Sustainability Boot Camp Part 2: The First Step Is the Hardest

Against the backdrop of the Global Climate Strike, brands from across the industry joined OIA in NYC to begin making meaningful plans for measurable impact on supply chain sustainability improvements.

October 31, 2019

It came as no surprise that “climate” dominated headlines, airwaves and the Twittersphere in the week leading up to September’s grassroots global climate strike and the UN Climate Summit. Google reports show a reflective trend in search queries nationwide for the same period. The New York Times, Fast Company, Forbes, The Hill and countless other media were pegging their coverage to three groups: youth activists, policymakers and American businesses. Among the last group, gear and apparel companies — many of them from the outdoor industry — were identified for their participation in and messaging around the week’s events.

While Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) was happy to see and supported outdoor companies that were vocal and visible during the strikes, the organization is also keenly aware that it’s the quiet, unpublicized work and invisible efforts happening deep in the industry’s supply chain that will have measurable climate impacts.

Outdoor Industry Association is thrilled that outdoor companies are being applauded for their vocal and visible leadership during the global climate strike, but the organization is keenly aware that it’s the quiet, unpublicized work and invisible efforts happening deep in the industry’s supply chain that will have measurable climate impacts.

THE NEW BUSINESS AS USUAL

It was that very idea with which Amy Horton, OIA’s Senior Director of Sustainable Business Innovation, kicked off the New York City Sustainability Boot Camp, the third in a series of four OIA is hosting in 2019.

Registration for the fourth and final 2019 Sustainability Boot Camp in Cost Mesa, California is now open and space is limited. Learn more and sign up today »

Coincidentally, the New York camp took place the day before the climate strike. “We’ve been refreshing our sustainability strategy to guide the industry,” Horton told the 35 attendees. “It starts with a new vision statement: Positive impact for people and planet is the new business-as-usual.” The strategy reflects a shift, Horton said, acknowledging the recent Business Roundtable pledge. It’s not enough to just reduce or even to sustain: “The big leap in sustainability in the next 50 years will be defined by those companies that create value for society and the environment and give back more than they take.”

‘It’s a rapidly changing world. The way we’ve done business for the past 100 years is not necessarily the way we want to do business moving forward,’” —Erin Augustine, Wolverine Worldwide’s Senior Director of Responsible Sourcing

Wolverine Worldwide — the parent company of footwear brands including Chaco, Merrell and Sperry, among others — is one of the companies aligned with that vision. But, like most of the boot camp attendees, Wolverine’s sustainability team is working to develop its executable strategy at the corporate and brand level. “[My team was] created last year, and soon realized that it’s a rapidly changing world. The way we’ve done business for the past 100 years is not necessarily the way we want to do business moving forward,’” said Erin Augustine, Wolverine Worldwide’s Senior Director of Responsible Sourcing.

The Sustainability Boot Camp, Horton told Augustine and the other attendees, is meant to address this reality: Most of the brands in the outdoor industry are small- to midsize, under $20 million in annual revenue, with limited staff and resources to focus or work exclusively on sustainability. But, collectively, those small- and midsize companies represent the majority of an $887 billion economic engine that has a huge opportunity for broadscale impact. The camps are designed to create a point of entry, to abridge a decade or more of research and work by seasoned experts, to shorten what can be a steep and thus sometimes-paralyzing learning curve and to provide practical take-home tools — all for a fraction of the price or time it would cost a company to develop or acquire on its own.

The camps are designed to create a point of entry, to shorten what can be a steep and thus sometimes-paralyzing learning curve and to provide practical take-home tools — all for a fraction of the price or time it would cost a company to develop on its own.

ENVISIONING A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE

Taking place over a day and a half, the camp’s agenda was neatly subdivided into four segments: learn, prioritize, plan, connect. It began with a visioning exercise in which every attendee was invited to imagine what sustainability success would look like for their company in 2025 and to share that with a peer in the small groups with which they’d been seated. “At OIA and across sustainability initiatives, building your community and brain-trust of experts and peers you can call or others who are farther along on the journey is really critical to making progress,” said Jessie Curry, OIA’s Sustainable Business Innovation manager who led the group exercise.

“We want to make sure we bake in plenty of time for that.” The visioning exercise was bookended both days with the “connect” segments of the camp that gave attendees the chance to network with their peers. But in truth, the entire agenda and format of the camp facilitated peer-to-peer sharing and learning in a way a webinar series or even traditional conference doesn’t allow.

