Sarah Severn Shares Nike’s Sustainability Story

Sarah Severn, recently retired director of stakeholder mobilization at Nike, Inc., visited The Steward School on Wednesday, February 11.

Sarah Severn, recently retired director of stakeholder mobilization at Nike, Inc., visited The Steward School on Wednesday, February 11 to promote the idea of corporate care for the environment. Ms. Severn worked at Nike for 21 years and spearheaded the company’s efforts to make itself sustainable. At Steward, she met with student groups of all ages throughout the day and spoke to attendees from the community in the evening.

During the school day, Ms. Severn met with several grades and classes:

  • Ms. Severn worked with Upper School fine arts students on a sustainable fashion design project—the disassembly of tennis shoes and their redesign with recycled materials and the exploration of natural fibers and dyes.
  • Ms. Severn worked with an eighth-grade English class on a design-thinking exercise. Each student chose an issue that concerns efficiency systems in his or her life and worked on designing the future in order to make it better for all involved. This lesson tied in with Tuesdays with Morrie, the book eighth-grade students are currently reading.
  • Students in grades 8 and 10 discussed the components of a sneaker, including the resources needed for each component, distances traveled, waste produced, and manufacturing sustainability.
  • Ms. Severn consulted with the sophomore World Studies II students about their projects from their studies of global regions. The students had designed and built products to improve conditions in Africa, and Ms. Severn added her thoughts on the world waste and regional needs.
  • The eleventh-grade Biomedical Design students applied the properties of materials—i.e. elasticity, tensile strength, and toughness—to various Nike product designs.
  • Ms. Severn visited the senior AP Environmental Science class and talked about the packaging of shoes. Students were challenged to design packaging that markets the product and serves another purpose after the shoes are purchased.

Ms. Severn opened her morning session for the Middle and Upper Schools with talk about shoes. When she started at Nike in 1993, she said there was a tremendous amount of waste involved in shoe manufacturing. Showing off the pink and grey Flyknit shoes she was wearing at Steward, Ms. Severn remarked that current innovation has cut 89 percent of the waste out of the process.

Ms. Severn shared that she hopes students consider a systems thinking approach to current world issues. “Nike lives and dies by design,” she said. In the mid-1990s, a UVA professor and environmental architect, Bill McDonough, was a major influence on Nike. He inspired NIKE executives and designers to design the waste out of its products and emphasized the importance of the “cradle to cradle” concept, which took shape in Nike’s program to have consumers return their products to stores when they finish with them, so they can be used to make something new. In her words, is that one day they will be “safely returned to nature.”

As massive a company as Nike is, Ms. Severn said that their mantra became “keep it lean and eliminate waste.” The company tries to create value by decoupling growth from constrained resources, i.e. to do more with less and promote a circular economy. She said her team tried to always consider its materials and the impact that its emissions, power, and water had on the environment. Ms. Severn referenced several current opportunities for growth within Nike: Flyknit technology, the ColorDry water-free dyeing process, the Native American-inspired N7 collection, and the Nike Zvezdochka (a modular shoe). She gave examples of locations where Nike’s impact has gone beyond product sales, one of which was the Futuro t-shirt, a product that is made by Brazil and for Brazil.

Because so many of the things on which we rely are in crisis, Ms. Severn said, innovation is the opportunity to move forward. “Often the best ideas come when you’re really constrained,” she added. During her time at Nike, the employees often played a game to help them think outside-the-box. The game was called Nike 2021, she said, and it allowed employees to pretend they were serving in different roles, and thus were challenged to develop sustainable ways to make a profit. She stressed that it enabled the company to build resiliency into the business.

Ms. Severn closed her morning talk with the suggestion that the students investigate two of the Nike websites: and Both sites are great resources, she said, for learning more about how to help with the sustainability cause.

View the video below for a glimpse of Ms. Severn's day at Steward.





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