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To Tom Hartge, the fax that inched out of the machine in Nike's Inc.'s (NKE ) Beaverton (Ore.) headquarters back in 1992 came like a kick to the gut. As the product manager for the company's running-shoe division, Hartge had devoted much of his career to perfecting Nike Nike Air Huarache Mujer Air, a lightweight plastic air pocket attached to the heel that had kept the company's sneakers at the front of the pack for more than a decade. Now a German environmental magazine was attacking companies that used a super-potent greenhouse gas called sulfur hexafluoride, or SF6. Makers of refrigerators and air conditioners bore the brunt, but the magazine pointed out that Nike's air pockets contained not just air but SF6, too. The accusation stung Adidas Gazelle Femme all the more, coming right as other critics had begun to slam Nike for using sweatshop labor in its contract factories in Asia and elsewhere.
It took Nike nearly 14 years to overcome the SF6 problem. This summer, after quietly devoting tens of millions of dollars and countless frustrating days to research that went nowhere, Nike finally perfected a way to create SF6-free air pockets. The technology now cushions fully half the 200 million shoes it sells each year. Although Hartge and researchers worked closely over the years with several green groups, they chose not to brag about their environmental victory to consumers or the public. Instead, Nike sees the effort as part of a broader strategy to embrace social responsibility without compromising profits or product performance.
The new technology that Nike researchers developed, Nike Air Huarache Mujer which uses nitrogen instead of SF6, has even paid off commercially. How? It allowed Nike to create the Air Max 360, the first sneaker to cushion the entire sole with a bed of air. Launched last January, the $160 shoe has become a hit, and Nike recently rolled out a basketball version. "We wanted to do the right thing for the environment and for the athlete, but we wondered if the two could ever be harmonious," says Hartge, 50, now Nike's creative director for advanced research.
Hartge and his colleagues might have been forgiven for dismissing the original complaint as a joke: How could a mere sneaker contribute to global warming? But it didn't take them long to recognize the reality of the accusation. Because SF6 breaks up slowly in the atmosphere, it has an outsize impact when the shoes are finally destroyed and the gas is released Asics Gel Lyte 3 Femme from millions of little air pockets. At the peak of SF6 production in 1997, Nike Air footwear carried a greenhouse effect equivalent to an astonishing 7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide -- about as much as the tailpipes of 1 million cars.
Still, there was no way Nike could give up on air cushioning, an innovation it had first introduced as far back as 1978. Those precious few ounces of gas, it turned out, were much better than foam or other heel Adidas ZX 750 Damen fillers at absorbing the impact of a foot slamming against the ground. Air -- or gas, in this case -- also keeps its spring longer. What's more, it's lighter than a solid material, crucial to runners worried about heavy shoes slowing them down.
Unfortunately for Nike's team of about 60 designers and scientists, SF6 was the ideal gas for all this. Its large, tightly bound Adidas Gazelle Femme molecules rarely leaked after being injected into the plastic pocket attached to a heel. Early on, the group settled on nitrogen as a substitute. But its smaller molecules broke apart more easily than those of SF6 and leaked.
The steady setbacks bred inevitable tensions. As the team hunkered down in the Mia Hamm building on Nike's bucolic corporate campus, some worried about getting boxed into a solution that would compromise shoe performance. Others Adidas NMD Womens insisted that Nike had to soldier on, both to help the environment and to avoid another sweatshop-type image meltdown.