Sustainability has become a buzzword used to sell more product when, in reality, the only way towards a truly sustainable and circular economy is to consume and produce less. Still, brands and companies find themselves in a seemingly endless sustainability arms race.
Nike’s Space Hippie collection is the brand’s answer to an increasingly environmentally-conscious consumer — which Highsnobiety has called the immunized shopper in its latest industry report — and while it, too, attempts to solve the problem of overconsumption by producing more product no one really needs, Space Hippie feels distinctly different than sustainable collections that have come before it.
Space Hippie hits all the right notes when it comes to singing about sustainability — all four shoes are somewhere north of 50 percent recycled material — but what makes it noteworthy is the way Nike has marketed the collection. Featuring a distinct aesthetic that has (not wrongly) been described on social media as Tom Sachs-esque, Space Hippie has resonated with consumers because they like the way it looks.
Nike sustainability design lead Noah Murphy-Reinhertz admits as much, telling Highsnobiety: “We're going to have numbers on this that we're really proud of, but it's not going to be the thing that pulls people into the product. It’s going to be how they look. You can immediately see that there's something different [about the collection].”
The numbers are, indeed, impressive. The collection boasts Nike’s lowest carbon footprint scores ever. The knitted material on the uppers are made from 100 percent recycled materials, including plastic water bottles, T-shirts, and yarn scraps. The shoes’ cushioning is made from factory scraps of the Vaporfly 4% and uses half as much CO2 as typical Nike foams, while the tooling is made with 15 percent Nike Grind rubber.
But why make more stuff when we already have more than enough? For one, Space Hippie is made using a significant amount of scraps from other products that exist anyway and would otherwise end on the landfill. Secondly, the collection serves as a test case for a manufacturing process that will hopefully replace ones that already exist.
“If you want to do something new, are you replacing something that's in the world with something even better?” Murphy-Reinhertz asks, adding: “I think often design can be a tool for driving the adoption of new ideas. And hopefully each one of those things is better for the planet and hopefully they all catch on. That's the whole point of design. You're going to experiment.”
The collection shares more than just aesthetic similarities with Tom Sachs’ Nike projects, something that is likely to help its appeal with consumers — whether Nike meant it or not. Space Hippie was born out of in-situ resource utilization, the space exploration practice of collecting, storing, and using materials found in space to replace materials that would otherwise be carried from Earth. In short: a way to use or reuse materials that already exist without creating or producing more. The practice is common at NASA and a method Tom Sachs has been researching and honing his skills in.
Murphy-Reinhertz and his team were put in a room with limited resources and told to create something. Space Hippie was the result. “This is exactly what the future of design looks like, because we have to acknowledge the limitations on resources and then try to design with them in a way that is totally limitless,” says Murphy-Reinhertz.
Whether in-situ resource utilization catches on on a global scale is yet to be determined, though its logic is sound. Still, as long as people and companies want to make money, they will create more product. Nike’s approach seems to be one of trying to replace current processes with better, more circular ones and to make cool products that people want, that also happen to be sustainable.
Nike’s strategy reflects the role of design in sustainability and how the stereotypical hippie has evolved. Whereas in the ’60s and ’70s hippies wore flowers in their hair and drove VW buses, 2020’s version drives a Tesla and is much more in tune with what is cool.
Space Hippie avoids making sustainability a buzzword, instead focusing on making it visually appealing (while having the metrics to walk the sustainability walk). “I think it's not really on us to try to hype sustainability as a way to sell product,” says Murphy-Reinhertz. “This is about us participating in a conversation people are having regardless. We’re trying to design the future.” That future increasingly includes consumers that long for sustainable products that are also cool.
Nike’s Space Hippie collection comprises four sneakers — three men’s models and one women’s-exclusive silhouette — and dropped on June 11 in Europe, with the US release to follow on July 3 on Nike SNKRS.