Fortune
 by Marc Gunther
January 10 2008: 5:40 AM EST
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Nike's (clean) Air Jordans

The 23rd edition of the iconic basketball shoe is the first one shaped by Nike's environmentally-friendly approach.

By Marc Gunther, senior writer

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The Air Jordan XX3 is made without the use of chemical adhesives.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- The world's most celebrated sneaker is turning green.

Well, not literally. Nike's Air Jordan XX3 - the 23rd and perhaps final edition of the series of shoes endorsed by retired basketball star Michael Jordan, who wore No. 23 as a player -- will come in black with red and gray stitching when it launches nationwide during the NBA's All-Star weekend next month.

But the Air Jordan XX3, unveiled with considerable fanfare this week, differs from its predecessors because is the first basketball shoe shaped by what Nike calls "Nike Considered," an approach to design that favors environmentally-preferable materials, reduces toxic chemicals and curbs waste.

"This shoe is constructed from the ground up, different from any other basketball shoe before it," said Tinker Hatfield, a Nike vice president who has designed more than half of Air Jordan line since they were introduced in 1985.

"We wanted to take the power of the Air Jordan its visibility and impact and add this component of sustainability," Hatfield said. For example, instead of chemical adhesives, the shoe is "fit together, almost like a jigsaw puzzle so it interlocks."

This may sound like yet another example of a company trying to catch the green wave sweeping corporate America, but it's not. Nike (NKE, Fortune 500) has been measuring its environmental footprint since 1998. It has a well-staffed department devoted to corporate responsibility, no surprise for a company whose reputation took a hit more than a decade ago because some of its products were made by children in poor countries.

"Nike Considered" made its debut as a niche brand in 2005, with an odd-looking leather boot, colored with vegetable dyes, held together without chemical glues and featuring laces made of hemp. Since then, the "Considered" philosophy has been applied to more Nike products. For a company that exhorts people to "Just Do It," this is a departure, because it calls upon footwear and apparel designers to ponder the environmental implications of all the choices they make.

Their choices matter. With annual revenues of more than $16 billion, Nike sells about 225 million pairs of shoes a year. Most are glued together with chemical solvents that pose potential risks for workers during the manufacturing process, and create pollution if they are improperly thrown away. What's more, when the company studied its waste stream, it found that it was discarding more than $800 million worth of materials bad news both for the environment and the bottom line. It's now trying to reuse waste from the factory floor, and reduce packaging. Similar issues arise when making T-shirts or sports equipment.

The Air Jordan XX3 brings the "Considered" approach to an iconic brand of sneaker brand known for bold styling, top performance and high price tags. A limited edition of the Air Jordan XX3 will retail for $230, after which the shoe goes on sale for $185. Nike executives say they expect to sell about 500,000 pairs.

Air Jordans have transformed the business of athletic shoes. Hard as it is to believe now, basketball shoes were white or gray before the first black and red Air Jordans. In fact, Jordan was fined $5,000 a game by the NBA for wearing them in violation of its "uniformity of uniform rule." Later, an eye-catching edition of the Air Jordans made with black patent leather was worn with tuxedos by the R&B group Boyz II Men.

Today, NBA stars Mike Bibby, Carmelo Anthony and Ray Allen, among others, wear the Jordan brand shoes "These shoes have to perform for the best basketball players in the world," Hatfield said.

Hannah Jones, Nike's vice president of corporate responsibility, told Fortune that the Air Jordan XX3 demonstrates that environmental considerations need not require compromises in design or performance. Her hope, she said, is that the new sneakers will influence not only other Nike shoes, but the rest of the footwear industry, too. She said the Air Jordan XX3 is the equivalent of "a Tesla, not a Prius," referring to the $98,000, all-electric, luxury sports car being made by Tesla Motors.

"Too often 'green' means less of a consumer experience," Jones said. "If you sacrifice performance or style, you're doing a disservice to the consumer and to the sustainability movement." To top of page

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