Inside a Nike retailer in Hamburg, Germany, as within the retailer’s different shops, there’s a field the place prospects can add outdated sneakers to allow them to be became ground-up materials used to pave basketball courts or make new soles for shoes. However when a German investigative crew determined to discover out what occurred to an outdated pair of shoes added to the field—by including a GPS tracker so they might observe the trail—they found one thing sudden at the recycling center: The brand additionally appeared to be destroying new shoes, one thing that violates a recently-enacted German regulation.
The monitoring gadget led to a facility in Belgium, not removed from Nike’s massive European distribution center. “It was open, so that you [could] simply enter the entire place,” says Christian Salewski, a journalist and founding father of Flip, a analysis startup that partnered with German media retailers on a larger project analyzing the the afterlife of sneakers. “We had been simply strolling round, and we may see by open doorways the equipment that was doing the grinding course of. There have been employees loading bins on a desk. That was the primary time we thought, What is that this? As a result of they had been all brand new shoes.”
Salewski watched as employees pulled paper out of the toes of the new sneakers and despatched them down a conveyor belt. When he launched himself, explaining that he was a journalist within the recycling course of, employees at the plant confirmed that they solely processed shoes for Nike, and the vast majority of the shoes that they processed appeared to be new.
The journalists returned to Germany and tried one other experiment, shopping for a new pair of Nike shoes after which sending them again for a return. “We actually took care that these shoes weren’t faulty in any manner—they didn’t have a scratch,” Salewski says. The one alteration, after all, was the GPS tracker, which confirmed the in any other case unblemished shoes touring to the identical recycling plant. Salewski visited the plant once more, and noticed extra new shoes, some with return paperwork, being processed. Nike didn’t reply to the journalists’ requests for extra particulars.
Destroying the shoes possible violates a latest German regulation that requires producers to try to make use of usable merchandise relatively than throwing them out or “downcycling” them, as within the Nike course of. “They name it recycling, nevertheless it’s downcycling,” Salewski says, that means that the supplies lose their unique worth after they’re processed. Whereas it’s attainable to make sneakers from one materials that may truly be recycled—that’s the intent of Adidas’s Futurecraft Loop, for instance, although it hasn’t fairly reached the purpose the place one shoe can be became a new shoe—most are produced from a number of supplies, connected in a manner meaning they’ll’t be totally separated and reused. The Nike Grind materials, made by grinding up the shoe, can be used for flooring or for shoe soles, however not a utterly new shoe. And whereas outdated shoes would possibly be deemed unusable, it’s onerous to make the identical case about shoes that a buyer has tried on as soon as and returned. Beneath the German regulation, Nike might owe a 100,000 euro effective. (Salewski notes that’s not a lot of a rebuke, for the reason that firm would possibly make that a lot in two minutes.)
In a assertion to Quick Firm, Nike stated that the “overwhelming majority” of shoes returned to the corporate are resold. “To maintain athletes protected and performing with confidence, all footwear returns are analyzed for harm or tampering. Returned merchandise that exhibit indicators of harm or unacceptable put on are despatched for recycling. Unworn and flawless gadgets are returned to cabinets to be resold. As well as, Nike sends put on take a look at samples, faulty product, gross sales samples and different shoes that aren’t match for efficiency to Nike Grind.”
The corporate famous that the shoe used the investigation was tampered with to set up the GPS tracker, although it’s not clear how a returns division would have recognized that was the case. “This might pose a security hazard for athletes and shoppers if resold,” the corporate stated. “Per our coverage and to hold athletes and shoppers protected, tampered with footwear is shipped for recycling at our Nike Grind facility.” Nike additionally famous that it launched a new program within the U.S., Refurbished, to “prolong the lifetime of merchandise that had been gently worn,” and resell them at a low cost; this system will launch in Europe subsequent month.
However the observe of destroying sellable items is frequent within the attire trade. Burberry made headlines for burning unsold stock in 2018; Coach just lately handled the backlash from a viral TikTok exhibiting luggage that had been slashed after they weren’t bought. Nike itself has been caught slashing unsold shoes in the past. And returns pose a downside not simply in attire however for all sorts of merchandise. By one estimate, round 25% of returns might go straight to a landfill, creating billions of kilos of trash every year. As on-line buying retains rising, so do returns—and most retailers haven’t discovered how to responsibly handle the reverse logistics.