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Visionary Thinking

Awareness-based change - making a difference on a scale that matters

Visionary Thinking

Awareness-based change - making a difference on a scale that matters

Darcy Winslow is one of the foremost experts in steering a large, successful company toward greater environmental sustainability. Her pioneering work at Nike in the 1990s brought about fundamental changes in many of the company’s attitudes and practices toward the environment. She explains what it took to do this and the urgent challenges that lay ahead.

In the 1990s, you initiated Nike’s sustainability programme long before many other large companies were thinking about these issues. What inspired you to do it?

It started with the personal. I had experienced health issues and discovered that my problems were likely caused by chemicals in our environment. They had been deemed safe at the time, but five years later they were banned because of their toxicity. Back then I was running Advanced Research and Development at Nike. I started to ask myself whether there was a bigger impact I could make in the world, beyond developing the next cool product. About that time, we were asked at Nike if we knew what chemicals were in our shoes. We had to say that we didn’t. That day opened up a new world for me. I realised that sustainability efforts could not come from corporate social responsibility alone. I went to the then president of Nike and said, “If we are going to make this happen, it has to happen within the business. He said, ‘OK, go figure it out.’”

Your success at Nike was in aligning organisational values with the development and implementation of practical, systemic, sustainable design strategies. What were the hurdles and how did you overcome them?

At the time, people thought of sustainability only in terms of sustaining business growth. I had to learn to interpret this new concept for people, to engage them in a conversation around what it is and why Nike should take it on. Environmental issues were nowhere on the list of traits that create brand loyalty. I had to develop a business case for Nike being a first mover in this area. To begin with I got nowhere. So I looked at who the heroes were in the system. At Nike it was the designers. Translating the concept of sustainability into innovation helped my colleagues listen and engage. As an example, one of our goals was ‘zero waste’. We calculated that the waste created in making a single pair of running shoes equated to a third shoe’s worth of material. We asked: ‘How do we turn that around’? So instead of saying: ‘You can’t do this or that’ – which just did not mesh with the culture – we worked with the designers to develop design for environment principles that started a whole host of innovation around materials and design. The results are evident today, as one example, in Nike’s Flyknit.

How did you bring external stakeholders on board?

Another of our goals was ‘zero toxics’. To tackle this we had to go upstream to our materials suppliers. Our largest supplier at the time was Dupont. We had to find common goals and values with them. Once we’d done that, it opened the door. After a year of discussions they agreed to sign on. They would identify which chemicals were in the products, which allowed us to begin drafting a restricted substance list, identify environmentally preferred materials, and create a toolkit for designers and product engineers to draw from. With Dupont on board, we had leverage with other suppliers.

Today you are the Managing Partner for the Academy for Systemic Change. What is its purpose?

The Academy is made up of people from around the globe who are focused on awareness-based systemic change. We say ‘awareness-based’ because it starts with the self – the success of an intervention is completely dependent on the inner state of the intervener. Some of the domains we initially focused on were transforming education, marine ecosystems and fisheries, agriculture and food, alternative banking, women’s empowerment, sustainable communities, and tropical rainforests. It’s our goal to build the capacity of other practitioners, leaders, and the community. We share access to all of our networks, and incubate and create hubs in the domains we’re focused on. The goal is to continue to scale up the number of emerging leaders that have the commitment, the aspirations, and the capability to lead at the systems level.

Looking at where we are today, how optimistic are you?

Going back 30 years, sustainability was a new word. Today, the term ‘sustainability’ is widely understood. But if you score our efforts on a scale of 1 to 5 – where 1 is just being compliant, and 5 is where you redesign financial systems and sustainability is baked into everything you do, your visions and your principles – most companies and organisations are operating at about level 2. It’s not strategic, it’s more volunteer efforts. All this is important, but these are just drops in the ocean. We need more collaboration, like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition from my own industry, which has come together around the water challenge. You can’t transform a system by pulling one lever. It takes everyone picking up a rein and pulling in a new direction.

Can we achieve sustainable growth in consumption without sacrificing our standard of living, and what does this mean for investors?

We are currently using around 1.5 Earths’ worth of natural resources and we only have one Earth. Increasing affluence, the growth of the middle classes and consumption patterns based on a western life style are the things that will take us down if we don’t do something about it. We can’t assume growth can go on exponentially forever. Getting to a circular economy where we’re not drawing on virgin natural resources, that is the challenge. With all due respect, are we investing for short-term growth and gain for some, or are we making investments in our long-term ability not just to survive but to thrive, for everyone? 

About: Darcy Winslow is a Co-Founder and Managing Partner at the Academy for Systemic Change, founder of Designs for a Sustainable World Collective, LLC , and a Senior Lecturer in the MIT Leadership Center at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Previously, she worked at Nike Inc. for more than 20 years, where she spearheaded a major sustainability initiative.


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