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Perspectives: Nike’s Global Design Director On Limestone Wetsuits And Sustainability

Posted on the 13 July 2011 by Blab
Perspectives: Nike’s Global Design Director On Limestone Wetsuits And Sustainability

Better then neoprene: making wetsuits out of limestone.

By Scott James, Fair Trade Sports

This month I take a break from my normal topic of conversation (soccer) with Tom De Blasis to discuss our other passion: CSR. Tom is the Global Design Director for Nike Soccer.

Scott: Tell me about a company that is doing something in CSR that would be a model for the future.

Tom: One of the most interesting things for me right now is the integration of sustainability with the absolutely highest performance product available.  It’s the next evolutionary stage of the movement and no one’s doing it better right now than in surfing, with MATUSE and Patagonia wetsuits.

These suits are made out of limestone and are functionally superior products to the conventional competition made from petroleum-based neoprene.  Instead of just replacing a standardized material with a more sustainable alternative, the designers have taken advantage of the natural water impermeability of this material, which makes the wetsuit warmer and allows you to make it thinner.  Combine this with a wool lining and they’re able to make a 3mm wetsuit as warm as a conventional 5mm wetsuit, which as a surfer gives you much more flexibility and range of motion without sacrificing warmth.

This is the future, where sustainability leads to innovation and a superior performance product rather than merely offering a more eco-friendly alternative.

Scott: Tell me about a specific CSR effort in another country you find inspiring, that could serve as a model for the US.

Tom: I’m inspired by the land acquisition efforts in Patagonia, Chile by Douglas Tompkins (The North Face founder) and Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia founder) that create land trusts to protect wild lands from corporate exploitation. In Yvon’s case this is a CSR effort, but Douglas sold his interests in TNF long ago and is using that personal wealth for public gain.

What I like about what they’re doing is that they’re thinking big and through their acquisitions have protected ½ million acres of land with the goal of creating a National Park in partnership with the Chilean government.

Scott: Tell me a story of where we (the US-based CSR community) are succeeding…

Tom: I was hoping that you could tell me.  Maybe I need to pay closer attention, but I can’t think of anything really amazing.  I know that there’s good work being done, but it seems to be in the margins and the shadows. It makes me think of the perspective of Derrick Jensen – that we are failing because we’re working within a broken system that is rigged against us. Destruction is done quicker than we are able to make progress.

This notion was crystallized for me recently on a backpacking trip to the Olympic Peninsula Wilderness as I drove on 101 past 90 miles of clear-cut forests on land ‘owned’ by Rayonier. In the middle of all of this clear-cut was a tiny public park that the company built and named “Promised Land Park.”  A feeble gesture from a company that owns 420,000 acres on the peninsula and “views each acre of forestland as holding the promise of a valuable purpose.” By ‘purpose’ I think they mean ‘profit’.

CSR seems sometimes like this Promised Land Park surrounded by endless acres of clear-cut.

We need to work faster, on a larger scale and be more innovative and collaborative.

Scott: Could you illustrate one of our failures and what we can learn from it…where we are not succeeding as much as we could?

Tom: Currently CSR is seen as a cost of doing business, much like IT, facilities maintenance, finance, legal, etc. Some of this stems from the name, Corporate Social Responsibility…it sounds like paying taxes or eating your karmic vegetables.

But now that the United States has defined corporations as People, perhaps they should act more like Citizens. Of course this gets into the larger global citizenship discussion and why more people don’t act with the common good in mind, but corporations have the money, resources and global reach to make a much more profound and rapidly effective impact on the health of this planet and its people than any one person.

Our government won’t lead us on this issue anytime soon and the average person believes that all they have to do is change their light bulbs, so it’s up to corporations to lead us all.  The problem with this has been that corporations are beholden to Wall Street and so far The Street only cares about and rewards profits and growth. CSR is seen within business as either adding cost, complexity or time and until we all figure out a way to change that reality, CSR will continue to be trying to influence decisions from the outside rather than lead them from the inside.

Scott: What question are we not asking ourselves that we should? What would you imagine the results to be if we did ask ourselves that question?

Tom: The question that we should be asking ourselves is, “What if CSR became a collaborative corporate initiative, instead of individual companies all doing similar work on their own?”  CSR isn’t a competitive advantage right now and the potential of more focused and collective efforts would both make progress faster and send a stronger signal to people and governments around the world. Davos is a step in this direction, but it should be more action-oriented.

In my work in Haiti I’ve seen the power, efficiency and impact of collaboration and partnership in accelerating and enlarging what is possible to accomplish. Down there it’s called the Cluster model and it’s really the first time that the NGO community has tried to come together and coordinate their efforts on the ground. Corporations should try the same approach by finding partners with similar values doing similar work and explore the amplifying power of collaboration.  1 + 1 can equal 3 if we’re smart enough to work together.


Perspectives: Nike’s Global Design Director On Limestone Wetsuits And Sustainability
Scott James is an entrepreneur, instructor, advisor, and investor in the world of sustainability. He is the founder of Fair Trade Sports, offering the world’s first line of sports balls for soccer, football, basketball (and more) that are Eco-Certified and Fair Trade Certified. He was named by BusinessWeek as one of “America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs” in 2009 and profiled by Forbes Magazine as a leading eco-entrepreneur in 2010.


This post originally appeared in Forbes.

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