Cutting out Cotton: Can Nike do it?

Nike must position itself to rely less on cotton as temperatures rise and droughts become more frequent.

Nike, the world’s largest producer of athletic apparel and footwear, uses cotton in 98% of its products.[1], [2] Growing and producing cotton is a very water intensive process, responsible for 32% of the total water use across Nike’s total value chain.[2] As factors such as temperature, CO2 levels, and water levels vary as a result of climate change, Nike must prepare itself for fluctuations in the pricing and availability of cotton.

Extreme weather has disrupted Nike’s supply chain in the past. In 2008, Nike was forced to temporarily shut down four factories in Thailand due to flooding.[3] More recently, droughts in cotton producing regions of the world directly affect the company’s bottom line as cotton prices are driven up and the market becomes more volatile. For example, the 2011 drought in Texas had a crippling effect on cotton production as 55% of cotton acres were left abandoned, resulting in an economic loss of $2.2 billion.[4] Although Nike is improving its own practices to leave a smaller environmental footprint by way of employing low impact materials, transforming waste into product, and investing in disruptive renewable energy technology, it must plan to rely less heavily on the cotton it currently uses that is likely to become scarcer and more expensive as a result of climate change.[2] Cotton’s price volatility and overall upward trend has the potential to greatly affect Nike’s bottom line if the company is unable to find suitable alternatives or more stable varieties of cotton. As shown in the charts below, cotton price has been volatile over the last few years and expectations of volatility remain high. Although Nike does not report how much it spends on cotton, it cites in its 10-K that the volatility of the price of cotton could have a “material adverse effect on…costs, gross margins and profitability.” [5]

Source: Statista

Source: Bloomberg

In order to mitigate these risks in the short term, the company is focusing on sourcing a larger proportion of its cotton more sustainably (i.e., organically or through recycled materials) and using BCI-Certified cotton, which ensures the cotton is more sustainable and that farmers have been trained to reduce the use of water in growing the plants. In 2015, 26% of Nike’s cotton was more sustainable and 19% was BCI-Certified. The company hopes to source 100% of its cotton more sustainably by 2020.[2]

Looking further to the future, Nike is innovating to create a new “palette of sustainable materials.”[2] By creating platforms such as LAUNCH as well as the MIT Climate CoLab, Nike collaborates with organizations to develop material production processes that are less susceptible to external factors and more environmentally responsible.[2], [6]

In addition to its current endeavors, Nike should be incentivizing farmers to focus on planting cotton that can withstand drought and other harsh climate conditions in order to mitigate the risks of cotton supply and price fluctuations. Cotton can be bred for more extensive root systems that allow the plant to increase water uptake in times of drought.[7] Furthermore, the genes of wild, perennial cotton can be used to improve the ability of the cotton to cope with harsh climate changes.[8] Coordination with farmers, and investment in the technology available to farmers, could allow Nike to benefit from cotton varieties that are more resistant to extreme weather conditions and, therefore, are more price stable.[9]

Nike could also explore the option of leveraging high-technology products already on the market that function as substitutes for cotton. Creative options are becoming available such as SeaCell, an innovative fiber made from brown Algae and Crailar, a technology that makes Hemp and Flax, which require much less water than cotton, feel like cotton.[10], [11]In addition, Nike could assess the option of using recycled materials, which other retailers have begun exploring. For example, H&M recently invested in Re:Newcell, a company that improves the quality of recycled cotton and other cellulosic fibers, making it suitable for usage in new clothing.[12]

The path forward for Nike is far from straightforward as several unanswered questions remain, including:

  • Would customers be happy with high-tech fibers as substitutes for cotton or would the innovative products negatively affect the look and feel of the clothing?
  • Should Nike be looking to acquire a company with a promising new textile product in order to gain exclusivity and a competitive advantage?

 

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[1]Alexandria Sage, “UPDATE 4 – Nike profit up but shares tumble on US concerns,” Reuters, June 25, 2008 (https://www.reuters.com/article/nike/update-4-nike-profit-up-but-shares-tumble-on-us-concerns-idUSN2526447020080625)

[2] Nike, “FY 14-15 Sustainable Business Report,” Nike website, https://about.nike.com/pages/environmental-impact

[3] Coral Davenport, “Industry Awakens to Threat of Climate Change,” The New York Times, January 23, 2014, (https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/24/science/earth/threat-to-bottom-line-spurs-action-on-climate.html)

[4]Timothy A. Dabbert and Michael A. Gore, “Breeding and Genetics: Challenges and Perspectives on Improving Heat and Drought Stress Resilience in Cotton,” 2014, The Journal of Cotton Science, http://www.cotton.org/journal/2014-18/3/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=158981

[5] Nike Inc, 2015 Form 10-K [https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/320187/000032018715000113/nke-5312015x10k.htm], accessed November 2017

