The sporting goods behemoth gets full marks for reporting on its carbon footprint. Shame it’s such a stodgy read

You might think that a company that helps athletes to be fast, flexible and agile might produce a sustainability report that projects speed, flexibility and agility. Nike doesn’t. This report is as stodgy as toffee pudding. And it doesn’t really hit the spot. If a sustainability report should be about impacts on society, then Nike has completed the marathon (this report is 115 pages) but not the one I was hoping for.

Surely what makes Nike special is its mission of “bringing inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world”. But Nike’s sustainability report is about environmental performance, transforming the manufacturing supply chain and empowering its workforce and local communities. We are reminded that Nike was the first company, in 2005, to voluntarily disclose the locations of all its contract factory suppliers, a pioneering act that opened up a new level of expectations about sustainability disclosure. We are also told that Nike started recycling sports shoes back in 1990 with a “handsaw and shredders”. More about Nike’s contribution to life with sport over this time, beyond the mechanics of doing sustainability right, would have given this report Olympian status.  

12 areas of focus

A disappointment is the way Nike discloses its materiality process. From a list of 400 topics, Nike applies a series of filters to distil the list down to 12 areas it considers most relevant to its business and stakeholders. As with so many companies, this stage is critical. Anyone can identify loads of sustainability issues. The differentiator is how they are prioritised. Nike’s 12 issues would be more credible if we had a sense of what (or who) drove the selection. The list itself is generic: materials, energy, emissions, water, renewable resources, community and six areas of employment and labour standards. This could be any company, especially any company with outsourced manufacturing. The issue descriptors are not Nike-specific, except for community impact, where Nike refers to its community focus of setting kids aged seven to 12 on a path for more active lives through its philanthropic efforts.

Having said this, Nike does the mechanics of reporting very well. The report is structured around three big ambitions – minimising environmental footprint (design, energy, and waste), transforming manufacturing (workers and technology) and unleashing human potential (workforce and community). Nike’s impressive performance in all of these areas is expressed meticulously in this report. An ambition to double the business with half the impact is bold.

Since 2008 Nike has reduced carbon emissions by 19% per unit – significant progress but indicative of a long way to go as Nike grows. Nike’s aim to reach 100% renewable energy in owned or operated facilities by 2025 will be an industry-leading step forward. Nike’s reporting of value-chain environmental impacts shows manufacturing as a prime driver, and Nike’s approach to disruptive innovation is well worth reading. Nike’s own Materials Sustainability Index of the 16,000 materials used in its manufacturing is a considered approach to managing sourcing for sustainable technology and design.

Hidden gems

In this report, Nike’s 2020 sustainability targets and FY15 performance are clearly stated in each area. It’s easy to see what was intended and what was done – a good credibility-builder in reporting. There are some exceptional stories hidden among the stodgy narrative: for example, two case studies of empowering workers in the extended supply chain with impressive results, and the way Nike transforms waste into a resource.

In the stakeholder engagement section, Nike shares insights from a team of big-name sustainability experts who provided feedback on a draft of this FY 2015 report in a two-day meeting. The feedback focuses on how Nike articulates its sustainability ambitions and drives transparency forward. This is another credibility-builder – both by seeking the feedback and disclosing its key themes.

At face value, this is a strong report about what Nike has done and will do to manage its value-chain impacts. However, it informs rather than inspires. For the next report, I’d suggest removing 50 pages of stodge and refocusing the narrative to better reflect the way Nike has truly changed our lives.


  • Follows GRI? References G4

  • Assured? No

  • Materiality analysis? Yes

  • Goals? Yes

  • Targets? Yes

  • Stakeholder input? No

  • Seeks feedback? Not explicitly

  • Key strengths? Clear targets and performance against targets

  • Chief weakness? Lack of discussion about the way Nike contributes to making sport better

  • Pleasant surprise? Insights about the impact of co-investing for employee empowerment in the extended supply chain

Elaine Cohen is a Sustainability Consultant and Reporter at Beyond Business and CSR blogger.

Report Review  sustainability  carbon footprint  Nike  supply chain  emissions  transparency  CSR 

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