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If Sustainability Were a Person…it’d be Sean

Sean is one, interesting, bird. He’s worked at small brands, big brands, has a few degrees, speaks several languages, likes pentathlons…he’s sort of like a walking-talking Rubix Cube-meets-Swiss Army Knife—likes to play with brightly colored riddles as well as the intellectual means to move adeptly between disciplines. 

 

Right out high school he went to work at Nordstrom because, in his words, “at the time, it was the coolest job in Tacoma because Nordstrom had the first espresso bars.”He worked the machines by day, went to community college and completed a 14-year tenure at Seattle-based fashion retailer Nordstrom which included positions in sales, corporate human resources, information technology, and sustainable business and development.

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About Sean

Sean is the Lifestyle Ambassador and Co-founder of the Sustainable Style Foundation (SSF). Sean learned his first lessons in respecting people and the environment from his grandmother, Rosie, while growing up on a small family farm in Nebraska. As the son of a zoological park administrator, Sean learned first-hand the art and science of preserving biological and cultural diversity from an early age.

Sean has a unique combination of science and business credentials with degrees in behavioral ecology and conservation biology, the ability to communicate in five languages and eighteen years in the corporate world. Sean has taken part in research projects throughout the world including song sparrows and terrestrial amphibians in Washington State, investigating conservation programs in zoological parks throughout the former Soviet Union, studying snow leopard ecology in Ladakh, India and evaluating the population status of Sandhill cranes in Cuba.

In 1995, Sean also served as international expert on Russian venture capital funds following an internship at the Foundation for Russian/American Economic Cooperation. In 2003, Sean co-founded the (SSF) with good friend and Nordstrom alum Rebecca Luke. Sean began working in the human resources department at the University of Washington Medical Centers in 2005 and is now working towards a Master of Arts in Policy Studies at University of Washington – Bothell.

In addition to his SSF work, Sean has founded The Smart Set and leads two interdepartmental initiatives at the UW focused on sustainability in healthcare: SAM and MESH. You can learn more about Sean on his website Sustainable Sean.

About (some of Sean’s projects…)

Sean seems to be one of those that always has a few irons in the fire. Here are some of his current projects:

  • Sustainable Style: an international, member-supported nonprofit organization created to provide information, resources and innovative programs that promote sustainable living and sustainable design. 
  • Haberdash.org: A Gentleman’s Guide to Sustainable Living – from Audi to Zegna
  • Corporate Gardens: Exploring the softer side of the world’s leading companies and organizations

About Sustainability (in Fashion)

SSF was founded in 2003 by Rebecca Luke and Sean Schmidt with the idea that we shouldn’t have to give up looking fabulous and living well in order to be socially and environmentally responsible. Together, Rebecca and Sean felt that there had to be more fun, positive, and creative ways to bring attention to – and ultimately solve – the many pressing social and environmental challenges facing our world. Their hope was that by demonstrating the amount and breadth of efforts underway across the many and diverse style and design industries, they might inspire even more producers and consumers to make even more sustainable personal lifestyle choices, at work, at home, and at play.

Like a lot of companies Nordstrom didn’t know where to put sustainability. