Piloting sustainability in the retail sector

“Sustainability issues are complex and often daunting. MIT Sloan helped me to not only see the connections, but also to move past the complexity and make sense of things,” says Alice Hartley, Manager of Sustainable Innovation at Gap Inc.

I believe we make change happen by forming a vision of the world we want, then taking the actions most needed to bring that vision into reality.

Alice Hartley, Manager of Sustainable Innovation at Gap Inc., says her team “is a kind of incubator” within the larger company.

“We have the space to both pilot ideas that haven't been tried before, and also to take ideas that have been successful on a small scale and work to implement them on a larger one,” she says.

One of the challenges her team is working on, for instance, involves reducing the environmental impact of textile manufacturing, especially when it comes to water and chemicals. The industry has a long way to go, she concedes. “But the challenges are not insurmountable—it’s about including economics, human behavior, and organizational dynamics in the innovation process.”

Alice learned this pragmatic approach to sustainability at MIT Sloan. “Sustainability issues are complex and often daunting; it’s easy to feel overwhelmed,” she says. “Sloan helped me to not only see the connections, but also to move past the complexity and make sense of things. I believe we make change happen by forming a vision of the world we want, then taking the actions most needed to bring that vision into reality. I feel far more capable of doing that after my time at Sloan.”

She says her favorite courses at business school were the labs, including Sustainability Lab (S-Lab), which she says was “a great introduction to classmates who shared an interest in sustainability;” and the Leading Sustainable Systems (L-Lab) class, where she worked with a consumer products business on a supply chain initiative.

But her most vivid learning experience was a project she worked on through MIT’s D-Lab, where she and her classmates worked with farmers in rural Cambodia and applied design thinking to sustainable development challenges.

Her involvement in that project continues to inform her role at Gap. “The apparel industry is extremely global and wouldn’t exist as we know it without millions of workers in the developing world,” she says. “That experience gave me a sense of what people’s lives are like in some of the places that are now central to my professional life.”