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.