IF11: Hannah Jones on Nike's Sustainable Innovation Marathon

IF11: Hannah Jones on Nike's Sustainable Innovation Marathon

After two hours of interactive warm-up exercises, the 2011 Innovation Forum kicked off with Hannah Jones, the Vice President of Sustainable Business & Innovation for Nike.

As Joel Makower put it in the introduction to his 30-minute interview with Jones, when you think of innovation, you pretty much always think of Nike. From their waste-based shoes to their radical collaboration within their industry and beyond, Nike is truly mapping the trail of sustainable innovation.

Jones began by walking the audience of more than 200 sustainability professionals through the journey that Nike is taking on innovation -- a journey that has involved not just her own team and her own company, but companies as far-flung from the sportswear and apparel industries as Procter & Gamble and Eli Lilly.

She spoke particularly about the benefits of viewing innovation through the same lens that you view sustainability. "One of the things that sustainability people have learned how to do is think about systems and system change, and to think about networks and understanding grassroots communities," Jones explained. "Bringing those worlds together has great promise for both of those worlds."

Jones had a lot of insight to offer on the state of the market, both in terms of changing shoppers' buying habits to value greener products to changing how any company in any industry can be greener.

"Our mission statement isn't 'make lots of stuff," Jones said. "It's 'inspire and innovate on behalf of the athlete.' How can we think about completely different materials that would be great for performance, but would also be regenerative, recyclable, and reusable? How do we think about supply chains that are radically transformed? How do we make these better places to work, make them LEED, make them greener? And what does that mean for sustainability economy?"

Later in the discussion, Jones shared two takeaways about how to get people to want to buy products that are greener.

1. Never compromise performance or price for sustainability. If you do, you will ghettoize sustainability and you'll continue the belief in the market that sustainability equals less, and that, Jones said, is one of the biggest sustainability challenges we still face.

2. Give the consumer something they didn't even expect. How do you create a demand for doing new things? Jones gave the example of the gear that Nike gave to the footballers at last year's World Cup in South Africa. Made entirely from recycled plastic bottles, Nike never compromised on their performance requirements, and she said the players loved it, both on the field and off.

Similarly, the Jordan 23 basketball shoe made it greener as a result of moving away from solvents to glue the pieces together, as well as working with the factory to develop a way to use stitching and geometry to partially hold the shoe together. "It was a breakthrough inspiration," Jones said, " and it sends a shudder down the design community." And the innovation gave an added thrill to Nike customers -- not only was it a high-performance shoe, but when buyers found out it was significantly greener, it became an added bonus.

Although Nike has come a long way down the path of sustainability, and one that started from what Jones described as a "difficult" place -- namely, the child labor scandals of the 1990s -- Jones stressed that none of it was easy. Nike has put years of effort into assessing the life-cycle impacts of its materials -- and Jones says that Nike has about 75,000 materials that go into its various products in the course of just one year.

They've turned those studies into a series of tools that they're sharing within the apparel industry and beyond, with the goal of helping everyone get better. Whether it's the Considered Index, its Green Xchange, working with the Eco Index Apparel Tool or the Sustainability Consortium, Jones said the future of green is going to have to revolve around sharing.

As a closing thought, here's how Jones laid out the goal of sustainable innovation: "We're going to have to make today's status quo obsolete because [what we're making tomorrow] is better."

We'll have much more from the Innovation Forum all week. Portions of the event will be live-streamed, starting at 9am Pacific / noon Eastern, at http://live.greenbiz.com.