On April 23rd and 24th, Nike announced the LAUNCH System Challenge 2013 – focusing on revolutionary new materials – during a LAUNCH event at their headquarters. Founded by NASA, Nike, the U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID), and the U.S. Department of State, LAUNCH is a global initiative that aims “to identify and support the innovative work poised to contribute to a sustainable future and accelerate solutions to meet urgent challenges facing our society.” LAUNCH does this by showcasing and supporting innovative approaches to global challenges through a series of forums.
The LAUNCH System Challenge 2013 “seeks innovations that will transform the system of fabrics to one that advances equitable global economic growth, drives human prosperity and replenishes the planet’s resources. (LAUNCH is) interested in innovations with potential to scale in 2 years, as well as game-changing early stage technologies and prototypes. Innovations can be business models, financial instruments, technologies and programs that accelerate research, education and capacity building.” Please see the LAUNCH System Challenge 2013 website for additional detail.
Hannah Jones of Nike kicked off the event by setting the stage not just for the event at hand, but also for how we can all remain a part of LAUNCH in the future, contributing to what LAUNCH calls “collective genius for a better world.” LAUNCH is about big, bold, disruptive change that will lead to system innovation – quickly and collaboratively.
This week’s event brought together approximately 150 “change agents” – experts, innovators, and manufacturers from various fields that ranged from sustainability to human rights, policy, diplomacy, international aid, academia, and more. We didn’t know what exactly the event would involve, or even who would attend. What we did know was that we were honored to be included and we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to be involved in something big – after all, the organizations behind LAUNCH don’t shy away from big challenges. I was pleased to assist in getting representatives from Cotton Incorporated to the event.
None of us was disappointed. Just having the opportunity to meet with and learn from the many passionate, knowledgeable pioneers was worth the trip. I’d like to highlight some of the most memorable experiences from our two days and evenings together.
The real treat was on day one when we played an interactive game modeled after Monopoly. We began by selecting from various investment opportunities, which we would follow over a span of seven years. The winning team would be the one that achieved the best financial, environmental, and social results. Each team represented an apparel supply chain with subgroups of brands, manufacturers, chemical companies, and farmers. Investment options included some that involved investments by all supply chain actors (e.g. open source data systems), and some that were made individually (e.g. brand marketing), while others were significant enough to pursue cross-industry cost sharing (e.g. scaling up water efficiency technology). The investment options were only presented during each subsequent round of play that represented a year in time. Some investments with the largest benefits, such as bringing pilot initiatives to scale, were introduced in later years but required prior investments such as completed pilot projects. Along the game’s timeline external forces (e.g. rising sea level due to climate change, increases in fuel prices, civil unrest due to food shortages) were introduced, which resulted in bonus points for teams who had positioned themselves well for such events.
Through our experiences playing the game, we learned the value of collaboration – across a supply chain and across industries – and the importance of balancing efforts across sustainability criteria (e.g. toxicity, water, energy and climate, social, and waste) and against costs and cost savings. We determined that investments in foundational systems (e.g. open source data), pilot programs that would later be scaled up, and marketing to raise awareness among consumers were important factors.
What I found most interesting were the social and tactical factors that came into play, and how representative of real life our interactions were. Our team stumbled when each supply chain actor made individual investments rather than pursuing options that resulted in shared costs and shared value for each member of the supply chain. As a result, my subgroup (brands), ended up collaborating with other teams’ brands subgroups more than with our own team members. The teams that invested in foundational system investments seemed to fare best. In addition, we soon learned the value of playing off of our innate competitive natures. The determination and energy we put into each decision and the desire we felt to differentiate ourselves from other teams – while at the same time needing their collaboration on investments that individual teams could not afford – required a balancing act that was just as important as weighing costs and impacts. Each of these observations is true to life. We need to foster collaboration in pre-competitive spaces and play into competition to help us get further faster.
Day two of the event began with the announcement of the LAUNCH System Challenge 2013 as I mentioned earlier. We then heard from members of a partnership that uses market opportunities to lower environmental and climate impacts while improving the health and well-being of 4.5 million people – and counting. The partnership is between a Swiss company, Vestergaard Frandsen, and the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation that resulted in the making of LifeStraw, a low cost, passive water filter that eliminates the need to boil the water over a fire as well as Carbon for Water, a financing program.
The last work session of the event allowed each of us to get into small groups to discuss various elements and aspects of the systems that we aim to change for the better. These sessions included looking at topics at each stage of the supply chain (e.g. processing, manufacturing, and branding) and again through the lens of issues that spanned the supply chain or industry as a whole (e.g. systems thinking, transparency, traceability, and standards). The results of each of these discussions will be sent to all participants.
I was encouraged by the many in depth and thought provoking discussions throughout the two days and evenings. Tough issues were discussed frankly – the need to approach solutions through a systems approach – not one issue at a time, challenges with certification, full transparency and traceability in an apparel value chain, the need to develop stronger partnerships along the entire value chain, the importance – and limitations – of policies, and more.
I believe it is to the cotton industry’s benefit to participate in this and similar collaborations. Many stakeholders could benefit from the industry’s perspective but we can also benefit partnering with others to develop game changing solutions. If we don’t we may likely be left on the sidelines while other innovative fibers advance from the benefits from being part of the “collective genius.”