Are your sneakers green? Not green rubber or grass-stained green, but green − made with the guiding principles of green chemistry? That means avoiding the use of toxic chemical compounds and using processes that minimize the production of waste. "Sustainability" is among this science’s other buzzwords. It means that green chemists and engineers are mindful of the long-term environment impact of reactions and production process.
Andy F. Chen’s talk at the green chemistry conference this morning got me thinking about green shoes. I even had to fish out the sneakers from under my desk. My daily commute from the Virginia suburbs into downtown Washington includes a walk to and from a subway station. Like some other exercise-challenged commuters, I wear sneakers when pounding the pavement, and change into business shoes in the office. Actually, I’m not sure what to call exercise shoes these days. Sneakers? Walking shoes? Athletic shoes? When I polled several co-workers, nobody knew the best term for this diverse genre of footwear.
Chen is a scientist with Nike, Inc. in Beaverton, Oregon. At the conference, he described how Nike Footwear has made a commitment to green chemistry and beyond. "One of Nike's long-term corporate environmental goals is to eliminate from its products all substances known or suspected to be harmful to human health or the environment," Chen said.
"Nike is pursuing the vision of ‘Considered Design,’ where the goal is to make innovative, performance-quality products that demand less of our natural resources, and to strive to incorporate sustainability as a design component from the beginning."
Chen explained how Nike is eliminating toxic substances from manufacture of rubber outer soles on its footwear. In redesigning two rubber formulations, Nike used the Cradle to Cradle™ Design Protocol for assessing chemicals against 19 human health and environmental criteria. Nike identified rubber ingredients to replace and selected alternative ingredients that would meet durability and other performance requirements.
Chemists created the new "green" rubber by using more-benign accelerators, vegetable oils, and modified processing methods. The new formulations involve the use of 96 percent fewer toxic substances by weight than the original formulations. Green sole rubber shoes perform as well as traditional rubber shoes, look the same and cost no more.
"To Nike's knowledge, these are the most advanced rubber formulations from a sustainability perspective within the footwear industry," Chen said. Nike is working to establish a consortium of companies, which would pool resources in a joint R&D program focused on the further greening of more consumer products, he added.
I just took another look, and my walking shoes are brown and non-Nike. So I hope those companies do link up as Chen described. Although there’s not much rubber in the sole of an athletic shoe, multiply that by countless millions of shoes sold worldwide each year and you realize that green shoes would be a big step ahead in protecting the environment.