How She Leads: Kate Heiny, Target

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

Kate Heiny leads the enterprise-wide sustainability strategy for Target, which covers business integration, operational innovation and public policy. She was ranked No. 73 on ETHISPHERE Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics in 2010. She has degrees in environmental science and business and has worked at environmental consulting firms on the east coast.

Target is a Fortune 50 Company that opened its first store in 1962 and now has more than 1,700 stores in 49 states. The company's environmental commitments focus on sustainable living, sustainable products, smart development and efficient operations. Target has set ambitious goals to support sustainable sourcing and was ranked fifth on Greenpeace's sustainable seafood scorecard in 2012.

Here, Heiny elaborates on how one of the country's most important retailers drives sustainability internally and externally.

Maya Albanese: How did you move into your current role at Target?

Kate Heiny : When I joined Target six years ago, my role was to develop Target's companywide sustainability strategy and team. Since then, I've worked across the business units to hone in on the sustainability focus and build a team devoted to imbedding it further into the way we work.

Albanese: Was there an 'aha moment' when you knew you wanted to focus your career on business responsibility ?

Heiny: Actually, my a-ha moment was not necessarily about business responsibility; it was more about observing decades-old business operations and believing that industries would need radical transformation in order to be successful in the future.

Albanese: How has your education provided a strong foundation for the work you do now?

Heiny : I see what I do with my team at Target as business strategy and change management, which I took classes on during business school. But, I would say my real-world experiences are the most important foundation for the work I do today. They're what have driven my ability to set the strategy and communicate the benefits of sustainability and the impact it has on the long-term viability of Target.
 

A variety of backgrounds are especially valued on my team and at Target as a whole. I look for people who question the status quo, aren't afraid of sharing an unpopular belief and think creatively. With diversity and variety, we all learn more from one another, come up with creative solutions to business challenges and, ultimately, drive greater change.

Albanese : Is there a department dedicated to sustainability? How many people work on your team?

Heiny : I lead our Sustainability team, and while each person on my team has a different area of focus, our overarching goal is to help our guests and team members live more sustainable lives and minimize Target's impact on the environment. We set the enterprise strategy and partner with teams across Target to pilot and execute on new sustainability initiatives. My team leads a group of about 150 cross-departmental team members in further imbedding sustainability into their day-to-day work. It's this collaborative approach that takes our work to the next level.

Albanese : How do you engage employees in your initiatives across such a large company?

Heiny : Target's culture is inherently collaborative, which lends itself really well to our work. We collaborate across the company every day, and in those interactions, I've witnessed first-hand our team members' passion for Target and Target's commitment to sustainability, which is pretty cool. We also proactively share out our commitments and initiatives. For example, we have a Sustainability Forum where we bring together our internal partners who work directly or indirectly on sustainability initiatives.

Albanese : The fashion industry has a hefty environmental footprint. Can Target be considered a leader in sustainable fashion, and why?

Heiny : At Target, we are constantly looking for ways to improve the sustainability of our products, including our apparel selection. As a founding member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Target uses the Higg Index and identifies areas of improvement that lessen our impact on the environment while driving operational efficiencies within our supply chain. In cooperation with other industry leaders, we are working to evolve the Higg Index for the home textiles business. 

Albanese : Do you feel a pull from consumers to design and sell greener products?

Heiny : We're evolving with our guests and want to continue to be a destination for great design. Specific to products, we know our guests are looking for simple ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle, and we're excited to continue to expand our selection of good-for-you products.

The latest -- and very exciting -- development is the Target Sustainable Product Standard, which we launched in October. The Product Standard was created to establish a common language, definition and process for qualifying 'more sustainable' products at Target within the categories of personal care, beauty, household cleaners and baby care. We see the standard as a framework to drive further sustainable design innovation and help consumers make more informed decisions around what is and isn't a sustainable product. 

Albanese : How is Target making sure that the food on its shelves is more sustainable?

Heiny : Target's grocery selection touches two of our core sustainability commitments -- helping guests lead more sustainable lifestyles and providing a suite of sustainable product choices. We know our guests care about products that are delicious and good for them. For example, we recently launched Simply Balanced, an owned-brand food collection that will be GMO-free by the end of 2014. In addition, Target set a goal to increase our organic food offerings by 25 percent by 2017. We've also made commitments to eliminate farmed salmon in favor of wild-caught. This was the first step in a long-term commitment to improving the sustainability of our seafood.

Albanese : How do you communicate the work Target is doing externally?

Heiny : Over the last few years, we've focused on making our sustainability efforts more visible. In 2010, we set specific goals in the areas of sustainable living, sustainable products, smart development and efficient operations, and we've reported on our progress toward achieving those goals every year. We also want to hear from our guests about sustainability and what is most important to them, but admittedly we haven't found the best avenue for engaging them in the conversation just yet.

Albanese : What partnerships have helped Target achieve its sustainability goals?

Heiny : We realize that no one company can change the industry alone, and we can make the most progress by working together. A couple of recent examples include Target's partnership with the nonprofit organization, FishWise, to achieve our sustainable seafood goal. We've also worked with Good Guide, as well as the Environmental Defense Fund and Clean Production Action, on the development of the Target Sustainable Product Standard.

Albanese : What is an obstacle you have overcome in your work? What is a continuing challenge you face?

Heiny : An obstacle for the entire industry lies in shifting perceptions and challenging the status quo. Sustainability needs to be a holistic way of working and operating, not just one initiative or team. I often think of a quote I heard once: "You don't do sustainability, you are sustainable." You cannot be focused on the past, or even on the present. Both are status quo, and we need to challenge that. A great example is offering products that incorporate recycled raw materials. Many assume that those materials cost more, when in fact, in some cases they cost less to manufacture than virgin materials. The product quality is not compromised, and we can pass the savings along to our guests.

Albanese : What are you especially proud of accomplishing in your role?

Heiny : I'm really energized by getting down to the "nuts and bolts" of the work we do, including strategizing ways to continually integrate sustainability into the business and rolling out new initiatives like Target's in-store recycling stations and five-cent reusable bag discount. I'm also really proud of the Target team. Leading our sustainability efforts, I have the unique opportunity to witness first-hand a companywide passion and commitment to doing things better.

Albanese : What advice would you give other professionals aspiring to work in your field?

Heiny : My advice is to first determine where you think you can have a real impact. Is it strategy, team member engagement, logistics, project management or something else? Figure out where your passion lies, seek to understand what sustainability means in that context, and then go from there. What's exciting is that there are no limits to sustainability.