A New Challenge for Nike Chief Sustainability Officer Hannah Jones

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Nike / Hannah Jones

After 14 years as Nike’s Chief Sustainability Officer (and 20 years with Nike Inc.), Hannah Jones is taking on a new challenge. On September 5, Jones will become President of Nike Valiant Labs, the company’s in-house new business model incubator.

Formerly known as the Nike Innovation Accelerator, Nike Valiant Labs is named after the ’64 Plymouth Valiant from which Nike co-founder Phil Knight sold his first pairs of running shoes at track meets. The goal and role of Nike Valiant Labs is “to quickly test and validate new ideas at speed, build prototypes and incubate potential growth businesses that can deliver new revenues for NIKE, Inc. and contribute to the Company’s triple double strategy” consumer direct offense.

Noel Kinder, a 19-year Nike vet, will take over as CSO, a promotion from his current role as VP, Sustainable Manufacturing and Sourcing, reporting to Jones. He was previously country GM for Nike in Vietnam, where he had responsibility for all manufacturing operations. Kinder has held a wide range of leadership positions in the company’s footwear and apparel divisions, as well as roles in strategic planning and finance. Prior to his roles at Nike, Kinder also served in the Peace Corps, spending two years in Honduras.

Kinder will report to Nike COO Eric Sprunk and Tom Clarke, President of Advanced Innovation, with oversight from the Corporate Responsibility, Sustainability & Governance Committee of the NIKE, Inc. Board of Directors.

As an example of the sustainability progress led by the British-born Jones, each Nike-sponsored National football team kit in the 2018 World Cup is made with recycled plastic bottles (about a dozen bottles per player’s uniform). What’s more, 75 percent of all Nike shoes and apparel now contain some recycled material, while Nike has diverted nearly 5 billion plastic bottles from landfills since 2012.

“We have made incredible progress over the last decade, and I’m excited to see Noel build on the leadership and change Hannah has helped define,” said Mark Parker, Nike Chairman, President and CEO. “In this new area, Hannah will play an important role as we look to innovate and disrupt our own models in this next phase of our growth.”

The House That Jones Built

Jones has been preparing for her new role since 2012, when she added VP of innovation and sustainable business to her CSO title. In 2013 Jones and her team launched MAKING, an app to help designers make better sustainability-informed decisions about materials. In 2014 her second title was changed to VP of the Innovation Accelerator, and she described her dual roles as follows:

As Chief Sustainability Officer, stewarding the overall Sustainability strategy for Nike Inc. At Nike, our goal is to decouple our growth from constrained resources through innovation. We’re rethinking materials, methods of make, products & business models, using unique innovation capabilities that are applied to solving complex sustainability challenges. It’s an agenda that is embedded into the heart of key business functions, locked into a strategic portfolio of investments into evolutionary, revolutionary and disruptive innovations. Sustainability requires system change, inside and outside, and our Sustainable Business & Innovation team brokers and catalyzes systems innovation through business modeling, data analytics, inspiration and collaboration.  

As VP of the Innovation Accelerator I oversee a rapidly growing Lean Start Up team delivering a pipeline of disruptive startup’s. Our goal is to deliver net new growth for the company in a radically entrepreneurial way. We oversee a growing portfolio of in-house start up’s staffed with internal and external Entrepreneurs-In-Residence, aided and abetted by multiple forms of internal and external partners, embracing lean innovation & start up thinking. We’ve been intentional about building a culture of intra and entrepreneurship; rewarding fast failure, cheap learning, hacking and sprinting to test in market as fast as is possible. We live and die by commercial truth, customer say and do responses, and radical candor. Our main focus is to build disruptive new business models, with a secondary focus on ‘infecting the core’—bringing lean start up thinking into the mainframe of the current business model. We act as lean coaches to other executives and their teams.

Her LinkedIn bio also explains why heading up innovation investments is a natural extension of her CSO role, describing herself as “Builder of new capabilities, coalitions and organizations that make the world better. Love the art & the science of disruptive innovation. Love strategy, system change, start ups, fast failure, dreaming the impossible. Applying innovation to sustainability to deliver growth that makes a difference. Applying start up thinking to create portfolios of new businesses that serve the Athlete* (if you have a body, you are an athlete).”

To see the evolution of sustainability and innovation at nike, it’s worth revisiting the 2016 essay by Jones:

At Nike everything we do is a product of innovation and design, defining design as a product of form and function. But form and function are more than elements of design. They are the fundamentals of a social and environmental revolution that harnesses beauty and performance to essentially disrupt the status quo. That is how you take things to scale and that is how you change the world.

Our ultimate sustainability vision at Nike, which is locked into our growth as a company, is to fundamentally decouple our growth from scarce resources. And design is our greatest weapon — it is one of our greatest levers of change. That’s why we’ve made the sustainability team part of our advanced innovation department. This ensures sustainability is utterly woven into our DNA and innovation pipeline. In fact, it’s often driving innovation.

Take the Jordan 23: Prior to designing the shoe, Tinker Hatfield said: This is going to be an amazing product that, by the way, I want to be a gold standard in sustainability. It was an uphill battle, because Jordan shoes need to be very well constructed to manage the intense amount of pressure they receive from players. To meet all of these demands, Tinker utilized geometry to construct the shoe—because the number one design rule at Nike is: “No compromise.” There is nothing that comes out of our pipeline that doesn’t meet the aesthetic and performance needs of the athlete. Tinker’s achievement gave birth to the first glimmer of Flyknit — the idea that you could use geometry as an enabler of performance and a driver of sustainability.

“A consumer’s old product will provide them with insight into their new product, and might even become their new product.”

The constraints placed on the designers who developed the Flyknit shoe were:
1. Give me the lightest shoe possible that one can wear to win a marathon.
2. Make it beautiful.
3. Challenge and disrupt the concept of waste.

That’s an unlikely mash-up of constraints, but if the designers hadn’t had all three in mind, they wouldn’t have arrived at the Flyknit Racer, which turned the industry upside down. Because it worked. It was designed to deliver on an aesthetic and performance ideal. And, by the way, it’s sustainable. It is an example of the unique Nike algorithm that successfully combines innovation, sustainability and design.

Approximately 71% of Nike footwear and apparel products contain a palette of premium recycled and regenerated materials—Nike Grind—in everything from apparel trims to soccer kits to Flyknit yarns. For example, since 2010, Nike has transformed more than three billion plastic bottles into recycled polyester for use in Nike performance products.

We are on the cusp of the birth of the circular economy and great design is central to its success. Many people look at the circular economy as: Recycle more, but what they miss is that people will still demand an amazing experience and amazing product. We will continue to fulfill this demand through disruption, by turning waste into gold—or, rather, performance materials. Waste becomes the feedstock for close-loop products. A consumer’s old product will provide them with insight into their new product, and might even become their new product. Nike Grind is a current example of that potential. It is about rethinking what a material is, and then you play.

That’s why we are putting serious chops into the science behind the “art of innovation.” This allows people to be creative and fail fast. It also often unintentionally brings the counterintuitive together. Our data scientists are sometimes the ones who provide the insights that lead to a crucial design unlock. This interplay exemplifies how rigor and the science of innovation can actually amplify creativity.

Play is a key ingredient of the Nike design process, which is about irreverence and risk-taking. If Nike didn’t have those components in its DNA, we wouldn’t have challenged the concept of what could be done with an old sneaker. Progress in both innovation and design is about re-challenging mental models. If you challenge the mental model of what materials are, suddenly the world is your oyster.

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