[6] Stefanie Koperniak, “MIT Climate CoLap, in collaboration with Nike, launches new materials competition,” MIT News, October 29, 2015, (http://news.mit.edu/2015/nike-mit-climate-colab-apparel-materials-sustainability-contest-1029)

[7] Iko Koevoets et al., “Roots Withstanding their Environment: Exploiting Root System Architecture Responses to Abiotic Stress to Improve Crop Tolerance,” August 2016, Frontiers in Plant Science, (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5005332/)

[8] d’Eeckenbrugge and Lacape, “Distribution and Differentiation of Wild, Feral, and Cultivated Populations of Perennial Upland Cotton in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean,” September 2014, Plos One, (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4157874/ and https://www.greenbiz.com/article/why-climate-change-material-cotton-industry)

[9] International Trade Center, “Cotton and Climate Change: Impacts and Options To Mitigate And Adapt”, 2011, ITC (www.intracen.org/cotton-and-climate-change.pdf/)

[10] Marina Chahboune, “Alternatives to Cotton,” Development and Cooperation, June 2, 2015 (https://www.dandc.eu/en/article/clothing-industry-looking-alternatives-cotton)

[11] Leah Borromeo, “Technology could allow hemp and flax to break cotton’s global hold on textiles,” The Guardian, April 2014, (https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/hemp-flax-bast-cotton-crailar)

[12] “H&M Group Invests In New, Unique, Recycling Technology,” H&M, October 10, 2017 (https://about.hm.com/en/media/news/general-2017/h-m-group-invests-in-new–unique-recycling-technology.html)

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4 thoughts on “Cutting out Cotton: Can Nike do it?

  1. Interesting article! I would argue that cotton substitutes will be acceptable to most consumers, with negligible affect on the look and feel of clothing. Recycled fibers are already becoming more common in the marketplace (including clothing made out of recycled plastic bottles http://money.cnn.com/2016/05/16/technology/plastic-bottles-fabric-repreve/index.html), and the production technology is only going to get better – enabling even softer, higher-quality fibers. As far as increasing the sustainability of cotton production, perhaps Nike should connect its cotton suppliers with Indigo in order to improve yield and manage the negative affects of climate change.

  2. This article reminded me of the Nike Football case study; the protagonist in that case faced a similar question you are raising here – should Nike be marketing the sustainable aspects of its product? In that scenario, it was the removal of a greenhouse gas from Nike’s air pockets; here, it’s the use of sustainable cotton or more sustainable cotton-substitutes. I do think consumer preferences have changed in the last ten years, such that purchasing decisions are more influenced by perceptions of a company’s sustainability initiatives. Consequently, I think Nike can use the opportunity to promote its sustainability practices, but at the same time emphasize through its marketing that its quality is the same, or even better [I don’t think Nike will shift practices at the expense of quality]. To your question about acquisitions, I think a better approach is to take minority stakes in many small companies to keep track of high / low performers, and then be in the position for a full acquisition if the opportunity arises.

  3. Personally, I think Nike should continue to move to high-tech fibers for producing their apparel. This would allow it to better manage its supply chain and de-risk its overall business by depending less on cotton which is inherently more volatile. In terms of how the general public will perceive these high-tech fiber products, I think they will be received quite well. The public’s perception around climate change and the role companies play in sustainability has drastically changed over the past few years. Consumers expect companies to deliver the same product and service while being more sustainable and having smaller effects on the environment. If Nike can deliver on the sustainability front, I think it could be a major differentiator from its competitors. My only concern is whether Nike and its supply chain can scale the technology to deliver more sustainable products at a competitive price. While in theory it would be positive to make all products more sustainable, sometimes it is simply unrealistic because the technology or manufacturing process can’t scale effectively. If Nike can successfully implement high-tech fibers without disrupting their supply chain I believe they would reap the benefits of a more sustainable product in a more environmentally friendly society.

  4. Interesting read and definitely a thought intriguing piece tackling a problem that has many dimensions! I think given the criticality of water as a heavy industrial resource and given that estimates show that with current practices, the world will face a 40% shortfall between forecast demand and available supply of water by 2030 (http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/waterresourcesmanagement), I believe that Nike should do so much more than what they’re doing; kind of what IKEA is doing to preserve the global natural resources. I don’t think shifting totally to cotton substitutes is an option as it poses a serious question to the customer promise, but I do believe it’s feasible to use less water in cotton production. An example of what they can do is to join efforts with movements like CottonConnect (supported by C&A Foundation) and the Better Cotton Initiative (supported by WWF), to help reduce water use, make cotton farming more sustainable and execute improvements on a farmer-level. (https://www.triplepundit.com/special/cotton-sustainability-c-and-a-foundation/water-cotton-lifecycle/)

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