“Building your community and brain-trust of experts and peers you can call or others who are farther along on the journey is really critical to making progress,” said Jessie Curry, OIA’s Sustainable Business Innovation manager

For Troy Jones, social and environmental responsibility manager for Specialized Bicycles, the networking afforded by the camp’s relatively intimate format was its chief benefit. “That, alone, was worth the price of admission in my opinion,” said Jones, referring specifically to the connection he made to his counterpart at one of the other leading domestic bike brands. In a conversation prior to the boot camp, Jones had admitted that there’s a need for a third party to convene North America’s big bicycle brands around sustainability. “REI is good at driving a lot of suppliers to start to collaborate on sustainability issues. The bike industry doesn’t have that bully pulpit; there is no huge bike dealer that can step up and say, “Hey, sustainability is important to us. It’s important to our customers and all y’all need to start doing better.”

The conversations that happened between Specialized and the other bike brand at the boot camp, might just be the start of the collaborative co-opetition the North American bike industry needs. Horton sees these boot camps as a critical resource for the individual industry companies doing the deep work of sustainability, but she knows that the supplier associations, user groups, retailers and retail buying groups are equal stakeholders in realizing the broader vision of a truly sustainable outdoor industry.

“So what does success look like for Specialized in the year 2025,” Horton asked Jones after the visioning exercise, referring to the potential new bike alliance. “Success would be that we go together to our shared suppliers and tell them that migrant workers in Taiwan shouldn’t have to pay fees to get jobs, for example,” Jones replied, adding that the same collective leverage could apply to their shared facilities’ environmental practices. Because we compete so strongly, we have a lot of exclusive frame makers and assemblers, but beyond that, past tier 1 of our supply chains, it’s all one big happy family, Jones said. “I’m just now learning and appreciating the role that competitiveness has in the DNA of this company. Rather than see that as something that prevents us from collaborating, I think we need to recognize it for what it is and see if we can leverage it as a tool to drive collaboration. When we saw that other bike brand at boot camp, our eyes met across the room and both of us realized, ‘Shit, we’ve got some work to do. And a lot of this work we can probably accomplish better together than we can separately.’”

LEARN

After Horton and Curry established expectations and intentions for the camp, the flood gates opened, and a series of experts distilled decades of complex learning. In the span of 90 minutes, Kevin Myette with Bluesign and Eric Brody with Shift Advantage explored the complexities of a textile and chemistry supply network and the business case for sustainability. “Chemicals are everywhere,” said Myette, setting up the importance of the forthcoming afternoon session on goal setting around chemicals management.

“If you’re making products, you’re a coal or oil company,” Brody explained early in his presentation. “You use fossil fuels to fire your boilers, to produce energy in your factories.” In a nutshell, said Brody, sustainability just means reducing [those] impacts while increasing business value. To frame the scope of the impact-reduction challenge, Brody hits attendees with this nugget: 94 percent of waste is in your supply chain, whether from your raw-material inputs (i.e. oil extraction, timber harvesting, ore mining or livestock farming) or your manufacturing outputs (i.e. greenhouse gas emissions, water contamination and solid waste).

Sixty percent or more of an individual product’s impact happens in the material extraction and manufacturing. If you use rubber or leather in your products, you may be contributing to the deforestation of Southeast Asia and the Amazon, he told the group.

The takeaway: Installing solar panels on the roof of your company’s headquarters, reducing your packaging footprint or creating an end-of-life recycling or take-back program are all noble sustainability actions (especially because they tend to be relatively quick and inexpensive “wins”), but they’re not a strategy. They don’t target the large-scale, exponential impacts deeper in the supply chain in which we are all culpable. “It’s not only about focusing on what’s easy but focusing on what matters,” Myette chimed in. The high-yield opportunities exist in the parts of the supply chain most brands know the least about.

But just as quickly as Brody and Myette hit the attendees with that heavy and somewhat daunting reality, Brody wrapped up with just three guiding principles for turning impacts into opportunities: identify your “hotspots,” focus on what matters, get to know your supply chain.

The attendees spent the next 20 minutes doing a life-cycle assessment (LCA) exercise to identify impact “hotspots” of two actual outdoor products. As most of the attendees already knew, the LCA framework can be applied to any product or product line. The LCA exercise and the worksheet that guided it was the second resource — after the visioning document — that attendees added to their take-home toolkit.

Brody’s second and third guiding principles formed the framework of the remaining segments on Day 1.

PRIORITIZE

Whereas the Learn segment was mostly conceptual, the Prioritize portion of the day got down to practical brass tacks. Nancy Cleveland with Sustrana picked up on Brody’s second principle: focus on what matters to your company, she told the group. Cleveland’s presentation and facilitated exercise reminded attendees that there isn’t a single universal best-practice for sustainability. A winning strategy must be tied to a company’s unique goals and values. Most of the boot camp attendees do not sit at the executive level within their companies, which means they will have to get buy-in from leadership before executing a sustainability strategy, and executive or board buy-in always rests on the business case.

