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Time is Running Out: Nike’s Three Tips for Taking Sustainability to Scale

The following post is a part of TriplePundit's coverage of the 2011 Opportunity Green Conference in Los Angeles, California. To read all the posts in the series, click here.

The main focus of this year’s Opportunity Green conference was how businesses can accelerate sustainability. For the most part, the goal of convincing mainstream business of the value of engaging in corporate social responsibility efforts has been achieved. The problem is, it's not enough. And the clock is ticking.

Two recent reports provide stark evidence that efforts to curb global carbon emissions are falling short. The Department of Energy is reporting that 2010 saw the largest increase in carbon emissions ever reported, surpassing the IPCC’s worst case scenario which predicts an increase in average global temperatures of 7.5° Fahrenheit by the end of the century. A report from the International Energy Agency released last week says that unless internationally coordinated action is taken to reduce carbon emissions by 2017, global temperatures could rise to dangerous levels. If we want to have even a prayer of making the reductions necessary to meet this goal, companies will need to start thinking bigger.

In order to accelerate sustainable solutions at a rate that will make a meaningful impact, we need to start addressing problems on a system-wide level and executing them on a larger scale. This was the theme of a thought-provoking keynote presentation given by Hannah Jones, VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation for Nike. According to Jones, the world is at a tipping point. In order to address the complex global problems we are confronting, we must start to accelerate the pace of change. Society is on the brink, teetering between an outdated paradigm and a new, innovative future. As she so eloquently puts it, “retrofitting the past is a very different strategy with very different outcomes than innovating for the future.” She offered three suggestions for how business can use innovation as a tool to start moving us toward a new future.

1. Reframe the Narrative of the Story
Instead of focusing narrowly on initiatives – like environmental sustainability, philanthropy, or cause marketing – companies need to reframe the discussion more broadly around opportunity, innovation, and growth. Instead of benchmarking sustainability initiatives against the competition, they need to measure progress against what’s possible. Before companies can start to move toward a radically different future for their businesses, they must define what that future might look like. Corporate leaders need to paint a picture of their company in which its operations are decoupled from natural resources – free from water, waste, and carbon – and then figure out how to get there by hunting for and acquiring new technology.

2. Redefine Innovation
Sustainability is the world’s innovation challenge. If sustainability continues to be positioned as a values-based initiative, companies will never have an incentive to really push the boundaries of what their businesses could be, they will just continue to tweak the status quo. Instead of making sustainability about “doing good,” companies need to make sustainability about innovation and think creatively about how to render the status quo obsolete. The goal isn’t to make today’s world "less bad" but to make the industrial revolution completely obsolete. According to Jones, one way to do this is by merging the sustainability agenda with the innovation agenda, as Nike has done, and essentially make the two concepts synonymous within the organization.

3. Obsess Scale
Right now, the sustainability movement is in jeopardy of failing to take the solutions it’s created to scale. The clock is ticking. The urgency of the challenge is significant. But, the models have been created. The solutions exist. The question is, how can we take them from start-up mode to mainstream? How can we spread the technology fast enough so that it starts to have a visible impact? Nike is answering this question by creating new innovation models based on collaboration and transparency that are designed to speed up the pace of learning and increase the scale of change. Last year they launched GreenXChange, which fosters the proliferation of sustainable innovations by reducing the cost of licensing and helping companies share their IP. Nike has also made its Environmental Apparel Design Tool publicly available.

By sharing the knowledge and technology it's developed with other companies – including its competitors – Nike is scaling its sustainable innovations. How can other companies use innovation and collaboration to take sustainable solutions to scale? What other companies are already doing so?

[Image credit: Phil W Shirley, Flickr]

*** Kara Scharwath is a corporate social responsibility professional, marketing consultant and Sustainable Management MBA Candidate. She is currently working as a Graduate Associate in Corporate Citizenship at the Walt Disney Company while pursuing her degree at Presidio Graduate School.

Kara Scharwath

Kara is a corporate social responsibility professional and marketing consultant with expertise in consumer research and environmental science. Currently, Kara is working as a Graduate Associate on the <a href="http://corporate.disney.go.com/citizenship2010/">Corporate Citizenship</a> team at the Walt Disney Company. She is also a founding partner of <a href=http://besui.com/">BeSui Consulting</a>, a boutique marketing consulting firm specializing in consumer insights and marketing communications.

Kara graduated from Rutgers University with a B.S. in <a href="http://admissions.rutgers.edu/Academics/AcademicContent.aspx?CAMPUS=New… Policy, Institutions and Behaviors</a>. She is currently pursuing her M.B.A. in Sustainable Management from <a href'"http://www.presidioedu.org/">Presidio Graduate School</a> where she is exploring the impact investing space and working to identify new ways to increase access to capital for start-ups and social ventures. Follow her on Twitter <a href="http://twitter.com/karameredith">@karameredith</a&gt;.

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