Advice

from Nike's sustainability champions

Having invested, and continuing to invest, significantly in the step-by-step processes of research, education and implementation of corporate responsibility and sustainability, Nike is now clearly a global corporate leader in the field. Several of the most knowledgeable and experienced people actively involved in these pioneering initiatives have agreed to share some advice to fellow travellers on the road to sustainability in business.

Advice from: Phil Berry, Technical Director, Footwear Sustainability

  • You must set up a system. Just like you set up any other business system. It isn’t that tough.
  • Sustainability has to be integrated into the business plan and not only integrated into the business planning process, it also has to be integrated into the overall process of risk and reward that goes on inside the business.
  • Plan, set goals, do the things that are necessary to implement the goals and then audit to make sure you achieve the goals. You obviously cannot plan and develop without the people who are doing the implementing also being part of the planning process. You can’t accomplish operations and implementation without having the people who helped you develop the plan involved in some way. Then there are several kinds of auditing. You do your internal auditing to make sure that as a corporation you are going down the right road—your road—the one you determine to be right for your organization. You have external auditors and NGO partners to make sure your road fits within societal norms and goes in the right direction.
  • You’ve got to start with the vice-presidential level to ensure accountability, but you also need to push functional responsibility to the lowest possible level in the organization. There are two things that you want to do: ensure accountability through management involvement and have the people who are at the ground level actually tasked with accomplishing the work.

Advice from: Heidi Holt McCloskey, Global Sustainability Director, Apparel

  • For Nike Apparel, the greatest challenge revolves around ensuring adequate supply of organic fiber and getting the right quality in the right region at the right time. We support "local for local" to the greatest extent possible, using cotton that is organically grown in an area for the supply of production in that same area. We want the infrastructure to be developed to support farmers in each particular region. We’re becoming a very large player in the organic cotton arena, so we make pre-plant and longer-term commitments with the farmers. Establishing a high level of trust between Nike and the farmer is critical. This is their livelihood and it can’t be approached in a cavalier manner. If we make a commitment, we have to stick with it; there has to be a personal relationship and a high level of earned trust in order for a farmer to believe that a very large corporation has their long-term best interest in mind.
  • At present, the business understands one bottom line, not a triple one. It is my responsibility to drive the awareness of a sustainable business model, both internally and externally, through very specific and concrete projects that have immediate impact and return. In order to do that I had to understand what sustainability meant. Is it something we do just to feel good about ourselves as a company or do we do it because it also adds business value? Was there a business case for becoming sustainable or was it just something that we do, but at a cost to the business? I realized that unless sustainability in fact was sound business practice, it would only last while business was booming and would be one of the first things to be cut when business got tough.
  • Any sustainability initiative—whether product or process based—has to work with our existing systems, infrastructure, supply base and business model, and it must have a return. What I’m seeing over time is that sustainability initiatives have a rate of return that we couldn’t have calculated with a traditional finance perspective. Their positive impact on environmental health, long- and short-term human health, not to mention their contribution to smart business practices ultimately put us in a very competitive business position.

Advice from: Dusty Kidd, Vice-President, Compliance

  • First, start from the top. Get the CEO, Chief Operating Officer, and the key leadership in the company involved and signed off. It’s not impossible, but it’s certainly a much harder hill to climb if you start from the middle. Start from the top.
  • Second, build sustainability into the structure of the business. It should be part of business planning and brand planning and all those key things that you do to drive your business forward.
  • Third, do it in stages that are logical, digestible and provide you with some early successes.
  • If I were in a small company or a company that had never tackled sustainability as a question before, I would try to take it in that order.

Advice from: Bob Kreinberg, Divisional Vice-President, Global Logistics

  • It takes a lot of work and a lot of background and a lot of buy-in for people to really understand what you have to do to drive sustainability through the company. If you want to get it started and want the company to pick it up, and go that way quickly, the place to start the education is just right up here at the top.
  • When you do general education, you need to know what the next steps will be. If you don’t have anything planned for people to follow up, then people just get frustrated.
  • I think it’s going to take a lot of initiatives that build in the same direction, but they have to be based on the proposition that you invest time and energy with the expectation of having a tangible, profitable impact on the company.
  • The best way to get support for something is to show the results.

