The new Nike moment: why big may be beautiful after all

For some of us, reading Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful was a formative moment in deciding what to do with our lives and careers*. ‘Big is bad’ is therefore almost an article of faith.

If so, the crop of stories we’ve reported on this month might cause concern, since they illustrate what is arguably the next big priority for corporate responsibility and sustainability practitioners: going to scale. (Oh dear, sounds large).

You’ll be familiar with the CSR/SD journey our companies often travel. First, we figure out what we should be doing, and formalise it into a policy. Next we go to work in our own back yards, implementing it: energy in the offices, water in the factory, safety in the workforce and so on.

Then we ask: is it working and making a real difference? And we realise that the big impacts are not so much in our own operations but in the supply chain and when our products and services are used. Gulp. This is getting big.

So now we have a pilot or two, to test out possible approaches. And finally we go public with a BHAG – a big hairy audacious goal. Like Coke’s water neutrality, Unilever’s 100% sustainable sourcing from agriculture, or GSK eliminating terrible diseases like elephantiasis.

And so we discover that big ambitions are not wrong, just because they are big. In fact, achieving them requires many many small ‘bottom-up’ human-scale actions (which is what Schumacher was really saying anyway).

That’s what makes the new Nike moment – Apple’s belated conversion to the cause of sourcing responsibly – so exciting. The moment Nike similarly ‘got it’ became the point supply chain audits became the norm. This new moment is the point that millions of consumers, in love with their iPads and iPhones, could get in touch (pun intended) with the consequences of their purchasing choices.

Whether ‘could’ becomes ‘will’ depends on where Apple CEO, Tim Cook, decides to take the company, post Steve Jobs. This could be a big moment.

* In my case, it was a first edition, back in 1970s, given to me in my teens by an uncle, who was a successful Quaker businessman.

This article first appeared in Corporate Citizenship Briefing

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