How She Leads: Hannah Jones of Nike

How She Leads

How She Leads: Hannah Jones of Nike

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz.com that spotlights the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business.

Hannah Jones, Vice President of Sustainable Business & Innovation at Nike, is responsible for stewarding Nike's global sustainability and labor rights strategies, with a focus on system change and innovation. Her unique background, which includes work on social campaigns, production, new media, and public affairs, positions her well to lead sustainability initiatives at the largest seller of athletic footwear and athletic apparel in the world. Fast Company magazine recently listed Hannah as #8 on the list of the Most Creative People in Business, and the World Economic Forum named her a Young Global Leader in 2008.

Since Nike was founded in 1975, it has been engaged in the design, development and marketing of footwear, apparel, equipment and accessory products. In the last decade, the company has journeyed from a defensive position of being scrutinized for social injustices to being praised as one of the leading companies in sustainable design and operations. In 2011, the company received top recognition for sustainability reporting from the investment advocacy group Ceres and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.

Nike also created its noteworthy Considered Design program, which marries performance and innovation with sustainability principles to produce all of our products with a lower environmental footprint; and helped found the GreenXchange, a web-based marketplace designed to share intellectual property which can lead to new sustainability business models and innovation.

In today's interview, Maya asks Hannah about her career path, her advice to entrepreneurs and other sustainability professionals, and details on how her company is experimenting with radically new and different materials, redesigning supply chains, and driving social innovation in the athletic apparel industry.

Maya Albanese: Could you please start by telling the story of how you came to acquire this important role at Nike?

Hannah Jones: I started out working at Radio 1 of the BBC on social action campaigns. I had to figure out how we would empower our audience to take action by covering the social issues that mattered to them, which started my thinking about how to affect social change. I then left the BCC to work for an NGO on social action campaigns around topics such as racism and AIDS/HIV. From there, I moved into the private sector by taking a job consulting for Microsoft on community investments. I was fortunate that my then-boss at Microsoft was recruited to be the first VP of Corporate Responsibility.

In 1998, when I joined Nike, the company was very much on the defense at the height of all their labor-related issues. The major social justice campaigns against them were based heavily out of Brussels and London. So, I began to broker a dialog with policymakers and more importantly with civil society and trade unions.

When I moved into a new role covering Europe, the Middle East and Africa, I got more involved in environmental work. I began to see that we needed to envisage more holistic strategies, rather than putting things into silos; an environmental solution could actually become a worker rights solution too. I was asked to step into the role of VP of Corporate Responsibility in late 2005. In 2009, we did a business redesign and set ourselves up as the Sustainable Business and Innovation Team (SB&I).

MA: Did you always know you wanted to work in this field, or did a particular incident drive your commitment?

HJ: I always knew that I wanted to be an agent of social change and justice, and this broadened out to sustainability later on. It never occurred to me that I would move into the private sector. The 'epiphany moment' came when I was working at the NGO on an AIDS campaign and rather naively sent out a mass letter to corporations looking for funding. One company, which I will not name, sent back a letter in response basically saying thank-you-very-much-and-go-away because "AIDS is not an issue to our consumers." It made me start wondering what you could do if you were in a corporation with the reach and potential influence that these companies have across the world.

MA: Do you think that you have been more effective at making positive change by reporting from the outside or now by practicing on the inside of a business?

HJ: I don't think that you can accurately measure the difference in impact. I think it's about ALL of us being change-makers together as a collective sum, because it is only together that we will create the outcome we are ALL looking for. It's much more important, I think, to reflect on each person's leadership: how am I helping others to become actors of change? Whether that is influencing businesses or consumers in whichever sectors is not as important as our overall collaboration.

MA: How do you answer commentators who call activists who move into roles working for big private companies 'traitors?'

HJ: It's a red herring; whether you are a change-maker inside a company or a change-maker in civil society, all of these roles are difficult and have a key role to play. Change is never easy to effect. When the focus is more on conflict and less on collaboration, we are NOT going to get where we need to go. But there will always be some kind of tension, and everyone keeping everyone else honest is somewhat important. But in the case of companies– well we need all of them to use their business models and resources to effect change. At Nike, we know we can leverage our innovation to help meet the demands and constraints of the world in which we operate.

MA: Is there a department at Nike dedicated to sustainability? How many people have 'sustainability' included in their job descriptions?

HJ: As the SB&I team, we have built up new capabilities in this center of excellence to leverage Nike's 36,000 employees and how they make decisions every day based on our overarching sustainability strategy.

The SB&I team has about 140 people, so full-time accountability and a job title that includes 'sustainability.' Then there's another whole network of team members who have sustainability somehow tied to their role, whether in labor conditions, supply chain, or purchasing, etc. Nike operates as a matrix, in which almost all of us have tied responsibility, so there's a real sense of mutual accountability; and it starts at the executive level. We have a governance construct on sustainable innovation which has core executives and the CEO sitting at it. It's designed to accelerate and scale sustainability. I myself am accountable to this Corporate Responsibility Committee, which meets four times a year.

MA: What advice would you give other professionals aspiring to attain similar jobs to yours?