Advice from: Sarah Severn, Director, Sustainable Development, Corporate

  • Don't wait for senior leadership to get started, but seek their support once you have. I get very frustrated when I hear people saying this has to start with the CEO. It doesn't. When we were in the midst of the Sustainability Initiative, I remember Peter Senge saying (with apologies for inaccuracy), that we often confuse leadership with the senior executives in an organization, when in fact leadership is the capacity of a human community to create a new future. Leadership can come from anywhere within an organization. Nike's culture recognizes and enables this.
  • Develop your skills of compassion and insight. You will need them when the going gets tough.
  • Understand how sustainability/sustainable development connects to the values of your organization, because if that connection is missing, the business case alone won't get you there.
  • Find well-respected allies in the organization who understand the benefits to business and who may be able to approach this from a different perspective that adds value to the message. If you work in a corporate function, make sure you collaborate with leaders in the business who can bring credibility to the work.
  • Communicate using the language that your organization is familiar with since sustainability language can seem academic and elitist. Even more importantly, when bringing in experts who are external to your organization, find those who will not totally jar with the culture of your organization. You definitely need to challenge people's perceptions of current reality, and ensure you reach their blind spots since that's when real learning starts to happen. On the other hand, if the messenger not only turns their entire world view upside down but also is alien to the organizational culture, there is a very good chance that the message will be rejected.
  • Challenge the organization to set outrageous goals, in the long run these will be more motivating. Hence the reason we have seen goals like zero waste and zero toxics emerge out of the product groups. They understand the value of setting the bar high.

Advice from: Darcy Winslow, Director, Women’s Footwear

  • For the general population within a corporation, or whatever your sphere of impact is, you have to make it simple. And it takes a long time to make something this complex simple. I found that we started to make progress against that when we clarified the four long-range goals, and just made them sound bites - zero waste, zero toxics, closed loop business processes - while addressing growth, and profitability in a more a sustainable way. Then people can go away and say, okay, then what does that mean to the business from where I sit? Make it understandable in a way that somebody can sit down at their desk, whether they’re a designer or an organizational expert or transportation, logistics, materials, whatever, they can take those and think about it and say, okay, I understand what this means and I can understand how I am connected to it. Then they become owners in the process more quickly. Put your stakes in the ground and state them simply and aggressively. Create tangible goals.
  • Take a long-term approach and work with supply chain partners or business partners depending on what aspect you’re attacking. Then you can start setting up partnerships and longer-range R&D where becoming more sustainable is built into the process rather than something additional to address. Build in the criteria, or the principles, into the natural course of creating whatever it is your company creates.
  • Sometimes, you just have to work under the radar and work with the groups that really make things happen.
  • One of the things I’ve learned over the last two years is some days you walk away from work thinking, ‘Wow, have we made some great progress, we are really starting to get there. And other days you walk away thinking, ‘This has been a futile two years.’ So you have to step back and look at the progress you’ve made from a very objective perspective. I think we’ve made huge progress toward getting something that’s this large and this different embraced in a very complex corporate structure. This is not something that can be done even in a matter of five years or ten years. We’ll never be done with this because we’ll always learn more.
  • You have to be very comfortable with taking risks and being looked at cross-eyed and really believing that what you’re doing is right. Don’t rely on yourself or a small team. Go out and find other leaders in the organization. Look for leaders in untraditional places. One of the keys to success is finding others who can help bring some of the messages or ideas to life. Look to many parts of the business. A drop here, a drop there, and a drop over here, once it comes together creates a waterfall. I think that is what is happening right now.
  • It takes persistence and patience, and the patience piece is probably the most difficult because you can see the end so clearly, because that’s all you do, you think about this day and night, others don’t, and to help them through that, you have to become a teacher. You are a choreographer. Not everybody has to dance the same steps at the same time, but it has to look good when it’s all together, and it takes a long time to get there.

Advice from: Jill Zanger, Outreach Program Manager, Sustainable Development

  • Coming from a communications perspective, the most important lesson I’ve learned in Nike's sustainability integration process, is to continually speak the language of the business culture regardless of the content and learning you're working to bring inside the organization. More than once our best-intentioned messages were misunderstood. It's human nature, really, to listen to and truly hear a message when it's delivered in a package you find appealing. However un-radical of an idea sustainability was to us in the beginning of the process, when we sounded as if we were coming from ‘outside’ ourselves, the results had the potential to be disastrous. We're still not perfect at this notion of talking about sustainability in Nike-speak, but the glassy-eyed stares in response to us are at an all-time low. *
* The comments above are excerpted from the book, DANCING WITH THE TIGER: Learning Sustainability Step by Natural Step, by Nattrass and Altomare, New Society Publishers, 2002.

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