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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Nike Unveils Fully Circular Shoe Designed for Disassembly, Recyclability

Nike’s ISPA (Improvise, Scavenge, Protect, Adapt) design philosophy challenges creators to experiment, break molds and reimagine products. The ISPA Link Axis uses interlocking components, as few materials as possible and zero glue.

Nike says its latest shoe — the ISPA Link Axis — is the new pinnacle for disassembly and embodies the circular design principles of material choice, waste avoidance and refurbishment.

Building on the momentum of smaller-scale circular footwear models such as Vivobarefoot’s VivoBiome platform, ISPA (Improvise, Scavenge, Protect, Adapt) is a Nike design philosophy that challenges creators to experiment, break molds and reimagine products. In the case of the Link Axis, it helps move Nike closer to its circular vision — a closed-loop system that yields no waste.

Every part of the shoe can be recycled: The design uses interlocking components, as few materials as possible and zero glue; it has a 100 percent recycled polyester Flyknit upper that’s engineered to fit over the outsole; its 100 percent recycled thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) tooling is made from scrap airbag material, and it also has a 20 percent recycled TPU cage. Because recycling changes some material properties, the lower recycled content in the cage balances the desire for circularity with the need for durability and traction.

In recent years, Nike design teams have pursued solutions that continue to deliver athletic performance with lower-impact materials (ex: Nike Grind, Nike Air) and recycled content (ex: Alphafly Next Nature, the Move to Zero collections). As the climate crisis has intensified, Nike has embraced circular design principles — including the 10 principles outlined in its open-source Circular Design Guide, released in 2019 — as creative accelerants.

For the Link Axis, the ISPA team focused on the challenge of disassembly — one of the biggest barriers to circularity in footwear design. Traditionally, glue and other bonding elements used to achieve flexibility and durability make a shoe nearly impossible to disassemble and recycle. Recycling shoes also usually requires shredding — an energy-intensive process that limits how the recycled materials can be used. Creating a shoe that can be taken apart reduces the carbon footprint of the product and opens up new possibilities for its life cycle.

Images credit: Nike

“Designed in partnership with engineering, digital product creation and development, these shoes are completely informed by method of make — it really is a case of form following function,” says Darryl Matthews, VP of Catalyst Footwear Product Design. “Our hope is that these ideas and aesthetics become normalized, accelerating our ability to imagine how shoes will continue to evolve in the future.”

From a manufacturing standpoint, the Link is revolutionary in its simplicity. A pair of Links take about eight minutes to assemble — a fraction of the average time needed for a traditional sneaker — thanks to a custom-made manufacturing jig and the fact that the shoe doesn’t require the time-intensive gluing process to construct its midsole; and assembly is done without the need for conventional, energy-intensive processes such as cooling, heating and conveyer belt systems.

What's next

For new design and production models such as those behind the Link Axis to have full impact, the innovation must be scaled. Nike says a holistic look at its product lines and supply chains is already determining where new approaches can be implemented to reach a wider audience and to move closer to the company’s sustainability goals for 2025 and beyond.

True scale also requires robust cross-industry collaboration to create the business models and infrastructure that make it possible to recycle products. To that end, Nike is building partnerships to grow its recycling capabilities and investing in product take-back programs across the world that will help grow its ability to repurpose end-of-life products.

The Link Axis will be available starting September 12 on SNKRS.