If you're up to date on sneaker culture, there's a pretty slim chance you've missed the news about Nike's upcoming Space Hippie shoe collection release this summer. The announcement made waves across the internet for its distinctive look and what it means for the company as a whole. The shoe's ultimate design goal? To create a product made entirely from factory waste. The release is an ambitious milestone in Nike's history, kicking off their foray into a full embrace of circular economy principles within their own product manufacturing line.
Given Nike's place in the design pecking order (and their own global production line's ecological footprint), the release is a call to industry at large to start prioritizing substance over "perfection". In a recent promotional video someone from Nike's team even states, "If they look weird, it's because they're made of trash." The refurbished look of the shoe is 'imperfect' in a way that speaks to the DIY fashion culture gone mainstream thanks to designers like Virgil Abloh and companies like Nike. The name "Space Hippie" comes from the design team's original DIY inspiration—resourceful astronauts living off limited materials in space. It's an image that serves as an analogy for how we ought to make the most out of excess materials on Earth to curb climate change acceleration.
To learn more about this landmark shoe project, we had a virtual chat with Noah Murphy-Reinhertz, Sustainable Design Lead of Nike's NXT Space Kitchen, the team responsible for Space Hippie and other ambitious projects like the Nike Adapt self-lacing shoes. In our interview, Murphy-Reinhertz explains how the team came up with the futuristic concept and shares takeaways with our audience of designers on how to embrace more sustainable design and production practices.
Noah Murphy-Reinhertz, Sustainable Design Lead at Nike's NXT Space Innovation Kitchen
Core77: Can you explain your role at Nike and what that entails?
Murphy-Reinhertz: My title is Sustainable Design Lead within the NXT Innovation Space Kitchen. This is the team in Nike where we look at questions with a lot of unknowns around them. We don't know how long it'll take to find the solution, we don't know what sport or what kind of activity some of the solutions might be applied to. My role was created about four or five years ago, and the goal was to try to bring sustainability into the most early exploratory stage of innovation at the company. So my job is just to think about the most far out there reaches of sustainable product.
How the idea behind Space Hippie begin and when did you start brainstorming the idea for the shoe?
The project started a couple of years back. There was already work going on around sustainability, but one thing that was very new was the analytics team's research on carbon impact of materials and processes down to an individual product basis. They shared with us the carbon impact of different pairs of shoes, and one of the things I realized in having that conversation was that it's actually been a while since we've created the lowest carbon footprint shoe.
Nike's full Space Hippie shoe line features four distinct styles. Each of Space Hippie's four silhouettes provide a unique fit option — traditional laces, lace-less and Flyease.
There's this idea within Nike that the best is temporary and records are meant to be broken; so seeing that record immediately inspired me to say, how can we do better than that? And by talking with a lot of people ultimately the answer was, we've got to go back to material. The truth is, the materials that have the most impact today are things that have already been used once and are going to get thrown away.
That was really the beginning of the process. It wasn't a brief—it was just our own inspiration to say, if we're going to make the lowest carbon footprint product or material that Nike has done, we're going to have to work with waste. So how can we embrace that waste and create something from it?
Can you break down the origins of the various materials comprising the shoe?
It was an exciting moment when we learned waste was going to be the most important feedstock we could leverage for this product, because it guided us toward these ideas of circularity. But we didn't want to engage in circularity just to keep things out of the landfill—that's a great goal in and of itself, but we want to recycle in a way that also reduces the carbon emissions we're putting out in the creation of those materials. So with each of the waste materials we looked at, we wanted to use as little energy and as little reprocessing as possible to turn it back into something we could use.
There are three main elements of the shoe: the first one is the Space Waste Yarn. This was the biggest breakthrough in terms of waste reuse because we've been using recycled polyester for a really long time in Flyknit—I think the number of plastic bottles recycled into yarn is in the billions. We wanted to do even better than that, which was a big challenge. We took textiles that were already out there—scraps from the factory floor, t-shirts that had already been used, pieces that would normally just head to landfill intercepted nodes. We took some of that recycled polyester as well, and from those materials we created a staple fiber. Spinning these waste materials together uses very little heat and no dye at all. So the yarn is 100% recycled material, but also about 70% less carbon emissions than a typical recycled polyester.
A material breakdown of the sustainable elements that make up the Space Hippie sneaker
Then there are the other core parts of the shoe. There's the Crater Foam, which is to me one of the most fun elements. This is basically taking a normal Nike foam and then putting in 15% reground rubber. Reground rubber is literally as though you're making a waffle and the batter that comes out the side of the waffle press, that's the excess rubber that's produced in our factories as we're making shoes. So we're taking that rubber, grinding it up and incorporating it into the crater foam at 15%. It reacts with the foam during the molding process and you get this really unique look. Every time a shoe comes out of the mold, each one is different.
The last really cool part of this is what we're calling the "Zoom X Eco", and these are the leftover scraps from those elite performance running shoes like the Vapor Fly NEXT%, the Alpha Fly. When you make those parts it's, again, kind of like a cookie cutter process. By taking leftover parts, treading those up and then compressing each one in a mold, you get this cushioning system that's 100% recycled material but it's made from that elite level foam.
What were some of the biggest challenges you came across with the production of the shoe? I'm sure that using recycled material brings another level of complication to the manufacturing process.
