the shoe. A small shape cut out as part of the eyestay, the part of the shoe that holds the laces, creates a corresponding design used on the side. Even a shape cut out from the rubber outsole is reused as a hangtag.
“Our designer manifested the concept of ‘negative space,'” says Kinder. “Whenever cutting a shape, we tried to find a way to use both the shape and the material it was cleaved from . . . The team wanted to be sure this concept of negative space was obvious to the consumer, so they colored the product so that it was easy to see what we were doing.”
The designers took inspiration in part from Flyknit, the knit technology first used in the brand’s shoes in 2012; if a shoe is made from yarn (in Nike’s case, from recycled plastic), it can be shaped into a sneaker without the waste that the cut-and-sew process leaves behind. The company says that the Flyknit manufacturing process creates 60% less scrap waste than a shoe upper normally would. “Inspired by Flyknit, the design team thought about how to treat the materials used in traditional footwear, like synthetic leather, as one singular piece,” says Kinder. “We’re constantly exploring ways to eliminate waste.”
The company is guided by circular design principles, he says. Flyleather, a material Nike developed in 2017, is made in part from leather scraps from tanneries that would normally be discarded. Grind, another custom material, is made from discarded scraps and recycled shoes and can be used to make outsoles. For decades, waste from manufacturing Air soles have been remade into new soles. In 2019, the company released a guide to circular design for the industry that talked about factors like durability, design for disassembly, and “cyclability,” or how to make materials as easy as possible to recycle and how to collect products from consumers at the end of use. One factor, of course, was avoiding waste in manufacturing.
Nike is now moving toward a goal of zero waste (and zero carbon). It’s worth wondering whether the types of shoes it offers may eventually change. Kinder wouldn’t say whether the company’s offerings would move toward a bigger percentage of Flyknit shoes, but knit manufacturing can go further in eliminating waste; already, since Flyknit shoes were first launched, the design changes have kept more than 3.5 million pounds of waste from landfills, and made use of more than 6 billion water bottles. And the knit thread lends itself more easily to recycling—perhaps, like Adidas, Nike will eventually also start to recycle old uppers into new shoes.