Nike Inc. is one of the biggest players in the world of sports, performance and activewear apparel and accessories. This global company has undergone impressive growth from its roots as a track and field athlete outfitter, although allegations of child labor, poor factory conditions and exploitation of workers has tainted the brand’s image in the past. With its global influence and research and development capabilities, the company can make a significant impact on the way the world designs, produces and uses clothing – we asked Nike’s Vice President of Sustainable Business, Hannah Jones, just how they are doing it in Part 2 of a 2-part series; read the first installment here.
Leena Ojala: How much is sustainability integrated into the design community at NIKE?
Hannah Jones: Our Considered Design ethos – and the belief that design processes adopted broadly can be a key driver of systems change – has been a cornerstone of our sustainability strategy. We have built tools such as the Nike Materials Sustainability Index (Nike MSI), a database that is the result of more than seven years of materials research and analysis, to make it easy for designers to create products with lower environmental impacts. Nike also voluntarily sets sustainability targets, which include specific product design targets that are shared publicly.
We’re also working to make information and resources available to the design community at-large through initiatives like the MAKING app. MAKING includes data from the Nike MSI, putting information in the hands of designers and product creators beyond Nike to help them make informed decisions about the impacts of their materials choices.
LO: Which sectors or departments in the company have the furthest to go in terms of sustainability?
HJ: We can always do better by constantly refining the way we define our performance with greater focus and more attention. We are working to manage our impacts not only in our own business but in its reach across our value chain.
It’s much like the one-mile race, with world records bested by fractions of a second over years or decades without a major breakthrough but ultimately resulting in significant cumulative change.
We recognize the bar can always be higher and that sometimes it seems just out of reach. We’re constantly asking ourselves what company co-founder and legendary track coach Bill Bowerman asked the company’s first designers: “Is that the best we can do?”
We have looked across our value chain, at the areas of greatest impact, and where we have solid information to assess, understand and drive performance. In these areas we have defined targets we’re working toward.
LO: Why hasn’t NIKE adopted sustainable practices across the entire company?
Sustainability is built into the DNA of Nike’s business model, into our operations and into our culture where innovation is unleashed, shared and scaled. To advance in innovation and sustainability, both must be an inextricable part of the way we work. We know sustainability is a challenge that demands two approaches: building sustainability principles into the heart of business strategy and decision making – cultural, organizational, process, policy shifts. Sustainability is also an innovation challenge, which demands a new set of tools be deployed in order to hunt and solve innovation challenges. We are continually building capability across NIKE, Inc. to be able to do both.
LO: How, in your opinion, has NIKE helped foster a sustainable apparel industry?
HJ: The sustainability challenges we face, such as the use of innovative new materials and changing deep-rooted supplier behaviors, are much broader than Nike alone can address. Unprecedented levels of collaboration are crucial to promoting system transformation and developing effective and lasting solutions, and are core to our strategy. We recognize we can play a role in changing the underlying systems and transforming the way that industry, government and citizens share data and responsibility, working together to enhance transparency and accountability.
- The H2O Insight Water Tool, which we developed for the Nike Water Program and have made available through subscription to other companies, enables our vendors and other brands worldwide to more effectively track water quantity, quality and efficiency indicators.
- In 2011, we worked with other footwear and apparel companies to create a roadmap for achieving the goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by our material vendors and contract manufacturers by 2020.
- Also in 2011, we joined with other leading apparel and footwear brands, retailers, manufacturers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academics and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to launch the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). We have shared our tools with them to help create an industry-wide index for measuring and evaluating product sustainability.
- In March 2013, Nike announced a partnership with Swiss company bluesign technologies to accelerate the supply of sustainable materials and chemistries for use in NIKE, Inc. products. Through the partnership, material suppliers will have access to an unprecedented amount of data that will enable them to make informed decisions and, ultimately, increase water and energy efficiency.
LO: What do you foresee being NIKE’s most important role in creating a sustainable and responsible apparel industry?
HJ: Nike is a large company by most standards, but our ability to influence meaningful change at the systemic level has limitations. It is absolutely crucial that we work with other players to prompt real, sustainable system change. We embrace partnerships and open-source collaboration. We have proactively shared our sustainable design tools to help create an industry standard and continue to look for ways to scale innovations at Nike and across our industry.
An example of this is our role as a founding member of LAUNCH, a strategic partnership between Nike, NASA, the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). LAUNCH identifies and fosters new ideas to create breakthrough innovations, with our current focus being on sustainable materials and low-impact making. It is estimated that around 150 billion garments were produced around the world in 2010, and by 2015, the global apparel industry is expected to produce more than 400 billion square meters of fabric every year. Knowing that, it’s not hard to imagine the significant impact new, sustainable materials can have on our environment.
LO: What does sustainability mean to you?
HJ: An unprecedented opportunity to innovate. We have learned at Nike that designers and product creators deliver incredible results when faced with constraints. Sustainability is a constraint that encourages the re-imagination of what’s possible.
LO: What inspires you on a daily basis?
HJ: The incredible talent and diversity of thinking that exists at Nike. We have a culture that encourages and nurtures disruptive ideas. The creative thinking that emerges when diverse skills sets are brought together is inspiring.
Images: Nike Inc.
Related on EcoSalon:
Hannah Jones: Nike VP of Sustainability Interview Part 1
NASA, Nike and USAID Seek Sustainable Ideas in Textiles
Fostering a Responsible Fashion Industry: The Sustainable Apparel Coalition