Close your systems, open your business practices, lower your footprint and above all…collaborate. These are just a few of the key insights we gained in our interview with Sustainability Wonder Woman Darcy Winslow last week. Winslow, a 21-year executive with Nike, now spends 100 percent of her time advising companies and organizations on how to get green with her own company, DSW Collective, Designs For A Sustainable World.
Struggling to start the sustainability process? Fighting to even get the leadership in your organization to listen to your eco-minded arguments? She’s been there, done that and facilitated a major shift in focus at one of the most famous corporations on the planet. Lucky for us, she’ll be speaking at the GoGreen 09′ Conference in October–but if you can’t wait to hear her tried and true advice (we can’t blame you!), we’ve got you covered. Below is a teaser of Darcy’s incredibly effective steps for getting your company on the path to sustainability.
GG: What is your personal philosophy on sustainable business and how were you able to align two seemingly unrelated areas (athletic footwear and sustainability) under that common goal.
DW: That’s a big question. My personal philosophy on sustainable is, if I can borrow a line from Nike, is that there is no finish line. I’m not sure that there will ever be something that is completely sustainable, but I think there are different levels of sustainability and how organizations approach it.
The first effort should be around mitigating the negative aspects of a business. After that, starting to adapt to some of the shifts we’re starting to see in the world around us from resources—finite natural resources—and the impact we have on climate change. And then ultimately, to start to redesign business models that create much more resilient communities and organizations, and THEN we might start getting close to sustainable businesses.
In terms of how I reconciled the business I was running with sustainability, was starting from the grassroots and understanding what the long term impacts of our business were. At the time I got started, I was running our advanced research and development division, which is where we make the long term investments around technology, chemistry and design features, etc., and to understand what impact they have when they play out two to ten years down the road and were we asking the right questions. And when we looked at it through that lens it started to frame up our long term goals around sustainability.
GG: Why are sustainable practices and values so important in the business climate and why is there “no time to lose,” so-to-speak?
DW: If you look at any business, and I’ll use the sporting goods industry as an example, and at their supply chain and the resources that they draw upon, natural resource ecosystems are in decline—such as water. The apparel industry, not just Nike’s apparel business, but the entire apparel industry is incredibly water dependent. It’s very water intensive and the amount of water we have is finite. When that water is diverted from what is required to support a community to products, well how do we reconcile that? How do we begin to make investments in apparel innovation that reduce the dependency on water? Same in the footwear industry—it’s heavily petroleum dependent. How do we make investments that will ensure that we are not dependent on a finite resource and one that has a heavy footprint? So it’s really about redirecting your investments based on the inputs into your product. I think every company needs to sit down and really understand: Are they drawing on a finite set of resources, or are they creating products such that they can move into a closed loop system and keep it in neutral balance?
GG: What was the tipping point for you? What inspired you to mount a dramatic sustainability program at Nike?
DW: For me it was two-fold. One was on a personal level. In 1996, I read a book called Living Downstream. And it talks about chemicals that get into our water system, our air, our land, downstream from chemical plants. And it answered two questions for me. Why did I have six miscarriages? And what was the cause of my husband’s cancer? It was literally because of the use of chemicals, that at the time were deemed safe. Then they found out that they had really horrible, long term impacts on human health. So that, in combination with running Nike’s advanced R+D Division and asking longer term questions—what are the long term impacts?–it forced me to think differently and in longer terms.
From a business perspective, it was at that same time that I met Bill McDonough for the first time. He was the green architect who designed and built our European Headquarters. He came into Nike and sat down with ten of us from the footwear division, one of whom is now the CEO of Nike, and said—very politiely—do you know what’s in your product? And we said, “well yes, we do.” He and his partner, Michael Braungart, had run a gas chromatagraph analysis and showed us all the different chemicals that were in the shoes, that were introduced by suppliers, by the manufacturing process, etc. That, for me, sealed the deal. That was the tipping point for me and the reason why I got involved in sustainability and why I’m doing it 100 percent of my time with DSW Collective now.
GG: Selling new projects and ideas to corporate leadership can often be challenging. How did you win support for a shift in focus toward sustainability at Nike? What were the key selling points?
DW: Well it happened slowly. It was also quite a learning process, in terms of the language and the approach you use to engage people and to build the business case. In the very early days, before many people understood what sustainability really meant, including ourselves—this was in the late 1990s—it really wasn’t in their lexicon. To enter into the conversation from more environmentalist or activist perspective, that just did not work in business. Talking about the toxicity of products or their negative impact on the environment was a very difficult way to engage, especially the senior leaders and those who were in charge of the financial aspects.
It wasn’t until we began to shift our language to business language and focus on the positive impacts it would have on our business, that we began to really engage them and get their support. It wasn’t their full commitment, that came over time, but when we started assigning dollar values to both the investment and the return, combined with the growing consumer interest at the that time—because again, back then it was different, we had lots of survey data and trend data from both the U.S. and Europe, and environmental aspects never even made the top 15. Today that’s completely different. We had to build a business case around something that we thought would be true at some point in time and then be persistent about the message—but always show the return on investment. And also show the potential negative aspect about brand reputation if you do not adopt more sustainable business practices.
GG: Can you tell us about a few of the specific changes that were made and goals that you set, which other companies could learn from?
DW: Every company has to set their own goals, based on what their business model, their product, their service is. There are some that are common, regardless of what it is that you produce. One of those is your carbon footprint. Everyone needs to assess their carbon footprint. For Nike, back in 1999, I set the footwear goals to be zero waste, zero toxics and 100 percent closed-loop systems—which are still in place today. The closed loop business system has actually taken precedent and has become one of the most important aspects of how they make decisions at Nike.
The waste aspect, I think any company can look at that as well. And that’s waste in the broadest terms. That’s where you can really find dollars to support some of the other investments that need to be made. The other thing that companies really need to look at, in terms of opportunities and credibility around the actions they’re taking, is transparency. That’s something that is very difficult for some companies to open the doors and share information about their company. [Information about ] the supply chain and supply chain partners, that’s crucial, especially for a company that creates a product. Upstream, downstream, there are impacts all along the way. If you adopt a goal of closed loop systems or zero waste, you have to engage [your supply chain].
Finally, going back to your question about the economic climate and the state of natural systems around the world, we have to achieve an unprecedented level of collaboration both within our own industries and across industries, if we are going to achieve rapid integration and acceleration of sustainability into our businesses.
For more information on Darcy Winslow and DSW Collective: Designs For A Sustainable World, please visit: http://dswcollective.com/indexSplash.html
Darcy Winslow is a featured speaker at the GoGreen ‘09 Conference in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday, October 7th. Join us for a day of sustainability inspiration and education! GoGreen ‘08 sold out, so get your tickets soon to get serious about greening your business. Visit http://www.gogreenpdx.com/registration to register.