When it comes to setting a business goal, sustainability is about as long-term as you can get. But then Nike Inc., the company that's been telling us to "Just Do It" for a generation, or more intends on being the last "upper" left standing.

After weathering a brutal PR storm in recent years over its overseas labor practices, the $9 billion Beaverton, Ore.based corporation has spent the past year training senior managers and executives--100 in all--in sustainability theory and practices. The eventual target is no less than the 20,700 Nike employees worldwide.

"It's all about changing the way we do business," explains Sarah Severn, Nike's director of corporate responsibility development. "The focus is long-term profitability and brand value. We believe we are an ethical company, and we want our consumers to feel that they are buying products from an ethical company." In her department of 70 people, 15 were engaged in the sustainability efforts of the past year. So, as she puts it, "This is very much about who we are as a brand and where our values are."

What It Means "Sustainability" is a deceptively simple concept making inroads across industry worldwide. Its doctrine goes something like this: Every living system on the planet is declining, so resources are getting scarcer. We must get more productivity out of every unit of resource and change the way we think about commerce and services.

This can be as simple as putting a catalog on the Web instead of into print. "Once you think of it, you say, why didn't we ever do this?" says Joe Laur of Wendell, Mass.based SEED Systems Inc., one of Nike's training consultants. "It saves paper. Catalogs are obsolete 10 minutes after you send them, and you always have thousands of them left over. And a Web site can be changed instantly."

Sustainability proponents ask the same key questions about every substantial business decision, such as "Is what we're doing good for the planet?" and "Is what we're doing good for the community in which we do business?" Which means something different for every function in a corporation--manufacturing vs. brand marketing, for example.

It's All About Innovation "A lot of it has to do with innovation," says Severn. "It really is a transition in the way that you do your work and the way you think more than anything else. The exciting thing about it is on the product side: How can we innovate and be much more efficient with our resources and develop totally new concepts and ideas? We have used sustainability as sort of the fountain for creativity."

The origins of sustainability at Nike go back seven years, when the company formed the Nike Environmental Action Team, which was charged with examining the environmental impact of Nike's manufacturing processes. In 1995, Severn took over as director of the group and broadened its interests to include sustainability.

"We spent three years formulating a position and making sure that people in the company bought into it, particularly at the senior level," she says. "In 1998, we launched an environmental policy. One of the commitments we made was to ensure that we educated the people in the company so they understood sustainability and put it into action in their daily jobs and lives."

To do this, Nike benchmarked with a number of companies, looking at how they engaged their employees in the transition to sustainability. Most of the them--including Volvo, Swedish supermarket chain ICA, and Electrolux--used a trainer model, educating every person in the company through a four-hour course. That didn't fit Nike's culture. "Nike people are about doing and taking action," explains Leila Kaiser, Nike's former manager of global learning and marketing. "Taking a course just for the sake of education would never fly here."

Then Severn and Kaiser met Joe Laur and his partner, Sara Schley, at a Natural Step conference, an independent conference focusing on sustainability. There, the two did a 90-minute role-playing and conflict resolution session that included exercises such as imagining a conversation with your most difficult adversary and arguing from his or her position. When their class was over, Severn and Kaiser introduced themselves.

"We've been looking for four years for someone to do learning with us, and we think you're the people," they told Laur and Schley. "How do we get 20,000 people up to speed and inculcated with ideas about sustainability?"

Seeing Work Through a New Lens They eventually decided to take 100 leaders--35 champions and 65 captains from 11 different countries and 24 different divisions--through a nine-month action learning program. Their assignment was to take a project, view it through a sustainability lens, and document how sustainability applied within their own businesses and to their own teams.

At the foundation of Nike's training model were the "champions," primarily senior managers who were connected to top management in the company. "The people were self-selected," says Severn. "There was an application process. They signed up because they wanted to do it. They had to commit roughly 20 percent of their time to the sustainability projects."

The company kicked off its training with four tightly run off-site sessions in the Portland area. The five-person consulting team consisted of Kaiser, Laur, and Schley of SEED Systems, Kathleen Wood of Wood & Associates, Portland, Ore., and Ed Starinchak of Polaris Learning and Development, Blaine, Wash.

"We were working toward three main themes: 1) developing leadership and learning capacity; 2) building sustainability knowledge; and 3) delivering compelling business results," says Wood. "So everything we did had to be a combination of those three things."

