Hannah Jones on the risks and opportunities of growing sustainably

Nature of Business radio, created and hosted by Chrissy Coughlin, is a weekly show on business and environment.

Talking with Hannah Jones, VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation at Nike, is always an inspiring event (see, for example, GreenBiz.com's profile of her from earlier this year, and her speech at the 2011 Ceres Conference: "Why Sustainability Reporting is Revolutionary."). We talked about her background in youth and social issues, radio (her first love), at an NGO, and corporate community investment consulting all of which lead to her Nike and to her position today where, as you will hear, she is making real systems change in both sustainability, innovation, and labor rights -- no small task.

Hannah began our conversation by saying that she only accidentally ended up in business. She basically thought at the time that it would be great to take what she was learning in NGO world and see how it works it in a corporate setting. She admits it was a somewhat naïve notion -- but clearly it has worked.

When Hannah came to Nike in 1998, corporate responsibility didn't exist. She discusses how it was basically a focus on all that was wrong in the supply chain as well a discussion of risk that comes from how the business models were constructed. Corporate responsibility was nowhere close to being viewed as value added.

Hannah has consistently and successfully argued that this old paradigm that sustainability and workers rights are a cost to a business simply rings untrue.

In her words:

"There is value creation in risk mitigation. If you look at innovation through lens of sustainability, you find yourself creating new and better products. You open up new markets."

She highlights how in the past, business predicated on an era of abundance and that we are now entering an era of scarcity where only the companies who innovate with survive. In fact, she and her team conducted an exercise to look into the future and identify mega trends. These include:

• Population growth
• Scarcer natural resources
• Disruption that comes from climate change related issues
• Access to information -- the consumer as citizen
• Cost of oil

Daunting, for sure, but in Hannah's eyes, there are also massive opportunities for new business models to emerge. Certainly these mega trends demand change and that is why Hannah feels like this is one of them more exciting times to be doing the work that she does.

On a parting note, Hannah was recently written up in Fast Company as #8 most creative in business. I asked her what the secret sauce is and absolutely loved her answer.

Again, in her words:

"Here's what I believe. The book has not been written and nobody has all of the answers and I am huge believer in collective intelligence and diversity of thought, and culture, and gender, and skills. To me creativity is born out of bringing people with very different approaches to problem solving very different insights together and saying you can do this, we can solve this together. To me it's all about how do you unleash the creativity in teams and in people by having them focus on things that make them passionate, (and have them say) if I can solve this, if I can be a hero in this, I could actually change the world."

I would say she most certainly is. Enjoy the podcast!

George Papoulias edited this podcast.