The 2010 FIFA World Cup which kicked off in South Africa this past weekend, marked the first time in history in which many World Cup players sported sustainable jerseys as they proudly marched onto the fields for the much anticipated event. So which athletic apparel company came up with the idea for this bold marketing move? I’ll give you a hint: This company is very famous, it has four letters, and begins with “N”. You guessed it: Nike has done it again. The company’s marketing and PR gurus put their heads together, took the ever-so-relevant concept of sustainability, attached the Nike name to it and brought the idea to life at the most world’s biggest sporting event, The FIFA World Cup. 

Nike, which is the sponsor of nine teams in the World Cup including the United States, designed and created the 100% recycled jerseys to be worn by these teams. Nike made the jerseys by intercepting at least 13 million plastic bottles that were headed to Japanese and Taiwanese landfills. These bottles were then melted down to create a type of fabric which was ultimately used to make the jerseys. This process reduced energy consumption by 30% compared to the process that is required to make traditional polyester clothing.

Nike was one of the first sporting companies to initiate efforts towards “greener” behavior. The company has a slew of green initiatives under its belt over the past 15 years, and this project is the latest example. On the one hand, there is no denying that Nike’s latest green project is a positive action towards environmental sustainability. However, the question is, how many people will view Nike’s efforts as a good step in the right direction, and how many people will view the efforts as just a publicity stunt and a way for Nike to gain some positive exposure and praise?

An article that appeared in the New York Times talked about this very topic, discussing Nike’s recent sustainability efforts at the World Cup, as well as sustainable initiatives other companies are making. The article explored the idea that for companies, sustainability is not only good PR, and a way to appear socially responsible, but actually a way to save a significant amount of money. According to the article, Wal-Mart saved more than $100 million in 2009 due to a switch to more sustainable cardboard for shipping purposes; Wal-Mart admitted that the sole reason for the switch was to save the company money.

This brings up an interesting point: do companies REALLY care about sustainability? Or do any and all efforts encompass ulterior motives? Most people, including myself, would probably take a more cynical view believing that big companies such as Nike could care less about being environmentally friendly. These companies only do what is beneficial to them, and any efforts that seem socially responsible at first glance actually help the company in significant ways which are not apparent to the public eye.  However, it is also my feeling that you could debate relentlessly about companies’ sustainability efforts and where their true intentions lie and come to no agreement or resolution. But when it comes down to it, does it even matter? There’s no doubt in my mind that Nike marketing execs sat around and discussed how great this initiative would be for the company from a PR standpoint.  And, I’m sure there are plenty of other advantages this project is providing for the company that we’ll never be privy to. However, at the end of the day, a sustainable initiative such as Nike’s recycled World Cup jerseys is, simply put, a good thing. By intercepting these 13 million plastic bottles, close to 560,000 pounds of polyester waste was spared from going into landfills – not to mention the amount of energy that was conserved during the manufacturing process, or the benefits associated with intercepting the plastic bottles in the first place.

Sure, a best case scenario would be that every individual and every company big and small pulls together and advocates for sustainable behavior, with the very best intentions at hand. However, this is a far from perfect world and I think most people know that this idealized solution is simply not feasible. So at this point, we’ve got to take what we can get. If a company such as Nike is willing to initiate sustainable efforts – even with a hidden agenda in mind - then great, we’ll take it. It’s coming to a point where we almost don’t have a choice. It’s a waste of our time and energy to argue intentions behind an effort like this one. Instead, why not give Nike a little bit of credit? Let’s encourage them and other companies to continue initiating these types of efforts and really step it up when it comes to sustainability.

-Contributed by Jessica Boardman. Follow her @jboards