Making that case requires analysis, data, more analysis, and measurable goals. You need to know which issues your leadership team is most passionate about, and build your strategy around it.

The exercise during this segment of the day guided attendees through a multi-layered and somewhat complex Issue Prioritization Matrix, the third resource for their take-home toolkit. Taking one issue — such as greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, waste management, human rights or labor rights — at a time, attendees worked alone or together if they came with a coworker to weigh the relative importance of actions that could deliver impact, that are a strategic fit with their company’s mission, and that are feasible within their company’s business model. Then, with the relative weights assigned to those criteria, each issue got scored on a scale of 1–10 based on how well it meets the criteria. The tool itself is one of those mega, multi-colored, multi-tabbed Xcel workbooks that require time to digest, let alone to use with confidence and proficiency. So Horton, Curry, OIA’s Sustainable Business Innovation Manager Nikki Hodgson and a handful of previous boot camp alums were in attendance to provide guidance and support.

“It was great to be back as an advisor; I was happy to share our learnings from Seattle,” said NEMO’s Supply Chain Sustainability Manager Theresa Conn, who attended the first boot camp March. “NEMO had some quick wins after the Seattle boot camp, but I think the most valuable part of the day was the structured opportunity to refine our long-term strategy. It’s easy as a small-to-midsize brand to get swept up the daily excitement of running a business. My goal as an advisor was to encourage attendees to use the boot camp as a chance to do some big-picture thinking.”

The 30-minute window devoted to the prioritization exercise, though one of the boot camp’s valuable and highest-rated working sessions according to post-camp surveys, wasn’t intended to be enough for attendees to complete or even to fully digest the spreadsheet. In fact, as she wrapped up the session, Cleveland reinforced an important idea: The individual or small team tasked with sustainability at a company cannot create a successful sustainability strategy in a vacuum. Instead, they must engage every other department in scoring each issue’s impact, strategic fit and feasibility. Using this tool, in particular, should be an initiative shared across the organization and will demand significant back-and-forth between teams. When the spreadsheet is completed, the tool spits out a bubble graph that places the various issues on a matrix to help users visualize each issue’s relative importance related to its feasibility. In other words, the tool is designed to clarify which sustainability actions a company should prioritize. It is the requisite foundational document for drafting a roadmap, a.k.a. a sustainability plan. For Augustine, the tool was a missing piece to a puzzle she had started building with her brand teams at Wolverine.

In her role, Augustine leads a team of three who help guide sustainability efforts for the footwear and apparel company’s 12 brands. In the past year, three of those brands piloted the Higg Index brand and retail module, which helped them identify gaps in their strategies. “They hadn’t formally identified their risks, impacts, and opportunities and didn’t have a formal, written strategy or goals,” said Augustine. “So, for the past six months, I’ve been working with the brands to develop more formal strategies. Our risk assessment included a discussion with key stakeholders at each brand and a list of common risks for our industry. As we talked about each risk, we would bold them if we thought they were important or material to the brand and cross them out if they weren’t. I really liked the numerical quantification included in the Issue Prioritization Matrix tool presented at the Bootcamp. The way we originally completed our prioritization exercise, we were basically disincentivized to say that anything was not important or not a risk. We talked ourselves into identifying nearly everything as material because we didn’t have a numerical ranking system to say, well, that’s low enough that [we won’t focus on it] right now.”

PLAN

The boot camps are built upon and around three Cs: Circularity, Chemicals Management and Climate. The afternoon of the first day provided goal-setting guidance around the first two, and the morning of the second day was dedicated to climate goals.

Circular economy designer and Founder of Unmake Waste Maura Dilley opened her presentation with this: A linear economy = a loser economy. “Through the whole process, we’re degrading a product’s value until we throw it away,” she told the group, noting that the global take-make-waste trend is accelerating. Dilley implored the group to think not only about where raw materials come from and what happens to them during production but also what happens to them at the end of their usable life. One garbage truck of apparel is incinerated every second around the world, she announced, framing her call-to-action: Design out waste and pollution.

To contextualize that idea, Dilley had the small groups do a product mapping activity, following its molecular and geographic journey from raw-material extraction through point-of-sale, noting its energy, water and material inputs and outputs along the way. When Jones from Specialized offered his product map as an example during the share-out, he acknowledged the heavy energy and water use through production then proudly touted the circularity of the aluminum frame and components at end-of-life. It was a perfect setup for Dilley to highlight the advantages of starting with a base material that can be perpetually recycled without losing its integrity. “But is that the case for everyone,” she asked. A chorus of shaking heads responded. “If we don’t have a design intention for our products’ materials from the beginning, and if we don’t have a collection and sorting system to organize those materials, they will be lost to landfill or incineration.”