"It took the first two off-sites for people to understand what this was about," Severn says. "By the third and fourth off-sites, they were cranking on their projects, incorporating the principles and what they had learned. Afterward, many said, 'This really changed the way I think about not just my job but also my life.'"

World-Class Coaches For the opening day of each off-site session, Nike rounded up three or four world-class experts on the subject as keynote speakers--major players, including Paul Hawken, co-founder of Smith & Hawken; Miha Pogacnik, the cultural ambassador from the republic of Slovenia; Dr. Peter M. Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT's Sloan School of Management; and Amory Lovins, co-founder of The Rocky Mountain Institute. The keynote presentations were opened to hundreds of Nike employees and senior managers,

Between off-site sessions, arrangements were made for individual coaching, one-on-one telephone work with an assigned coach who helped students address business issues. Trainees were even given homework assignments between off-site sessions, all applied toward the business project.

The first week was spent mapping the basics of sustainability, natural capitalism, and the basics of developing new knowledge, then conserving and disseminating it.

In the second session, the focus was on applying the system to Nike. "It's not just what you make within your company but how the company relates to the communities in which it does business," Laur says. "And like playing a game of 'Pin the Tail on the Donkey,' the participants began to say, 'Oh, my project has impact here.' They can see how their local project affects the whole global system far beyond the company."

The third meeting took this even further, by having everyone coach each other on how to have a greater effect and aligning all their projects. At the fourth and final off-site, Nike's sustainability captains and coaches reported to each other and celebrated this first step. The focus of the session was twofold, first giving recognition to the team's leadership, second presenting the group's 80 projects.

To give the rest of the company a taste of what they had been working on, a sustainability showcase highlighting the dozens of projects put into action was created in the hallway of one of Nike's buildings in Beaverton. The sustainability captains and coaches, and then other invited managers and employees, were invited to walk through the display to see who was on the teams and to learn about their metrics and goals.

Ahead of the Pack In its groundbreaking training program, Nike took 100 managers and taught them to question whether what they're doing is good for the planet, to consider the community in which they do business, and to spread the word about sustainability.

When it comes to setting a business goal, sustainability is about as long-term as you can get. But then Nike Inc., the company that's been telling us to "Just Do It" for a generation, or more intends on being the last "upper" left standing.

After weathering a brutal PR storm in recent years over its overseas labor practices, the $9 billion Beaverton, Ore.based corporation has spent the past year training senior managers and executives--100 in all--in sustainability theory and practices. The eventual target is no less than the 20,700 Nike employees worldwide.

"It's all about changing the way we do business," explains Sarah Severn, Nike's director of corporate responsibility development. "The focus is long-term profitability and brand value. We believe we are an ethical company, and we want our consumers to feel that they are buying products from an ethical company." In her department of 70 people, 15 were engaged in the sustainability efforts of the past year. So, as she puts it, "This is very much about who we are as a brand and where our values are."

What It Means "Sustainability" is a deceptively simple concept making inroads across industry worldwide. Its doctrine goes something like this: Every living system on the planet is declining, so resources are getting scarcer. We must get more productivity out of every unit of resource and change the way we think about commerce and services.

This can be as simple as putting a catalog on the Web instead of into print. "Once you think of it, you say, why didn't we ever do this?" says Joe Laur of Wendell, Mass.based SEED Systems Inc., one of Nike's training consultants. "It saves paper. Catalogs are obsolete 10 minutes after you send them, and you always have thousands of them left over. And a Web site can be changed instantly."

Sustainability proponents ask the same key questions about every substantial business decision, such as "Is what we're doing good for the planet?" and "Is what we're doing good for the community in which we do business?" Which means something different for every function in a corporation--manufacturing vs. brand marketing, for example.

It's All About Innovation "A lot of it has to do with innovation," says Severn. "It really is a transition in the way that you do your work and the way you think more than anything else. The exciting thing about it is on the product side: How can we innovate and be much more efficient with our resources and develop totally new concepts and ideas? We have used sustainability as sort of the fountain for creativity."

The origins of sustainability at Nike go back seven years, when the company formed the Nike Environmental Action Team, which was charged with examining the environmental impact of Nike's manufacturing processes. In 1995, Severn took over as director of the group and broadened its interests to include sustainability.

"We spent three years formulating a position and making sure that people in the company bought into it, particularly at the senior level," she says. "In 1998, we launched an environmental policy. One of the commitments we made was to ensure that we educated the people in the company so they understood sustainability and put it into action in their daily jobs and lives."

