A German investigative documentary called SneakerJagd (translation: Sneaker Hunt) has made some disturbing accusations regarding Nike’s sustainability practices.

The documentary claims that Nike is sending barely worn and returned items to a shredding facility in Belgium. There, SneakerJagd alleges that shoes are destroyed to make Nike Grind, a rubber compound used by Nike to manufacture new sneakers among other things.

SneakerJagd is a public service-sponsored documentary that is produced by Let’s Flip, a company that aims to demonstrate why our consumption and manufacturing habits can’t continue. It has since put various brands and organizations’ sustainability promises to the test.

Many sportswear and fast fashion brands encourage customers to deposit their old or damaged sneakers in donation boxes at their stores. In Nike’s case, consumers are told that their old sneakers will go to a facility that breaks down the shoes and turns the leftover materials into Nike Grind, essentially giving new life to old sneakers.

In theory, this is a great way to create a circular economy. SneakerJagd’s findings, however, cast doubt on whether Nike is only shredding old and used sneakers.

To find out exactly what goes on behind the scenes of said donation boxes, SneakerJagd embedded GPS trackers into the soles of old-but-not-really-old sneakers belonging to various German celebrities, who then “donated” them across stores throughout the country. Crack teams then tracked the GPS signal to find see if it aligned with what the customer was being told having deposited their shoes.

When SneakerJagd asked Nike where the shoes would be broken down (you can see the German-language episode here after creating a free login), it was allegedly told Meerhout, Belgium. Some two weeks after donating the shoes, the recap claims a GPS signal came from a small town around a 30-minute drive from Meerhout. The team ended up traveling to this provincial town to check out the facility in person, where they claim to have made some surprising discoveries.

According to SneakerJagd, the facility had a sign in Dutch that described it as a “pre-treatment facility for the recycling of clothing.” Upon checking out the facility, SneakerJagd claims it was able to look through open windows to see workers handling shoes and a big machine that looked like a shredder. Upon entering the facility under false pretenses, the SneakerJagd team claims that it saw what appeared to be brand new and barely worn sneakers being shredded by the facility.

To test if wearable sneakers were really being shredded by the facility, SneakerJagd decided to buy a pair of new Nike shoes, outfit them with another GPS tracker, and return them to Nike. SneakerJagd claims the shoes ended up at the same facility, which it believes is evidence that not only old and defective sneakers end up in the shredder, but also returned shoes.

It's important to note that in placing the GPS tracker into the sole of the shoe, one could argue that SneakerJagd manipulated the integrity of the initial construction. A point Nike makes in its statement to Highsnobiety (read in full below).

During their second visit to the facility, the team spoke with employees of the facility (again under false pretenses), who told them that a lot of the sneakers that were coming through the facility appeared to be in good condition. The workers at the facility even apparently saved sneakers they thought were “too nice to destroy.”

SneakerJagd explains that this is against the law in Germany, where brands are not allowed to destroy product that is deemed to still be usable. A spokesperson for the German government confirms that anyone breaking that law could be hit with a fine of up to €100,000.

The investigative team took its findings to Nike, which issued the following statement (translated from German): “[Next to worn products] we also recycle worn test products, defect products, fake products, sales samples, and other shoes that aren’t in the right condition to help athletes reach their performance potential to Nike Grind. If evidence of use or defects are discovered, these shoes are recycled in our Nike Grind facilities. New and unworn product is put back on the shelves.”

SneakerJagd claims that it saw several return labels and what appeared to be unworn shoes, causing them to doubt that only defective and worn shoes were being sent to the facility. Over the past two years, Nike has put sustainability at the forefront of its brand messaging, pushing its Move To Zero campaign. Improving its carbon footprint has become a priority in consumer-facing campaigns.

Highsnobiety cannot determine with absolute certainty if SneakerJagd’s findings are true, nor what really goes on in the facility that shreds Nike shoes as shown in the hidden camera videos. What Sneakerjagd’s multipart documentary does do, however, is pose the uncomfortable question of “do we really know what happens to our discarded sneakers and apparel?”

Nike released the following statement in response to Highsnobiety’s request for comment:

The vast majority of footwear returned to Nike by consumers is resold. To keep athletes safe and performing with confidence, all footwear returns are analyzed for damage or tampering. Returned products that exhibit signs of damage or unacceptable wear are sent for recycling. Unworn and flawless items are returned to shelves to be resold. In addition, Nike sends wear test samples, defective product, sales samples and other shoes that are not fit for performance to Nike Grind.

Footage and reporting shared by media outlets demonstrate that a new Nike performance basketball shoe was ordered from nike.com, cut open and tampered with when a GPS tracker was inserted into the product before being returned. This could pose a safety hazard for athletes and consumers if resold. Per our policy and to keep athletes and consumers safe, tampered with footwear is sent for recycling at our Nike Grind facility.

We recognize that there are always opportunities to do more in service of the planet. To help extend the life of some of these returned products, Nike recently launched Refurbished in the U.S., and we will begin piloting the program in EMEA next month. Refurbished allows Nike to extend the life of products that were gently worn before being returned by tiding them up and making them available for shoppers at a reduced price.”

Watch SneakerJagd’s Nike episode here.

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