Exit Interview: Mark Spears, Disney

Exit Interview

Exit Interview: Mark Spears, Disney

Courtesy Mark Spears

Exit Interview is an occasional series profiling veteran sustainability professionals who recently have left their job.

For a Southern California boy, a career at Disney is a dream come true. At least, that’s Mark Spears’ story. Last month, he retired from the iconic hospitality/media/merchandising company after nearly 30 years, serving most recently as director of international labor standards for Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media.

I spoke with Spears a few days before he took, as he described it, his "final walk down Main Street," to hear about his work, his perspective on corporate sustainability and what he learned during his time at, as Disney’s tagline has it, "The Happiest Place on Earth." The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: You’ve been director of sustainable business practices since 2008. Tell me about your job.

Mark Spears: When I started with DCPI eight years ago, I was hired by the chairman for a newly created role. It was to help him and his executive team develop a sustainability strategy that would focus on our business as a whole with a specific focus on our products. We're the world's largest licensor, with approximately 7,000 licensees around the world that have various rights to our intellectual property as it relates to incorporation into products.

And he was very interested at the time, having been here 10 years or so and gotten his business plan in place, to elevate the social and environmental performance of the products that we were licensing. So we spent a couple of years developing and implementing that. We launched an innovative sustainable packaging effort which continues today.

Disney Consumer Products is primarily a licensing organization, but we're also one of the world's largest publishers. And it includes the retail component, which is the Disney Store, and the e-commerce business, which is one of our fastest-growing components.

Makower: I think you once told me that there are Disney-licensed products on every aisle of Walmart.

Spears: That's what I've been told. I personally have not validated that, but clearly we have a significant presence with Walmart and I'd say virtually every significant retailer around the world — large, medium and small.

Makower: How many products and licensees does that involve?

Spears: Our brands extend to 1.6 million SKUs around the world. The licensee count is in the 7,000 range.

That includes everyone from a Walmart and toy companies like Hasbro, Mattel and Lego on the large end, to small licensees that do things like princess wedding gowns, and everyone in between. We hit every segment, I'd say. While we're not a primary partner in the automotive industry, I'm sure there's some aftermarket products that are licensed with our intellectual property.

The Walt Disney Company

Some of the merchandise offered at a Disney Store.


Makower: How has your world changed during that time, in terms of the nature of the issues or the kinds of interactions you have with factories or suppliers?

Spears: Many of us started out in very much the mode of prescription: "This is what is expected. This is what needs to happen. These are the consequences if it doesn't happen." To now, "This is much bigger than any individual or individual company or individual organization or even individual nation, and has become a much more collaborative effort towards common goals and values."

When we started our ILS program in 1996 and created the code that actually lives to today, I think there was probably a sense that we could tell people what was necessary and it would simply happen. It didn't. So it was really about "How do you bring all of these parties to the table and how do you make sure everybody walks away with something?"

It's not enough that we believe that working conditions should be maintained in a certain fashion. There are a number of variables that go into that equation. It's really about identifying the various stakeholders and trying to bring them all to the table, and understanding their perspective, and understanding what the quid pro quo is for achieving our goals, and also making sure that they're engaged in the process and they feel that they're receiving some value out of it.

Makower: It sounds like your job is a little bit of a United Nations, in terms of literally working with countries and getting into local politics, but also in trying to bring the parties together — companies, governments, collaborators, competitors, value chains — in order to come up with solutions. Is that an apt description?

Spears: I'd say it’s less about politics per se and more about recognizing that, at the end of the day, regardless of going in perceptions, there are common sets of objectives and values that you can find regardless of the stakeholder. The key part is finding that intersection, and I'd say the U.N. thing is probably a fairly apt description. I mean, in the end, it's less about ownership and responsibility and more about accountability and influence — being able to influence parties positively for everyone's benefit.

Makower: I'm wondering if there is a story you can tell me that sort of represents a big win — or even better, a win/win — where you just walked away from the experience saying, "This is why I do what I do. This is what it's all about."

Spears: Project Kaleidoscope was one of those efforts. It's something we created in partnership with McDonalds and a variety of stakeholders under the corporate responsibility banner over five years. We designed an approach to kind of a continuous improvement process at a factory level, where a variety of stakeholders could take part in it. But at the end of the day, it was about the factory owners and management and workers that were managing this process for mutual benefit.

What was rewarding was starting with a set of preconceptions or misconceptions by a number of parties, and working our way through over a period of time and pretty extensive effort and on-the-ground activity to really show how improvements can be made, and how it's critical to involve all parties, set aside misconceptions and understand what the conditions are on the ground.