To do this, Nike benchmarked with a number of companies, looking at how they engaged their employees in the transition to sustainability. Most of the them--including Volvo, Swedish supermarket chain ICA, and Electrolux--used a trainer model, educating every person in the company through a four-hour course. That didn't fit Nike's culture. "Nike people are about doing and taking action," explains Leila Kaiser, Nike's former manager of global learning and marketing. "Taking a course just for the sake of education would never fly here."

Then Severn and Kaiser met Joe Laur and his partner, Sara Schley, at a Natural Step conference, an independent conference focusing on sustainability. There, the two did a 90-minute role-playing and conflict resolution session that included exercises such as imagining a conversation with your most difficult adversary and arguing from his or her position. When their class was over, Severn and Kaiser introduced themselves.

"We've been looking for four years for someone to do learning with us, and we think you're the people," they told Laur and Schley. "How do we get 20,000 people up to speed and inculcated with ideas about sustainability?" Seeing Work Through a New Lens

They eventually decided to take 100 leaders--35 champions and 65 captains from 11 different countries and 24 different divisions--through a nine-month action learning program. Their assignment was to take a project, view it through a sustainability lens, and document how sustainability applied within their own businesses and to their own teams.

At the foundation of Nike's training model were the "champions," primarily senior managers who were connected to top management in the company. "The people were self-selected," says Severn. "There was an application process. They signed up because they wanted to do it. They had to commit roughly 20 percent of their time to the sustainability projects."

The company kicked off its training with four tightly run off-site sessions in the Portland area. The five-person consulting team consisted of Kaiser, Laur, and Schley of SEED Systems, Kathleen Wood of Wood & Associates, Portland, Ore., and Ed Starinchak of Polaris Learning and Development, Blaine, Wash.

"We were working toward three main themes: 1) developing leadership and learning capacity; 2) building sustainability knowledge; and 3) delivering compelling business results," says Wood. "So everything we did had to be a combination of those three things."

"It took the first two off-sites for people to understand what this was about," Severn says. "By the third and fourth off-sites, they were cranking on their projects, incorporating the principles and what they had learned. Afterward, many said, 'This really changed the way I think about not just my job but also my life.'"

World-Class Coaches For the opening day of each off-site session, Nike rounded up three or four world-class experts on the subject as keynote speakers--major players, including Paul Hawken, co-founder of Smith & Hawken; Miha Pogacnik, the cultural ambassador from the republic of Slovenia; Dr. Peter M. Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT's Sloan School of Management; and Amory Lovins, co-founder of The Rocky Mountain Institute. The keynote presentations were opened to hundreds of Nike employees and senior managers,

Between off-site sessions, arrangements were made for individual coaching, one-on-one telephone work with an assigned coach who helped students address business issues. Trainees were even given homework assignments between off-site sessions, all applied toward the business project.

The first week was spent mapping the basics of sustainability, natural capitalism, and the basics of developing new knowledge, then conserving and disseminating it.

In the second session, the focus was on applying the system to Nike. "It's not just what you make within your company but how the company relates to the communities in which it does business," Laur says. "And like playing a game of 'Pin the Tail on the Donkey,' the participants began to say, 'Oh, my project has impact here.' They can see how their local project affects the whole global system far beyond the company."

The third meeting took this even further, by having everyone coach each other on how to have a greater effect and aligning all their projects. At the fourth and final off-site, Nike's sustainability captains and coaches reported to each other and celebrated this first step. The focus of the session was twofold, first giving recognition to the team's leadership, second presenting the group's 80 projects.

To give the rest of the company a taste of what they had been working on, a sustainability showcase highlighting the dozens of projects put into action was created in the hallway of one of Nike's buildings in Beaverton. The sustainability captains and coaches, and then other invited managers and employees, were invited to walk through the display to see who was on the teams and to learn about their metrics and goals.

Putting New Ideas to Work The sustainability team also initiated processes such as putting catalogs on the Web. Or, as Laur puts it, "Duh! Once you think of it, you say, why did we ever not do this?" After all, a paper catalog is, as she puts it, "19th-century technology for 21st-century business. A Web site changes instantly. A product, process, or a price changes, and people can download the pieces they want. You don't get paper involved if you don't want to."

