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Inside Nike’s mission to change the future of our planet

We talk to the company’s Chief Sustainability Officer about her role in ensuring that the role that Nike plays in the world has the right kind of impact

Hannah Jones is a compelling speaker. At the opening of the V&A’s Fashioned By Nature exhibition, Nike’s Chief Sustainability Officer delivered a captivating view of her – and subsequently the company’s – mission to reinvent the future. In a talk called “Sustainability In A Commercial World”, Jones sat with fashion journalist Marion Hume for a fascinating 90 minutes, talking passionately about her role at Nike (where she’s worked for 18 years), her delight at seeing invention and innovation turn from dream to reality, and how proud she is of not just her own kids, but an entire generation of youth who demand a new world.

Sustainability may not be the most exciting word. It is, however, a practice that is crucial to the preservation of our planet. But are people responding to it, and beyond the press releases, are brands really taking it seriously? Nike says yes, having just released its annual sustainability report, a manifesto that includes an aim for the future – zero footwear manufacturing waste, 100 per cent sustainable contract factories, and 100 per cent renewable energy. Crucial to this pledge is Jones – having been leading Nike’s drive for a new world for nearly two decades.

Prior to her talk, I met with Jones to discuss Nike’s crisis point in the 90s, collaborating fiercely with other brands, and why she’s happy to see her daughter marching on the street.

You’re Nike’s chief sustainability officer, but how much of a conversation is sustainability across the company?

Hannah Jones: Pretty profoundly. I’ve been on this journey for probably over 20 years now. In many ways our journey began pretty early and in part because of something different which was the working condition labour crisis that happened in the mid-90s, where we were targeted and accused of poor working conditions.

Although that was a massive crisis for the company, it was also a gift because we were one of the first companies to be focused on social impact, i.e don’t just think about your bottom line, think about your social impact. What that woke us up to was that the environment was going to come really fast.

For about 20 years we’ve been talking about ‘how do we reduce waste, how do we eliminate waste’. Sustainability is a mission for the whole industry, it’s going to take industrial action. There are still serious amounts of innovation that have to be unlocked to really get to that vision of the good that we collectively have, and that we have for ourselves.

How are you going about it?

Hannah Jones: About two years ago our CEO Mark Parker set a moonshot for the company – and deliberately nobody knows quite how to get there. Kennedy did a similar thing that was: ‘We’re going to land a man on the moon and get him home safely’. Nobody knew how that was going to happen but it was a galvanising call to action and ours is pretty similar – we’re going to double our business and halve our environmental impact.

While we have all this progress, we also know there are all these things that the world has to unlock. How are we going to not just make cotton less water-heavy, but how do you replace cotton with a material that is equal to cotton and the consumer will love as much as cotton? The flyleather (a leather alternative designed to reduce waste) we brought out was a great distraction – I think it’s coming to the UK in September so I’m excited about that – that’s an 80 per cent reduction in water and a 90 per cent reduction in carbon. If I was a VC that would be my unicorn, but I need another 10 unicorns at the scale of which this industry operates, so it’s a relentless hunt for innovation.

Fashion is the second biggest polluter in the world. Are you satisfied with what you see industry-wide in terms of the way people are approaching the issue?

Hannah Jones: No, not at all. There are leaders in the fashion industry that are really engrossed in this idea of sustainable fashion and what that means, and there are those that are still completely asleep at the wheel and are still in the old school, 19th century power business of cheapest prices and cheapest margins, not thinking about the environmental and social impact. If we are to make progress the good news is that the good actors are all collaborating.

I was just with a young Nike employee from the London office and he was gobsmacked cause I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re the one team in the company that collaborates furiously with adidas, Puma, H&M, Stella McCartney’. We all collaborate because the people that understand the journey that we’re on and the transformation that will take place know that yes, there’s a time which we will compete, but most of the time it will take the power and the weight of all of us to transform the system.

Are you seeing a shift in terms of how consumers are thinking about sustainability? What are Nike devotees saying?

Hannah Jones: It’s a good question. Sci-fi writer William Gibson has this great quote: ‘The future is here, it’s just not distributed equally.’ Ten years ago I would’ve said to you that consumers care but they’re not voting with their purchasing power – today I actually think it’s shifting. I think the mainstream consumer is more activist, living in a polarised world, they’re living with the beginning of the consequences of climate change, they see fragility, they see migration. They’re really smart, they’re seeing the causality, and they’re tying together the threads – they have more information than ever.

This young generation is taking to the streets and marching. I just got a text from my daughter, like: ‘Mum I’m going out to march today, are you OK with that?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah I’m OK with that, I’m absolutely OK with that!’ And so what they’re asking of brands is: ‘What do you stand for above and beyond of making products, what’s your purpose?’ For us, our purpose is all about how we enable the athlete to do what they want to do, and part of that is how do we make sure they have access to a world in which they have clean air, they have snow and they have clean water to surf on, or to swim in and you can run. To do that, our commitment is to become sustainable.

Which innovation are you most proud of?

Hannah Jones: I would say the thing I’m most proud of with what we’ve been doing at Nike is not only one single innovation, but the approach we’ve taken to really put sustainability at the heart of our company and our innovation agenda. Every team in the company is thinking about their footprint and how to innovate. We just announced a few months ago that our entire North America operation and operation facilities will be 100 per cent renewable and we’re already renewable in the distribution centre, in what we have would have been off the grid like 10 years ago.

You work in an environment where you constantly think about the future – does the state of the world and where it’s at now excite or scare you?

Hannah Jones: I think I’ve never seen the world more polarised with more volatility and more injustice. My personal way of processing that is, to battle down even harder and what can we do in an appropriate way that creates change. With our sustainability agenda, we set our policy on climate and carbon years ago and we’re not changing it – because we’re following the signs. So when you can stay true to your environment and you can stay true to your whole purpose and your really clear about where you're headed the volatility rocks you less because you're on your path.

The fact that the US government has pulled out of Paris? Yeah we have been vocal about our disagreement with that, and it is absolutely not stopping us with the work we’re doing to decrease our carbon footprint, if anything we’re doubling down, I think that’s my approach to it – how do you in polarising time, how do you actually double down on purpose, how do you double down on community, how do you double down on engagement and transactions and how do you double down on innovating the future?