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Sustainability and the Board of Directors

A Conversation with Nike Chief Sustainability Officer Noel Kinder
January 2022

Spencer Stuart recently hosted a discussion on the board’s role in sustainability with Nike Chief Sustainability Officer Noel Kinder, along with a group of directors from America’s leading corporations. Our conversation focused on how the board of directors can oversee and engage most productively on their company’s sustainability efforts. The conversation was of keen interest to us at Spencer Stuart, where our purpose as executive search and leadership consulting firm is to discover and develop leadership for a better future, which serves as the underpinnings of our commitment to advancing environment, social and governance (ESG), and in particular diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in leadership.

Below are edited highlights from our discussions.

Noel: Sustainability has been a strategic focus at Nike for decades, predating even my 22 years here.

It started in the late 1990s when we began working deeper into our supply chain to ensure compliance with Nike’s Code of Conduct, but the focus on compliance quickly grew to include an opportunity around lowering the overall environmental footprint of Nike’s products. Once we saw this opportunity, we started working much more closely with our contract manufacturers to align to Nike’s environmental targets and reduce their overall waste and carbon footprint through operational efficiencies as well.

In the ensuing years, our offense matured to include a focus on innovation. Materials are a key priority here and we launched our first recycled polyester performance garment during the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Fast forward to today, and we are the single biggest user of rpoly in our industry, and we divert over a billion plastic bottles from landfills each year.

Today, sustainability is a strategic priority across every aspect of the enterprise. Our chief objective is striving to achieve our 2025 targets and that requires deputizing the entire company. From innovation to logistics to retail, every team has focused objectives to help us operationalize sustainability and collectively work to achieve those goals at scale.

We have had committee oversight around sustainability for decades, and the Corporate Responsibility Committee was formed in 2001. We were one of the first companies of our size to have a chief sustainability officer and a board committee dedicated to oversight of sustainability.

Our Corporate Responsibility, Sustainability and Governance Committee oversees our sustainability strategy, and we provide it visibility to that strategy and our execution against it with a scorecard on our progress at every meeting, discussing certain topics at every meeting, as well as more in-depth presentations twice per year.”

When I stepped into this role a little over three years ago, we had two major objectives:

  1. Define quantitative, measurable sustainability goals for the next 5 years.
  2. Architect an offense that encouraged the integration of purpose across the company.

Our Corporate Responsibility, Sustainability and Governance Committee provided oversight and feedback as we benchmarked, evaluated and debated how best to achieve both of those goals. The committee members’ perspectives and experiences provided excellent context as we worked through the evolution of our offense and sharpened our internal perspective.

As we started to refine the specifics of our net set of goals, we had several reviews with the committee, which provided great insight that helped land us in a place that we are very proud of.


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The Nike Impact report is instrumental in that regard. It effectively serves as our “report card” to our stakeholders — and I mean that in the broadest sense of the word. It’s the platform we use to communicate about our sustainability efforts and progress to our investors and shareholders, employees and outside stakeholders.

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We normally will have specific engagement strategies that are more in depth with each of those constituencies as well.

Our CRS&G Committee oversees our sustainability strategy, and we provide it visibility to that strategy and our execution against it with a scorecard on our progress at every meeting, discussing certain topics at every meeting, as well as more in-depth presentations twice per year. We also hold a semi-annual, in-depth update with our board to share progress and challenges on all purpose targets.

As you know, the board’s core duty is oversight of the company. That oversight is inclusive of today’s strategy and execution as well as looking forward. For example, our board anticipated the confluence of corporate responsibility and sustainability with corporate governance issues, and combined the Corporate Responsibility Committee with the Nominating and Governance Committee in 2017 to form a single committee to oversee ESG issues and purpose at Nike. Establishing a structure that allows the board to effectively oversee and have visibility into sustainability is important.

If a company is just starting this journey, I’d advise them to really identify what you want to stand for in this space. What makes this authentic and meaningful to your company? It’s the right thing to do, but understanding your impact and where you can drive real change is critical. A few fundamental questions that will help define a strategy that leads to impact include:

  • What are the biggest sources of impact we have as a company?
  • Where are the levers that we control most directly?
  • What trade-offs might we need to make to drive results?
  • Where are the intersections of incentive that will drive both business and sustainability results (because being more sustainable often means being more operationally efficient and resilient)?

The answers to these questions often lead to very clear and specific areas of focus that become the basis for the strategy.

Finally, you must operationalize the strategy. It has to be integrated across the organization with each major function of the company having a clear and specific accountability that drives the enterprise wide ambition. And, as management puts this strategy and operation in place, it’s important to implement a structure such that both current and future strategies are overseen by the board.


We will continue to innovate and scale solutions in service of the planet and drive momentum across the enterprise. We have ambitious, science-based targets that won’t be easy to achieve, and it will require the entire company staying focused for the long term. Our connection to the consumer will also become increasingly robust as we accelerate and scale new, more sustainable products and services and create compelling engagement opportunities across our online and offline retail platforms.

Our Board and the CRS&G committee will continue to oversee our work and be an important source of guidance for us in these efforts. We are fortunate to have some incredibly experienced and talented individuals on our Board — some of the best in the world at their jobs. So I am grateful that I have them as a resource to help guide our growth and progress.

That’s a great question. Frankly, we’ve been at it for so long, it has become second nature. But the reality is that climate change is an existential threat to sport… something we happen to care a lot about. We have a unique role to play in showing the urgency of the issue but importantly, what is possible.

Progress and positive change is possible at the enterprise level and we will only accelerate that if we work together.