Inside a Nike store in Hamburg, Germany, like the retailer’s other stores, there is a box where customers can add old sneakers so they can be turned into crushed materials used to pave basketball courts or make new soles for shoes. But when a German investigative team decided to find out what happened to an old pair of shoes added to the box – adding a GPS tracker so they could follow the path – they discovered something unexpected. at the recycling center: the brand also seemed to be destroying New shoes, something that violates a recently enacted German law.
The tracking system led to an installation in Belgium, not far from Nike’s large European distribution center. “It was open, so you [could] just walk into the whole place ”, explains Christian Salewski, journalist and founder of To return to, a research startup that has partnered with German media on a biggest project examining the afterlife of sneakers. “We were just walking around and we could see through open doors the machines doing the grinding process. There were workers loading boxes on a table. It was the first time we thought, what is it? Because they were all new shoes.
Salewski watched workers remove the paper from the toes of the new sneakers and send them onto a conveyor belt. When he introduced himself, explaining that he was a journalist interested in the recycling process, workers at the factory confirmed that they only process shoes for Nike and that the majority of the shoes they process appeared to be new.
The reporters returned to Germany and tried another experiment, buying a new pair of Nike shoes and then sending them back for a return. “We really made sure that these shoes weren’t faulty in any way, they didn’t have any scratches,” Salewski explains. The only change, of course, was the GPS tracker, which showed the otherwise spotless shoes traveling to the same recycling plant. Salewski visited the factory again and saw other new shoes, some with return documents, being processed. Nike did not respond to reporters’ requests for details.
Destroying the shoes likely violates a recent German law that requires manufacturers to try to use usable products rather than throwing them away or “recycling” them, as in the Nike process. “They call it recycling, but it’s downcycling,” says Salewski, which means the materials lose their original value when they are processed. While it’s possible to make sneakers from a material that can actually be recycled – that’s the intention of Adidas’ Futurecraft Loop, for example, although it hasn’t quite reached the point yet. where a shoe can be made into a new shoe – most are made from multiple materials, tied in a way that means they can’t be fully separated and reused. The Nike Grind material, made by grinding the shoe, can be used for flooring or shoe soles, but not a completely new shoe. And while old shoes can be considered unusable, it’s hard to make the same claim about shoes that a customer once tried on and returned. Under German law, Nike can be liable to a fine of 100,000 euros. (Salewski notes that this isn’t much of a gripe, as the company could earn that much in two minutes.)
In a statement to Fast business, Nike said the “vast majority” of the shoes returned to the company are resold. “To ensure the safety and performance of athletes with confidence, all shoe returns are analyzed for any damage or alteration. Returned products that show signs of damage or unacceptable wear and tear are sent for recycling. Unworn and impeccable items are put back on the shelves for resale. Additionally, Nike sends Nike Grind wear test samples, defective products, sales samples, and other footwear that is not suitable for performance.
The company noted that the shoe used in the investigation was tampered with to install the GPS tracker, although it is not clear how a returns department could have known that this was the case. “It could pose a danger to the safety of athletes and consumers if they are resold,” the company said. “In accordance with our policy and to ensure the safety of athletes and consumers, counterfeit shoes are sent for recycling at our Nike Grind factory. Nike also said it has launched a new program in the United States, Renovated, to “extend the life of lightly worn products” and resell them at reduced prices; the program will be launched in Europe next month.
But the practice of destroying salable goods is common in the clothing industry. Burberry made headlines for burning unsold stocks in 2018; The trainer recently dealt with the backlash from a viral TikTok showing bags that were cut while not being sold. Nike itself was taken cut shoes unsold in the past. And returns are a problem not only for clothes, but for all types of products. According to one estimate, about 25% of returns can go straight to landfill, creating billions of pounds of waste every year. As online shopping continues to grow, so does returns, and most retailers have yet to figure out how to responsibly handle reverse logistics.