Footwear
Mar 06, 2024
by Karl Smith
Is Nike’s Space Hippie Dream Dead?
by Karl Smith
Mar 06, 2024

In space, no one can hear you scream. Which, presumably, is why – after four years and despite constant requests from a very vocal sneaker community – there’s still no news on a successor to Nike’s Space Hippie 4.

For many, despite the near half-decade now passed since the 04’s release, the 05’s arrival has remained a foregone conclusion. Optimism, it seems, has remained in abundance even when sneakers have been in short supply. Recently, however, things have changed. News of recent layoffs – layoffs focused, if not exclusively in the sustainability and innovation departments per se, then certainly carried out with undue weighting in that area – have turned the question of “When?” into the question of, “If?”.

First announced in mid-February, with details continuing to drip through on the who’s who of job losses, it feels particularly poignant that – with a cut of 2% to the Nike workforce, intended to save $2 billion USD in costs over the next three years – many of the most high-profile layoffs have been across ESG.

Noel Kinder, Chief Sustainability Officer, has publicly announced his departure from the company, while other high-ranking sustainability staff have also been let go from their positions along with Daryl Matthews, Vice President of Footwear Design for Nike Catalyst, according to inside sources at the Beaverton-based athletic mega-corporation.

Job losses in sustainability-specific roles were described variously as a targeted, top-to-bottom “gutting” and a move which effectively “blows up” the very concept of Earth-friendlier progress at Nike in every way.

Naturally, when such swingeing layoffs are undertaken – this one round alone covers over 1500 individuals – jobs will be cut in every direction. That so many high-profile roles across Environmental, Social, and Governance departments, however – those having been named both officially and unofficially only representing a fraction of the truth, according to those same sources – nonetheless suggests that, when the going gets tough, it’s commitment to innovation and to progress that falls quickest by the wayside, shattering the illusion that an outfit like Nike might ever really put planet over profit.

So, what next for Nike? And what next for fans of the brand’s Earth-friendlier footwear offerings? More to the point, could the Space Hippie still save the day or are we – is Nike – now past the point of no return?

First and foremost, in order to answer any of these questions, we need to take a look back at what made (and, indeed, still makes) Hippie models one through four such a significant release.

There’s the timeline, of course – the fact that, in 2020, it wasn’t commonplace in the way it is today for recycled materials to permeate a sneaker; especially not a relatively mass-market product, manufactured by arguable the biggest footwear brand on the planet. And then there’s the construction – built from an 85-90% recycled Flyknit and 12% Nike Grind rubber – which, while more impressive in some areas than in others, certainly drove a yardstick hard into the ground, something for the company and for its peers to be measured by. It’s the small details, too – like the single-box system: made from 90% recycled content, acting as both shipping mode and storage vessel.

But, beyond all of these measurable, tangible elements, what set the Space Hippie project apart – from what came before and from much of what came after – is its scope; the moonshot-level quality of the idea and the fact that, with a total commitment to something risky and untested, the concept was not only realized internally but released out into the world.

It’s true, of course, that we have Team ISPA now – a sub-division of Nike, toiling away at adaptable, Earth-friendlier innovations for footwear and apparel in much the same way that the Space Hippie team was doing in the lead-up to 2020. It’s true, also, that ISPA has already delivered the Link, Link Axis, Mindbody, Sense, and Universal – five more-or-less distinct products, each with its own reason for being and with its own impressive set of eco-aligned credentials – and, it would be fair to say, might by this point have overthrown the Space Hippie, rendering the release of an 05 model somewhat moot.

But, then again, a lot of people would say that wasn’t true at all. That we need both and that, right now, we need the Space Hippie more than ever – as an idea and as a philosophy as much as a physical piece of footwear.

Privately, at least one former Nike employee with in-depth knowledge of the Space Hippie program and Nike’s more general eco efforts expressed a sense of optimism. To their mind, and to their understanding, the recent layoffs were more of a preparatory reset – laying the groundwork for the future in ways that seem destructive right now but which, in a couple of years, will position the brand to make bigger, better, and more meaningful change.

The Space Hippie 5 could well be a part of that vision. Although, to make any kind of progress toward restoring good faith in the brand – when it comes to Nike’s already questionable internal priorities on Earth-friendlier matters, and in terms of its now-tainted public profile in this regard – that shoe would have to deliver in ways that no Nike product has ever delivered before.

What matters is the example that Nike itself sets from now. It needs to show the world – consumers, influencers, advocates, industry peers – that it cares about the future in a way that isn’t simply tied to finances.

To even make a dent, we’d surely be talking about a shoe that wasn’t just labelled as “part recycled,” or – like so many other Nike offerings, although Nike of course aren’t the only culprit here – labelled as such up to some arbitrary named percentage. What we’d need to see is something potentially (entirely) bio-based or plant-based, and (entirely) plastic free, and – most importantly of all – at real scale.

It’s also an undertaking that Nike most likely couldn’t manage alone at a reasonable timeframe, either, and so would need to collaborate with external, expert operators – an outfit like Natural Fiber Welding, for example. Which, while perhaps requiring a certain degree of pride-swallowing from the Beaverton brand, would in itself show a necessary level of commitment and some much-needed proof, all these years later, that Nike still has the Space Hippie spirit in its DNA.

But this is the best-case scenario, the optimistic outlook. Other current and former insiders, do not share this same vision of the future.

In comments made to FUTUREVVORLD, job losses in sustainability-specific roles were described variously as a targeted, top-to-bottom “gutting” and a move which effectively “blows up” the very concept of Earth-friendlier progress at Nike in every way – from product design to legal, the latter of which illustrates perhaps better than any other layoff decision the depth and seriousness of these cuts.

These sources, it’s fair to say, are not positive about the future or, for that matter, about Nike’s commitment to our shared future. Certainly, there is not a sense that one shoe could change it all.

Moreover, should a mega-corp like Nike, having just laid bare its profit-over-planet ambitions, even be able to win us all back like that – with a single, grand gesture?

Should the punishment, so to speak, not fit the crime? Should Nike – with, quite literally, for better and for worse – all the resources in the world at its disposal, not perhaps have to put its full weight behind real, tangible systemic change in order to place itself at the forefront of any kind of progressive movement? In short, should Nike have to earn it?

Whether it makes sense to make an example of Nike like this – although, given the importance of the issue and the way in which other brands have a tendency to follow in Nike’s slipstream, perhaps it does – or not, though, isn’t what matters here. Not really. What matters is the example that Nike itself sets from now. It needs to show the world – consumers, influencers, advocates, industry peers – that it cares about the future in a way that isn’t simply tied to finances.

The Space Hippie 5 isn’t going to do that on its own. But, done right, it might be a good start.