One of the most hilarious moments in this process was the first time we went to our partner factory in Vietnam. The people who work there laid out all the samples and started to go through and point out all of the reasons why there were too many flaws for any of these shoes to ship. And we just said, "Oh no, this is perfect! This is exactly the way they should look." And the relief just washed over everybody's face. So there was this really interesting challenge of needing to recalibrate the factories' mindset around what is and isn't a perfect product. We're so used to achieving perfection through a lack of variance; you get a design, you finish the design and every product after that should look exactly the same. But here it was about getting our factory partners to embrace the idea that each one of these was going to be a little bit different.
Space Hippie shoe style 1
Space Hippie shoe style 2
Another challenge was that the supply chain to reuse some of this material didn't exist when we started this shoe. You know, we've been doing the Nike Grind reuse the shoe program since the early nineties by beginning to collect shoes and recycling them. And we've developed a really fantastic supply chain for reusing the grind that comes out of that process; we know how to build sport courts out of it, how to get it into home insulation, carpet underlayment, a lot of things like that. But when we said we want to take post-consumer textile and bring them back and create yarn, that was a kind of reuse that really hadn't been done at a massive scale before.
So creating those supply chains to embrace that end part of circularity was a really new challenge and we wound up bringing in people from procurement, from all facets of the business to stand up this new supply chain and make it possible for Nike designers now to say, "I want to select those post-consumer and post-industrial materials and have them much more widely available." This was the guinea pig project for this larger plan of repeating this over and over again.
We've had about 75% of all Nike products include some recycled material in them, whether slightly visible or completely invisible. But the aesthetic challenge of this project was to say, how do we open up that aperture and say, what does it look like when we use 100% recycled material?
Do you have any takeaways from this project that you could share with other people who want to manufacture more sustainable products?
I think there are two key lessons that really came out of this whole project. One is that the tools that are available to us today are the best place to start. What we put in our project manifesto was "start where you are, use what you've got." We can begin taking action on this now.
The second is to really embrace the constraints of those materials and allow constraints to inspire innovation, new style and new applications. Nike does that on a daily basis by looking at the constraints of performance. And we took that same mindset and said, let's look at the constraints of low carbon emissions. Let's look at the constraint of only recycled materials and let's be inspired by that. And I think that kind of lesson for any designer is super valuable.
I'm curious to hear more about the specific style inspiration for the Space Hippie concept. How did you ultimately land on certain design styling decisions?
There was this moment with the waste materials that led to the concept and the name. We brought this bucket of trash to a group of other designers and said, "This is the stuff that we have to work with, let's just see what we can create with it." And the way that we were putting everything together was very scrappy—using tape, shock cord and tying things together just to get a sense of how the material looked with each other. But one of the designers on the team, she said, "Oh, this is like, you're repairing your shoes in space." And that just led us on this riff of things, saying it's like in The Martian where he is farming potatoes after the space station is blown up. How would you fix your shoes? He's living off the land. It's like he's a hippie, a "space hippie". So that moment of just bouncing all of those ideas around was when the name came out.
Space Hippie shoe style 3Space Hippie shoe style 4
And that led us to just think a little bit more deeply about what it means to run space programs and invest all of this amazing technology in exploring the universe. In the same way that you have limited resources on Mars, we in fact have limited resources here on Earth. So let's take that same approach to efficiency, to resource utilization and look at things locally.
There were two things [driving our design aesthetic]. One was the materials were so amazing that we really wanted them to speak for themselves—people out there see the shoe's material and can intuitively understand there's something different about it. The second part was trying to choose every single process based on its carbon impact and how little impact we can actually have.
So we only used additive processes throughout this. The first one of those that's the most significant is the Nike Flyknit. I had seen the first Flyknit during the 2012 London games, and that was actually this moment that inspired me to look at Nike as this company that was reinventing how things could be made. As a designer, that was a super amazing moment for me. So we knew we wanted to use Flyknit as a process that doesn't produce any waste, it's just this process of additive yarn. But everything else is also a no-waste process. So the swoosh is a great example of this—we did that through embroidery so there's zero waste, zero pattern cutting there. All of the webbings are just measured to length and then cut.
Nike's design approach seems to have evolved over I'd say the past 5, 10 years with even more experimental efforts, and it's difficult to imagine a radical shoe like this being as coveted as it is in this particular moment. I'm curious if you are able to answer why stylistically and philosophically you think that this shoe is a perfect fit for today's design ethos?
There's something that's really key with this idea of looking back at this 10 years of evolution, but really we're talking about almost 20 years of evolution of what sustainability is. And there was so much for us to draw on in creating this shoe and kind of thinking about what we had already done and how we could do even better. In addition to the first Flyknit shoe in 2012, there was Nike Considered in the early aughts, which was a whole collection around trying to eliminate adhesive and make shoes that could be easily repaired.
I think the most important thing that came to us as we look back on that heritage of sustainability and how we can push the boundary a little further today was to bring in this kind of sense of optimistic urgency. And really this idea that we have to do something now, but we also have to do it in a way that engages people's imagination and desire to push this conversation forward and participate in this effort along with us to combat climate change. It's a topic that can be very heavy and not leave a lot of room for hope and optimism.
But for Nike the key to this athlete's spirit is what's possible. And so the design really was meant to just bring that out. Like, let's show people that by embracing the constraints in this, we can have a lot of fun. We can create new styles, we can create new experiences and we can imagine a really positive future through using these tools that make a more sustainable product.
Nike's Space Hippie shoe collection is set to release in Summer 2020