HJ: I think the system has changed significantly since I came into the world of CR years ago. I always joke that "I wouldn't hire me" if I was interviewing today! As far as advice, I would say:

1. You have to ultimately be consultants to the business and know how to influence it.

2. You must have a massive capacity for understanding systems change, the ability to be flexible and to understand how to effect change. And it is really about enabling others to make change.

Our team often says: "If you're not comfortable with CONSTANT change, then you're probably not going to be comfortable here." Nobody has written this book. We are writing each chapter as we go along. You must have a real passion for this change challenge. We also say: "There's no finish line," This was a tagline from one of our ads, which has become an inherent component of our corporate culture. What is most exciting about our culture is that we have this tremendous focus on innovation and how to think about things differently. That is a great frame in which to drive a sustainability agenda.

MA: Do you expect Nike to hire more sustainability positions in the near future?

HJ: We are a growth company, so we do carefully and selectively expand our employee base, although I don't foresee that our team will significantly expand in the near future. We have a real focus on collaboration with external partners, such networks of academics and NGOS.

MA: What are some of the partnerships that stand out to you as the most effective collaborations?

HJ: CERES, Architecture for Humanity, The Natural Step0, and the list goes on very substantially. We will be issuing a CR Report in April, and there we will outline all our NGO partnerships.

MA: Nike hasn't always enjoyed its current image as a sustainability leader. Can you take a moment to summarize the journey you've taken from a position of defensiveness to one of an outright innovation leader?

HJ: There are some key pivot points in our story of moving from that place of deep unrest to where we are today. These points were all about what I call 'embracing the counterintuitive.'

The first counterintuitive moment was when we embraced TRANSPARENCY. Not just about the nice stuff but also about the challenges. That began a much more interesting conversation with the people who really cared about how to solve these issues.

Our next CM came when we said "guess what we're also going to be ACCOUNTABLE." In 2006, we released our factory locations marking the first time this was ever done in our industry. This moment also marked us taking a non-competitive business risk that changed the system.

Finally, one of the personal epiphanies I had was when we decided not to simply retro-fit the past but to design for the future. One of the biggest issues in the factories was a very toxic chemical being used in the screen printing process. All the workers needed personal protective equipment. Through a focused internal effort and help from some of our NGO partners, we were able to actually replace the toxic chemical with a water-based non-toxic, thus removing the need to use protective gear at all. So we went from using a compliance mechanism and focusing on the regulatory component to removing the need to monitor at all. This was an important eye-opener for us.

The shift hasn't just helped us find solutions within sustainability, but it's given us the opportunity to showcase new ways of doing things, to lead the path forward rather than pushing others to do things.

MA: What role does top-down support play in fueling innovation in large organizations?

HJ: Top down support is essential, because it sets the tone and helps keep people accountable. It means you have a joined-up approach for talking about a collective vision, and it helps us make decisive strategic decisions.

The grassroots influence is also important, especially with the younger generation coming into the workforce. There's a huge thirst to be involved in sustainability. From the talent acquisition standpoint, we find that most people say that "responsibility" or "sustainability" are reasons they would like to come to Nike.

Consumers also play a role. On www.Nikebetterworld.com, it's been really interesting to see how much of the Twitter feed is just people asking: "How can I become involved?"

MA: The apparel industry is a chief offender in terms of environmental impact. What advice would you give entrepreneurs in this space who want to create the most responsible companies possible from the get-go?

HJ: Our long term vision is that everyone should be designing completely closed loop products, and thinking about how we use materials that are decoupled from scarce resources. We're always thinking about recycling: how our old products will become new products. So my advice:

1. Think carefully about your MATERIALS. What are they, what is their impact, where are they coming from? We have a sustainability index of all materials that is going to be released soon. The Considered Design tool helps designers to design sustainability into their products from the get-go. We tend to make everything open to everyone

2. It's about the materials and HOW YOU USE them. How much waste do you estimate you'll be generating during the design process?

3. Finally, you should think about your MANUFACTURING. We are piloting and designing a Manufacturing Sustainability Index, which will not just use the standard assessments of our industry, but will also enable buyers to make better decisions.

MA: You have said: "We are not perfect. We still have a long way to go." Can you describe a few of the biggest challenges that Nike still needs to overcome?

HJ: The broader answer to this is that we'll be releasing our Corporate Responsibility Report in April, and we'll be outlining where we see progress and obstacles and where we still need big help. Across the industry as a whole, the greatest issue we all face today is the lack of policy levers being pulled at a global level. There is a huge sense of urgency of the need to innovate and change entire systems and sectors, and this is not being enabled right now from a policy perspective. How can business professionals and policymakers collaborate better to create the speed and scale necessary to change systems to be able to operate in a future world of constrained resources?

MA: What are you most proud of accomplishing so far in this role at Nike?

HJ: I never know how to answer this question; you have milestones, but what matters more is the journey. How is this becoming the core value of how we think about our rolls at Nike collectively? It's hard to measure any individual milestones or thrust a barometer into the organization and tell you exactly where we're at. I can tell you though that with the work I see coming out now, I've never been prouder to work at Nike than I am today.