Interview Mike van der Zanden – Sustainability Director, NIKE EMEA

29/03/2022 — minutes reading time
ELC nike 2

1. What are the most urgent sustainability issues that need to be solved in logistics?

Generally speaking, we can say that in logistics there’s still too much energy being burned, and there are too many materials that are only used once. In addition, significant progress could be made simply by working in a more efficient way. The transformation to sustainable logistics consequently needs to focus on fuel, renewable energy and better collaboration.

In terms of transport, developments are occurring at a rapid pace but are too piecemeal to be deployed at a massive scale, which is where cost efficiencies lie. On the one hand, with regard to fuel, we’re seeing biodiesel being made from used cooking oil, for example. Promising third-generation biofuels are even using algae grown specially for this purpose. On the other hand, with regard to working more efficiently, in the transport arena 50% of lorries are still making empty journeys. Improvements are necessary, but you shouldn’t underestimate the extremely high degree of collaboration required to achieve better coordination.

Nike’s European Logistics Campus (ELC) is a leader in sustainable transport. For example, we use low-carbon fuels for retail deliveries from Belgium to London and for online deliveries throughout Paris, which has reduced our emissions impact by 80%.

There are also many improvements related to energy consumption that can be made in the warehouse itself.

Nike’s ELC runs on 100% renewable energy from five different energy sources. For instance, in our newest distribution centres we’re using geothermal heating, which means heat from underground and groundwater are used to both heat and cool the building.

2. What role should governments play in the conversion to a more sustainable society in general and more sustainable logistics in particular?

There’s already a lot being done with the EU Green Deal, under which all EU countries are aiming for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It means circularity will have to be more than just an aspiration. This ambitious plan has given birth to a whole range of laws, decisions and initiatives that should contribute to the goal. Before long, performance in reducing carbon emissions will be included in financial reporting on business operations. Companies are going to have to really look for more cost-effective solutions.

In terms of bans, you’ll mainly see that in city centres. This could include diesel passenger cars and delivery vans for example, which in many cities are already an ‘auto non grata’. Of course, this will encourage changes in companies’ vehicle fleets.

In terms of taxes, there are more carbon taxes on the way, relating to certain types of packaging for example.

And finally, other benefits will result from EPR systems, which expand the responsibility of companies to cover products that have reached the end of their life. Manufacturers have to make a financial contribution towards processing the waste generated by the products they bring onto the market. The question, of course, is whether all that income from environmental protection taxes is actually 100% channelled back to recycling, for example, and other innovative activities.

3. How is NIKE going with sustainability? Has your organisation set quantifiable objectives for itself?

Nike is definitely a leader in the area of sustainability, and we’re breaking barriers with our ‘Move to Zero’ programme. Like everyone else, we’ve built our policy around the three well-known pillars: People, Planet and Play (Nike’s variation on ‘Prosperity’ – ed.). Looking at the four themes within Planet, in the regions where we actually do our manufacturing we concentrate more on initiatives around Water and Chemistry (product development and production). But in Europe, the focus is more on Carbon and Waste. This covers areas such as renewable fuels and energy, sustainable distribution centres, better packaging, and giving attention to product life extension and end-of-life products. With Nike Grind, we’re working towards a more circular future. What we used to consider waste, now has to be converted into a new product. Innovation obviously plays an important role there.

Fortunately, every branch of Nike has specialists working on sustainability, and I can also say that at an individual level, this subject is included in the duties of every employee, in every position. Just as we pay attention to things like service and cost awareness, sustainability also plays a role in our everyday work.

We also want to be transparent with regard to quantifiable data. For twenty years now, we’ve been reporting openly about our work to bring about positive change for our people, our planet and the communities around us. Our recently-published Impact Report (FY21), in which we reported on our progress towards 29 different objectives, shows how far we’ve come in our ambitions for 2025 on the themes of People, Planet and Play. This progress, together with our clearly described goals, was communicated internally and can also be viewed by the general public on purpose.nike.com.

4. What obstacles or challenges will have to be addressed before your objectives can be achieved?

When we look at fuel for road transport, we’re making progress but there’s still a long way to go. There have been many positive developments – such as the biodiesel I mentioned earlier – but the scale of application is so huge that it will be some time before all lorries that run on traditional fossil fuels are replaced. We already use electricity as an alternative fuel, but the perfect infrastructure is not yet in place. Particularly for long journeys, the many breaks required for recharging mean it’s not cost-effective to incorporate electric vehicles into our business operations. Of course, lorries that run on hydrogen are an interesting option for the future.

Another obstacle in a general sense is 100% recycling. We work with a lot of startups and innovators, but 100% is not yet achievable, even though NIKE is one of the leaders in this area. But that’s the great thing about ‘Move to Zero’: it articulates our ambition and indicates that we’re on the way to a better future.

5. In what ways are your employees involved in these processes?

Culture is obviously a crucial component of all of these efforts. After all, it’s our people who have to deliver our performance. Inclusivity, diversity, safety and talent development are therefore the pillars on which we build.

In terms of carbon emissions and recycling, it’s important to bring your staff with you in your story. Newsletters, speaker sessions, seminars, educational resources and the right branding in our buildings are just a few examples of the resources we use to bring our staff along with us. Another great example is that sustainability is extensively covered during the tours we give of our distribution centres.

Again, it’s important to spread your story as widely as possible. If you do it well, your staff will start to come up with initiatives themselves. At the end of the working day, it’s not unusual to see a group of our staff ‘plogging’, which is a combination of jogging and picking up rubbish.

6. In what ways can we see the theme of sustainability reflected in your products and services? How will your customers notice your efforts?

First, in our packaging. We’ve completely transformed it in the past two years. For example, we now ship every online order with 100% recyclable material. We no longer use any plastic or fillers. We also looked into smarter forms of packaging, which allowed us to use less material. These measures helped us reduce the carbon emissions of our shipments by 50%.

In terms of the product itself, NIKE has actually been working on sustainability for decades. Even back in the nineties, you could bring your used and worn-out shoes back to the shop. You’ll also notice lots of developments in the evolution of our materials over the years.

Examples include:

  • Nike Flyknit: A lightweight, woven fabric which produces 60% less waste on average than is produced in the manufacture of traditional footwear.
  • Nike Flyleather: It looks, feels and smells like natural leather, but it’s made by binding at least 50% recycled leather fibres to synthetic fibres. This creates less waste and has a smaller impact than full-grain leather.
  • Nike Air: The soles are made from at least 50% waste, such as plastic bottles.
  • The striking Space Hippie shoes, with at least 25% recycled material (by weight) have just come out, while the latest Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next Nature goes even further (at least 50% of the entire shoe weight is recyclable material).

Generally speaking, more than 70% of all our products is recycled material.