“If we don’t have a design intention for our products’ materials from the beginning, and if we don’t have a collection and sorting system to organize those materials, they will be lost to landfill or incineration.” —Maura Dilley, Unmake Waste

Next up, Greg Gauzewitz from REI talked not only about how the retailer is prioritizing circular commerce but why. Toward the end of his presentation, the why opened Jones’s eyes to a circularity opportunity for Specialized: re-commerce. Gauzewitz explained that the retailer has increased its rental and resale operations not only because those programs keep products in use longer but also because there’s a growing market for them. And that got Jones thinking about the bike not only as a consumer product but also as a service.

“I was, initially, not sure [re-commerce] was in our DNA because we sell these super high-end products that people probably sleep with,” said Jones. “But it’s a changing demographic, and young people are far more willing to rent rather than own these really expensive bikes. If we lease you a bike, you’re more likely to come to us for your next bike.” Jones noted that, in the Netherlands, performance bike rental been cited as one thing that gets people over their fear of having their bike stolen. From a customer acquisition standpoint, it also offers opportunities to bridge an owner from a low-end to a high-end bike. “The interesting thing about the boot camp and also the conversations it spawned [at Specialized afterward] is the recognition that we need to innovate on business practices much like we do on bicycles. One of the mantras at Specialized is “Innovate or die,” and if you look at a company like Kodak, they chose the latter.

“The interesting thing about the boot camp and also the conversations it spawned is the recognition that we need to innovate on business practices much like we do on bicycles.” —Troy Jones, Specialized

It’s clear we need to evaluate alternative ways of getting customers on bikes.” As they wrapped up their conversation, Horton exclaimed: “The only thing better than selling your product once is selling it twice.”

SETTING GOALS

In the final segment of the first day, the attendees had time to work through one more resource — a goal-setting document. Attendees practiced using the document by taking one priority issue identified by the Issue Prioritization Matrix exercise — for example, water scarcity or greenhouse gas emissions — and plugging it into a tiered goal-setting ladder, working to identify foundational goals, progressive goals and finally aspirational goals.

When Augustine and her colleague Alan Lugo, who also attended the boot camp, began working with the goal setting worksheet using Merrell as their case study, they realized the brand’s draft strategy included a lot of foundational and progressive goals, but almost nothing was aspirational. That’s because most of the work they had done so far with the brand had been through a very grassroots process. “We had met with individual contributors and the people who control the day-to-day stuff—material selection, actual design, product development. We’re in the process now of fully aligning these goals with the brand leadership team. Using our learnings from the bootcamp, I plan to ask them to go a step further to define some aspirational goals,” said Augustine.

CLIMATE

On the morning of Day 2, in the four hours before Greta Thunberg led a mob of activists —individuals and corporations — through the streets of SoHo, phys.org posted a story with this headline: “Companies on ‘strike’ for climate: Action or advertising?” It’s a reasonable and appropriate question that the OIA Sustainability Boot Camp summarily answers. Many of the companies attending the camp made public statements in support of the strike, some allowed their employees to take the day off to attend, and a few even closed their doors and websites. Those were the outward-facing messages. Their presence at the camp reflected their internal commitments to action.

OIA’s Hodgson and New Balance’s Head of Sustainability John Stokes helped frame the why and the how of climate change reduction efforts. For a little bit of context, Hodgson reiterated that the vast majority of product’s or brand’s climate impact is from emissions in the supply chain. In 2015, the production of polyester-based textiles released 706 billion kilograms — the equivalent of 185 coal-fired power plants’ — into the atmosphere. Her presentation continued along a similar narrative as Day 1: An executable strategy requires baseline emission measurements, science-based targets and a solid action plan. Hodgson assures the group that energy offsets can be a part of but not the entirety of your strategy. If ever there was a process that could take a company into the weeds, it’s emissions measurement and planning. So Hodgson introduced the Climate Action Getting Started Guide, another resource for attendees’ toolkits and that is available on the OIA website.

Download the OIA Climate Action Getting Started Guide

To demonstrate the value of the Getting Started Guide, Stokes presented a case study about New Balance’s process for clarifying its climate aspirations, measuring its impacts, prioritizing reductions, implementing an action plan and, yes, marketing the story.

CONNECT

As Curry promised, both days ended with ample time for attendees and facilitators to network with peers, share questions and make plans to follow up with each other. As the camp wrapped on Day 2, several attendees lingered. They worked together to make posters for the climate strike that afternoon, batting around ideas for quippy one-liners that might attract media attention. But no statement scrawled on a (recycled) cardboard sign would be nearly as powerful as the ones they and their companies had made by coming to the boot camps. Because talking the talk about sustainability and corporate climate action is twice as powerful if you’re also walking the walk.

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