Makower: How about something that you struggled with and maybe still are and sort of never really quite were able to wrestle to the ground?

Spears: We're still all dealing with plastics. We're still all dealing with a tremendous amount of waste that goes into the process. There's just tremendous opportunity to really rethink that in a way that it creates value for everybody in that value chain.

Makower: What's the responsibility of the Disney brand when you don't make the things with your name on it? How far can you remove yourselves, or can you?

Spears: We are associated with the product regardless of who makes it. No one looks at the maker of the product and holds them accountable. They look to the brand on it associated with the Walt Disney Company and have every expectation that we're on top of it. I don't know how many brands exist like that, but we're one of those brands where I don't think you can just disassociate or use any excuse that would allow you to separate your brand from the product or the story.

Makower: Disney has — pardon the expression — such a squeaky-clean image as a company. Has that been helpful or a hindrance in trying to do your job?

Spears: Personally speaking, it's an absolute motivation. It's one of those things that gets me up every day, to answer that question. I'm a native Southern Californian and I've always had kind of a personal association with the company. And then to find out there's actually a company behind it, and you could actually work for it and be part of the process, was literally unimaginable. And then to be part of that process to add positive impact. It was one of the things that motivated me and, perhaps, proudest of in terms of the time spent here.

Makower: What's the role been of NGOs in all this? I mean, Disney being Disney makes you a target, but it also I think makes you a leverage point where others figure, "If we can help or work with Disney to change, we can really move the needle." What have you learned about working with NGOs?

Spears: My initial reaction to your question is, "They're real people, too." They have a passion around their beliefs, whatever their particular subject or topic or area of emphasis in. And just like people, you can probably put NGOs on a broad spectrum. There are those that use us and other brands to raise funds and awareness in a pretty aggressive fashion. But I'd say for the most part, and certainly in the success stories of working with many of them, there are some that I'd consider a little bit more centrist, who certainly have very specific objectives, but at the same time are open to engaging, to learning, to sharing.

Makower: What have you learned about working with them that others might benefit from?

Spears: I find more positives in engaging them than negatives. I also think it's important to set expectations about what can and can't happen. It's about building trust, and I'd say maybe early on in the relationships with many of them, trust was a big question. Part of that was just a lack of understanding or relationship between the various parties. It does not happen overnight. This is a marathon, not a sprint, whether it's NGOs or business partners around the world or, quite frankly, our own employees.

Makower: So, how do you build trust?

Spears: I think initially it's engagement. It's entertaining and answering questions. It's meeting face to face, as opposed to letters or communications organizations or the media. Perhaps in some ways it's being able to communicate or express vulnerability in terms of not having all the answers, and being able to seek some guidance on experience from NGOs who perhaps have experience on the ground or have an extended network that maybe you don't have access to.

Makower: I’m sure you get a lot of questions about "How do I get into sustainability?" from students and others. What do you tell them?

Spears: If you look at my career, one of the things that contributed to my ability to contribute to the impact of what we do is understanding how business works and the kind of the interconnection of all of the various functions both internally and externally. It's so easy to be prescriptive in an academic sense of what people should be doing, and then you get on the ground and you've got so many variables to have to deal with. It's not a straight line.

More and more, you need to be able to combine a well-rounded skill set to be successful, because you have to influence people above and below you inside and outside the organization, and you have to be willing to deal in very difficult situations where there's not an easy answer. You need to be comfortable not to pretend there's an easy answer but something you need to work through.

I think in some respects we're doing people a disservice by giving them a corporate responsibility or sustainability degree and then telling them to go out and make a difference when they don't have the first idea of how business works.

Makower: Finally, somebody described you as the ultimate circular economy guy because you proudly buy your clothes at vintage and used clothing stores. What's that about?

Spears: For many years our family has primarily shopped at places like Goodwill. Our dogs are recycled. We support Boxer Rescue LA. We're probably not the picture of the consummate consumer in the traditional sense. I think we see value, but value doesn't have to be new.

Makower: I guess I find an interesting irony that a guy who's involved with part of a company that is responsible for so many different products, not all of which are, shall we say, essential, to have an anti-materialistic streak.

Spears: I don't judge people in terms of who they are and what they do and the choices they make. I mean, we typically drive used cars and we drive them to 200,000 miles, and we chose schools for our kids based, in many respects, on their social values as much as the education that they receive, and I think it's definitely paying off as they move on through college and beyond. I think you can sleep at night knowing that you're part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem.