Apr 14, 2023
by Karl Smith
Is Nike’s Cosmic Unity 3 a Sustainable Sneaker We Can All Get Behind?
by Karl Smith
Apr 14, 2023

As far as noble causes taken up by billion-dollar corporations go, Nike’s “Move to Zero,” is up the there – very much under the heading of “admirable but tangible.” Even, we can hope, falling into the category of “attainable.” The cause of Cosmic Unity, on the other hand? Well that might be more of a stretch.

Of course, in reality, the two are very different: Move to Zero is the catchy title for Nike’s strategy to decarbonize its overall business model and Cosmic Unity is just a sneaker with a wild name. But the latter is a part of the former – evidence for how the brand is implementing and pushing those changes, and also a way of giving ideas a physical form that consumers can hold.

And, as the impending release of the Cosmic Unity 3 proves, there is a market for this. No one, after all, is releasing the third version of a shoe if the first drop didn’t make a dent.

Ostensibly a basketball shoe, the Cosmic Unity silhouette is part of Nike’s ongoing attempt to bring sustainability into the fold of its more mainstream sneaker operation: while the ISPA team undoubtedly leads the charge on circularity and next-gen sneaker development, there is still a need to show that these ambitions don’t have to come with quite such off the wall results. The modular MindBody isn’t for everyone, even if it should be – but, basketball? There’s something people can agree on.

As the name suggests, this latest release marks the Cosmic Unity’s third turn out – an iteration which comes in the low-key “Phantom/Bright Cactus/Light” colorway, but wherein, generally, not so much else has changed.

Interestingly, version three seems to take more from the silhouette’s debut outing – preferring the flexibility provided by a mesh and flyknit upper over the protection of harder materials seen in the CU2.

On the CU3, the Flyknit and Flymesh elements look to remain more or less the same – lending their qualities to the midfoot and the collar. And, while the Air Zoom Strobel unit has been replaced with a new foam material – purportedly designed to offer “cloud-like cushioning” – there’s no real detail on its material make-up thus far. In fact, there’s not even a name for the product.

If anything like its predecessors – and it seems a lot like its predecessors – the Cosmic Unity 3 does offer the kind of functionality and performance on-court which could effectively move the needle on what basketball footwear means. This is, at heart, a performance shoe with eco-credentials rather than the other way around. But, when brands like Langston Galloway’s Ethics are pushing harder on the design aspect, offering more radical and transparent options, it’s hard to see how the CU3 offers much beyond the fact of its own existence.

In writing that the CU3 is “Better for your game, designed with sustainability in mind,” Nike earmarks the Cosmic Unity as a progressive piece of footwear – but everything that follows (“a secure, lightweight design for a low-to-the-ground feel,” “cloud-like cushioning for explosive speed and quick changes in direction”) speaks exclusively to performance and has nothing to say about sustainability at all.

Yes, it’s good that Nike produces a “sustainable” basketball shoe. But what does that really mean here?

Flicking through the CU3’s product page, beneath the dropdown for “Free Shipping & Returns,” you’ll find a section titled “How This Was Made.” It reads: “This product was responsibly designed utilizing recycled materials from post-consumer and/or post-manufactured waste. One of our biggest steps on our journey to zero carbon and zero waste is in choosing our materials because they account for more than 70% of any product’s footprint. By reusing existing plastics, yarns, and textiles, we significantly reduce our emissions. Our goal is to use as much recycled materials as possible without compromising on performance, durability and style.”

All of which sounds good in theory, but offers little-to-no detail on the make-up of the CU3 in practice. Questions abound: What percentage of the sneaker is made from recycled materials? Does it have circular qualities? Where was it made? Does the shoe contain virgin plastics?

Given the positive takeaways from Nike’s recent Impact Report and its relative transparency, it feels like the brand could and should be doing better here. It’s all well and good putting together a rough list of goals – which is noticeably less powerful wording than “targets” – but to do so without providing any information on how many of those have hit the back of the net, come close to making it over the line, or have otherwise flown off wildly into the stands feels conspicuously vague.

Conceptually, a sustainable basketball shoe is something we can all get behind. Whether this is it, on the other hand, is much less clear.

And yet. Still. When it comes to the original question, the answer is a resounding yes. Or, at least, an emphatic “sort of.” Whether or not we can get behind this sneaker as the next step in sneaker sustainability, there is definitely a case for arguing that we should. Because the Cosmic Unity, in and of itself, is a symbol of progress – however incremental. Because the Cosmic Unity 3 is proof – much needed proof – that Earth-friendlier materials are not a trade-off for technical prowess; evidence that you can have performance and the planet in mind. Even if it takes time to get the balance right.

If you want to find out for yourself, the Nike Cosmic Unity 3 is released today – April 14th – and retails for $170 USD. On the other hand, if you’re interested in hearing more on cruelty-free and plant-based basketball sneakers, check out the upcoming lgTWO from Ethics.