The Key to the Gap’s Sustainability Success: An Interview with Kindley Walsh-Lawlor

Kindley.jpgIt is one thing to start a green by design eco-fashion company, and an entirely different thing to direct a ~$16B clothing retailer that employs 150,000 people to reduce its environmental impact and operate more sustainably. This is exactly the job of Kindley Walsh-Lawlor, Gap Inc’s Senior Director of Social Responsibility and Environmental Affairs. I got the chance to discuss with Kindley how she landed where she is, what Gap Inc’s brands (Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic) are doing to “go green”, and the ins and outs of retail corporate social responsibility (CSR). Gap Inc is a social responsibility leader, having spent 12 years working on ethical sourcing and human rights. Kindley’s task involves incorporating environmental initiatives. As she puts it: “Are we leaders right now in the environment? The answer is no. I think, is it a goal? Yeah. …The key thing that’s so important to us is it’s about really making a positive impact versus just creating a great story.”

Having grown up on a farm in Vermont, Kindley is a self-described “old time hippie and long-time environmentalist.” Kindley’s background is in product design and she spent 15 years in small-scale production. Eleven years ago she started with Gap Inc, wanting to understand what it was like to have “brand names behind you.” During her first 9 years with the company, Kindley worked at Banana Republic and Gap which gave her a “great education on what the brands were up against…day-to-day especially as we dig deeper with the brands on operational sustainability opportunities to redesign product.” Kindley has been in her current CSR role just under 2 years.

In her current role, Kindley has helped organize Gap Inc’s efforts around an environmental strategy, referred to as the ECO-strategy: “E for energy, C for cotton or sustainable design, and O for output or waste… fundamentally the basics that we need to engage in as an apparel company.” This is a way to harness all the corporate initiatives and brand level grass roots efforts into one all encompassing strategy. They also put together a sustainable design toolkit, which they were able to utilize when Banana Republic first came to corporate and said “we want to go green.” Last spring, Banana came out with its green initiative under the tagline “Greener. One Step at a time.” And while that was just one step, Kindley hinted that another core Gap Inc brand has something up its sleeve. This unnamed brand has made sustainability “one of their five key pillars as to how they make all decisions in their business. So they’ve gone after it as a cultural shift to insure that’s about more than just pleasing the customer, more than just getting the right aesthetic in the store, more than just engaging employees, but also doing the right thing when they’re doing business.”

Going forward, a key component to success will be consistent brand communication. Kindley does not want Gap to fall heavily to either the social or the environmental side of things, but to tie these two fundamental pieces together and ensure Gap’s messaging is aligned. “A lot of companies [are] either about sustainability or they’re about social and ethical sourcing or social and human rights. And so what I want to do is ensure that whatever we’re doing is connected. I want to insure that whatever we’re messaging is connected, and I think that’s something that is a differentiator and hugely important for the company.”

The exciting part is that Kindley is working with the leverage of several brands and impact on a large scale – every small change has a huge impact. For example, Gap Inc switched to using post-consumer recycled paper for price tickets across all brands and “it saves so much paper as you look across how many units we buy every season, everyday, that are shipping around the world.” On the other hand, one of the difficulties of doing this sort of work is that “everyone wants to see your ROI on every initiative that you’re doing.” Kindley explained that they’ve come up with “really creative ways to be cost neutral.”

Gap Inc is in extremely capable hands with Kindley, and I look forward to seeing how she continues to drive environmental and social change in the industry. Overall, Kindley is looking for “that sea change in the industry that we can help propel” and to partner with other industry leaders like Nike and Patagonia to “help move mills to think differently, to help factories to think differently and ultimately for the product to be made differently.”
Read full transcript and listen to the audio of my interview here.

Amie runs Cobblestone Solutions, LLC, a consultancy focusing on business development, marketing, communications and strategy for mission driven companies. Previously, Amie served as Director of Business Development for Viv (a Bay Area environmental start-up), Program Manager for Social Venture Technology Group (a boutique consulting firm focused on measuring social and environmental impact), and Associate Consultant at Bain & Co (a global management consulting firm). She is particularly interested in innovations that reduce waste, altering consumer behavior for good, and leveraging the power of business to solve the climate crisis. You can read more from her on her blog, on, and on JustMeans.

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