At the fourth off-site, the teams presented their findings to the company at large. Nike intentionally limited participation to the 100 leaders, who would then work with their team on specific projects and train them in adding a sustainability element. "We figured out that each team captain had at least four key team members," Kaiser says, "so at least 400 people last year alone were deeply engaged and working on a day-to-day basis with sustainability. These are now Nike's sustainability experts. Now their task is to educate the people in their departments and divisions.

Improving Operations, Processes, and Products From this core group, roughly 65 projects emerged, some related to operations and process, others to products. For example, one designer who attended a two-day program for 400 people in the apparel division took the idea of building performance products and decided to make it sustainable. He created the Stand-Off Distance Singlet, a tank top designed for long-distance runners to use on warm days (take a look at www.nikebiz.com/media/n_singlet.shtml). It is made of 75 percent recycled pop bottles using a process that uses significantly less energy than standard fabrics and no dyes. Not yet available to consumers, the shirt was tested at the U.S. Olympic Trials and in Australia at the Summer Games.

"The challenge in products, particularly, is to make sure that when we are innovating we are not in any way detracting from all the things that we stand for as a brand," Severn explains. "It just wouldn't sell."

What Next? Sustainability proponents both within and without would, naturally, like to see Nike swallow their program hook, line, and sinker. But while it is officially sanctioned and growing, it's slow going.

"It (sustainability training) recharged a lot of people's energy and batteries in terms of where Nike was as a company and where it needed to go," Wood says. "Historically, what has worked at Nike in terms of integrating change in the business has emerged at a grass-roots level, and then people in the organization have said, 'We need to do this.'

"The senior people are on board on one level," she adds. "They know this is important to the organization and that it is long-term, but I don't think we've been able to bring them along in the same way that we were able to bring the 100 people that went through the longer program."

Nike Chairman, CEO, and co-founder Phil Knight did not take part in the sustainability forums and training; he is not yet on the record as endorsing sustainability. However, says Severn, "I can guarantee if he didn't think it was the right thing, we wouldn't be doing it."

Almost as proof of this, the company held another off-site sustainability conference last month, with the captains and people they chose whom they felt would benefit from the training. A trainer program is under development so that the captains will have a blueprint for indoctrinating and educating a broader audience within their business units.

"We will develop a core curriculum that will take sustainability out to a broader group of employees, but we are still deciding the methods through which we will do that," Severn says. "We want to avoid the classic training model and just do it in a different way."

One Step at a Time The first step, as everyone involved believes, is to create a shared language and a vision of sustainability across the company. "There is not one group per se going around and educating everybody. We don't do things like that at Nike," Kaiser says.

What there are, however, are hundreds of Nike change agents who, regardless of what Nike does as a company, will not soon get over this new way of thinking.

Says Kaiser: "Eventually every single Nike employee will understand what sustainability is and how to integrate it into their jobs."

"A sustainable society is one that is self-perpetuating over the long term--meaning that it uses resources at a rate that does not exceed the rate at which they can be replenished, and that it produces waste materials at a pace that does not exceed the rate at which they can be re-absorbed by the environment. Within this framework, a sustainable organization can be described as a company that provides customers with goods and services for living a satisfying life while maintaining a healthy balance sheet and a healthy balance with the natural world." --SEED Systems for the Society of Organizational Learning's Sustainability Consortium

What does a sustainability expert seek in a meeting facility?

"The four basic elements," says Sara Schley of SEED Systems Inc., based in Wendell, Mass. "Earth, air, fire, and water."

"Windows. Light," adds her partner, Joe Laur. "Especially when we are doing sustainability content. We want a place that reflects what we are talking about."

"Fresh water, good food ... " Schley continues.

"No paper, no plastic," adds Laur.

"We can't go anywhere that uses Styrofoam or plastic," Schley says. "If a hotel has a specific commitment to sustainability, and they are looking at decreasing ways of using renewable energy and having commitment to those principles, then we would like to support them."

"It has to be from the inside out," Laur adds. "If it is not authentic, if we're not walking the talk, we can't influence others."

Schley admits that SEED Systems' ideal meeting facility doesn't yet exist. "Our ideal," she says, "would be a place that follows the principles to the key, so it would run completely on renewable energy, like fuel cells or solar. It would recycle all its waste, and that way, we would be able to do a demonstration by the very place where we held it, and that would be ideal."

Nike Inc.: * www.nike.com

* www.nikebiz.com

SEED Systems Inc.: * www.seedsys.com

Global Society for Organizational Learning: * www.solonline.org