Nike Is Destroying New Returned Sneakers, German Investigation Reveals

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An investigation by German reporters alleges Nike has been destroying new shoes that have been returned, instead of reselling them.

Nike could be shredding sneakers that are completely new, an investigative report by a team of journalists in Germany has found. According to the report by NDR, Die Zeit and research startup Flip, the sportswear giant has sent new, undamaged shoes that have been returned to the brand to be downcycled at its recycling plant, rather than reselling it. 

Returned sneakers are sent for downcycling

Customers often return new shoes to brands after realising they don’t fit exactly how they thought it would. Perhaps it was the wrong size, or the style didn’t quite match their look—many of these pairs don’t even make it out the door and have the labels still on. So they bring them back to the brand, assuming they will be put back on the shelf for another shopper. 

Source: Nike

Turns out, sneakers that have been returned to Nike aren’t being resold. Instead, they have ended up in a recycling plant, where they are shredded—or “downcycled”—into smaller pieces that can be used as materials that partially make up new goods. It’s unlikely that a recycled shoe can be entirely transformed into a new one, since many feature multiple materials, glues, and stitching that makes 100% recycling nearly impossible.

What is likely to happen is that parts of the shoe might be blended with other virgin materials, still using up more resources and fueling new fashion production. Part of it could go to waste, even.

According to the new investigation, this is what is happening to perfectly new, undamaged and unworn sneakers returned to Nike in Germany. 

Related: Amazon throwing millions of dollars in unsold stock into ‘destroy’ bins, investigation exposes

GPS trackers

The team used GPS trackers to figure this out. After purchasing a new pair from Nike, the reporters did not wear the shoes or leave a scratch but added a GPS tracker to the unblemished sneakers.

“We really took care that these shoes were not defective in any way—they didn’t have a scratch,” explained ​​journalist Christian Salewski, founder of Flip.

Image: NDR/Panorama

The trackers showed that the sneakers had been sent to a recycling centre in Herenthout, Belgium, where goods are shredded and downcycled into other products, contradicting Nike’s claim that “unworn and flawless items are being put back on the shelves for resale”.

This could be a violation of the German Recycling Management Act, which states that returned goods that are fit for use mustn’t be disposed of or recycled unless it has already exhausted all other approaches to extend the product’s lifespan, such as resale. Breaking the law could lead to a €100,000 fine for Nike, which is not much for the sportswear giant, but could lead to huge ramifications for the brand’s reputation. 

Consumers are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to detecting greenwash from companies, and are more willing to vote with their wallets by boycotting brands that don’t align with their social and environmental values. 

In a statement sent to Fast Company about the report, Nike defended its actions, noting that the shoe had been altered to have the GPS trackers installed and “could pose a safety hazard” if it had been resold. 

Lead image courtesy of Unsplash.


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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