How Nike redefines leadership in a global, social community

Nike is famous for taking a leadership position on the field and in the marketplace. But what it’s just done for the entire apparel industry is both surprising and enlightening.

At the turn of the year Nike released their open-source Environmental Apparel Design Tool. Developed over 7 years, the $6 million technology, by their estimates, helped them double the use of recycled polyester in 2010, diverting over 82 million plastic bottles from landfills.

Much has been written about the platform itself, but it is the business strategy behind it that is fascinating for marketers. To my mind, Nike demonstrates that it has embraced several key assumptions:

1. The challenges of sustainability, for capitalism at large and the environment, are so large that our shared interests necessarily override their sole interests.

2. Effective change is almost impossible without industry-wide collaboration, cooperation and consensus.

3. These pressing sustainability issues that ultimately threaten the well-being of society as well as Nike itself, are solved better and faster together than alone.

4. Therefore the most effective way to enable change and maintain a marketplace advantage is to drive that change, even if it means sharing your costly intellectual property with competitors.

Obviously such decisions are not without advantages unique to Nike.

1. Nike assumes the moral high ground by arguably foregoing its leadership position for the sake of the greater good.

2. First mover advantage is even more persuasive when it relates to social issues that are meaningful to consumers.

3. ┬áNike effectively levels the sustainability playing field by ensuring that simply being “green” is not enough.

4. By adding to equally generous efforts such as co-founding the Green xChange, supporting Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong campaign and its wonderful ‘Girl Effect campaigns in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative, Nike is distinguishing itself as a brand that is integrating purpose into its for-profit business model earning the brand value social capital with consumers.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson other brands can learn from Nike is the need to act in accordance with the reality of the world we live in. In a mutually dependent, intimately connected global community facing several major crises, brands need to operate with an expanded definition of self-interest that includes the greater good. Such efforts translate to influence within their industry and with consumers, or in Nike terms, the next generation of leadership.

Do you think that Nike earns consumer goodwill by helping the entire industry be more sustainable? Or do you think consumers see such efforts as cynical marketing ploys?