Peter Senge and the Nike Sustainability Team: In Conversation

On July 27th, the Sustainability Consortium of the Society for Organizational Learning hosted its third "Leadership and Learning for Sustainability: Conversations on the Art and Practice of Sustainable Enterprise" audioconference. Host Peter Senge sat down with Nike's sustainability team, Darcy Winslow, Global General Manager for Women’s Performance Footwear, Apparel, Accessories, and Sarah Severn, Director of Corporate Responsibility Horizons, for a lively conversation on the company's ongoing efforts to create products with a more responsible environmental and social footprint.

One might expect products such as the Considered line of eco-conscious footwear to take center stage in this conversation, but, as in earlier events with Roger Saillant and Jeffrey Hollender, Senge kept the discussion focused on Nike's process of organizational learning that led it to adopt more responsible practices, and also Winslow and Severn's own discoveries of and engagements with more sustainable approaches to creating products. Both women discussed "spear in the chest" moments when they recognized not only the need for doing business in more ecologically responsible manners, but also the opportunities such practices created. Severn, like many others, pointed to her reading of Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce as her wake-up call, while Winslow noted her own awakening came during a meeting Severn had organized with "cradle to cradle" gurus William McDonough and Michael Braungart.Both Winslow and Severn noted that their own understanding of sustainability turned out to be the easiest part of moving Nike towards different ways of making products and doing business. Both recognized that "corporate responsibility" wasn't enough, and that if the company wanted to really move in a more sustainable direction, they had to take a hard look at how they made their signature athletic shoes -- as Winslow noted, Nike had to "insert sustainability into the heart of what we do." Among the changes that they encouraged were a shift from solvent-based to water-based adhesives (a technology, once developed, the company shared with competitors), and the elimination of PVC in their products. Each of these challenges required the company to "innovate around the issues," or prioritize creating greener alternatives, even if none were readily available at the time.

Bigger challenges existed in simply convincing other executives that sustainable products and practices were a necessity. Both Severn and Winslow spoke of the need to change their communications strategies from pointing out problems to proposing positive solutions: Severn claimed they had to figure out how to "open doors rather than close them." Nike executives, of course, weren't the only people requiring convincing: the range of suppliers from which the company purchased materials also had to come around to recognizing the business case for creating a more responsible product. Severn and Winslow met all of these challenges by moving slowly and attempting to "build up a couple of wins to show that it could be done."

While Senge's questions for the Nike team provided ample opportunity to explore the company's ongoing transformation, one caller's question provided the opportunity to look at another American corporation facing big challenges. The first question came from an employee at Ford Motor Company who noted that the automaker was in trouble, and wanted to know what Severn and Winslow thought it should do. Senge and the Nike team responded with an idea that ran throughout the conversation: building relationships is key to making change.

While the Sustainability Consortium had planned for a three part audioconference series, the "Conversations" have proven quite popular, so at least one more was added to the schedule. Last week, Senge spoke with Seetha Kammula of Next Life, LLC. While we haven't yet been able to listen to the conversation, a PDF document of slides from the talk is available on the Consortium's web site; hopefully, this one will also be transferred to CD. If you're interested in listening to any of the first three events, CDs are available for $199 each, or $398 for all three. ::The Society for Organizational Learning Sustainability Consortium