Guiding sustainable change at Gap Inc.
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Guiding sustainable change at Gap Inc.

3 essential steps for steering a huge organization toward sustainable practices.

By Dylan Walsh  |  January 29, 2018

gap-for-good

Open throughout the 2017 holiday season, the “Gap for Good” pop-up concept focused explicitly on sustainable products.

Why It Matters

Stating sustainability as a goal is easy. Making it happen in a large corporation with a long supply chain, and focusing on the right work is a whole other thing.

Alice Hartley cites D-Lab as one of the most influential classes she took at MIT Sloan. In it, she and a team of students worked with collaborators halfway around the world to prototype and gather user feedback on product designs, the project culminating with a three-week trip to Cambodia and on-the-ground workshops.

“I think about that course a lot,” Hartley, a 2012 MBA graduate, said. “It was as though people thousands of miles away were holding one piece of a puzzle while we held the second piece and we were trying to fit them together.”

It turns out her current job, as senior manager of sustainable innovation at Gap Inc., is not so conceptually different. The challenge of building a successful sustainability initiative in a large corporation — Gap Inc. oversees six brands, almost 3,200 stores, approximately 135,000 employees, and a lengthy supply chain — demands the same finely tuned coordination. So when two groups (or three, or five, or dozens) each hold a piece of the puzzle, how do you go about lining everything up?

Simplify the case for sustainability
According to Hartley, the best way to get someone’s ear outside of the sustainability department is by presenting ideas that are straightforward, easy to implement, and as close to cost-neutral as possible.

Consider the brands within Gap Inc.: Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Athleta, Intermix, and Weddington Way. “They work on intensive, seasonal calendars. They are on deadline all the time, working for multiple product seasons at once. Their daily lives are pretty chaotic and deadline driven,” she said. “So to then introduce some new program that’s complicated and creates a lot of questions — that’s challenging.”

To address this issue, the sustainable innovation team where Hartley works is designed as an internal incubator. Its employees find new opportunities inside of Gap Inc., test them, and refine them. When Hartley finally comes forward with a new initiative, its wrinkles have, to the greatest extent possible, been ironed out.

When launching, move with urgency and manage expectations
But preparation does not make rollout effortless. When getting a new idea off the ground employees will inevitably raise questions with no easy answers. Looking too hard for resolution, Hartley said, can be paralyzing.

“You need to simply start moving, building momentum quickly so that you don’t get a cycle of questioning and re-questioning without ever setting off,” she said. “It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of what might not work.” For Hartley, this means proffering answers for what is relevant and within a project’s scope while deflecting everything that isn’t; it means directing energy to the right places.

But urgency is not synonymous with recklessness. Once a program is underway, scaling it successfully requires diligence — where and when to pilot the project, how (or whether) to expand. Though people tend to get excited about new programs, this enthusiasm alone does not predict success. Hartley often finds herself putting the brakes on or carefully moderating the pace of expansion.

When people get excited about sustainability initiatives, they want to know how to take action and will often bring new solutions to the table. While the enthusiasm may be welcome, it may be better channeled into solutions that are vetted and scalable, Hartley said.

“To just say ‘yes’ to everything is the worst thing we can possibly do,” she said. The ideals of any sustainability initiative must, in the end, be integrated into the practical realities of a company — a balancing act that entails stoking employees’ fervor while managing their expectations and holding them accountable for the initiative’s success.

Institutionalize knowledge and expertise
A single employee essentially conceived Gap Inc.’s Washwell program, which reduces the volume of water used in the denim rinsing process. This champion had good relationships with one of the brand’s denim laundries and made a compelling case for saving water; she was the spark that got everything started.

Program permanence, though, demands a committed group of diverse stakeholders. If a champion like this eventually pulls out from a project and a foundation hasn’t been laid for succession, then the whole endeavor evaporates.

“Champions who get something started are critical — they provide inspiration and convince other people that something is possible,” Hartley said. “But if you’re too dependent on them then the program won’t rest on stable footing.”

As Gap Inc.’s sustainability initiatives get underway, this issue of stable footing is one that Hartley and her team return to over and over: Are we building the right foundation to grow and scale? Individual champions must pass knowledge and responsibility down to everyone else involved. For instance, when launching Gap Inc.’s participation in the Better Cotton Initiative, which focuses on sourcing more socially responsible and environmentally friendly cotton, Hartley and her colleagues designated point-people across the supply chain (design, fabric sourcing, R&D, etc.) to bring managers on-board and, from there, educate teams about the new effort.

farm-worker-senegal A cotton farm worker in Senegal © Better Cotton Initiative 

With this network in place, one final ingredient is needed to create an enduring program. “To take the step of building these ideas into a strategy with clear priorities, you need grassroots support from different teams, yes, but you also need executive sponsorship,” Hartley said. “Within a large corporation both are important.”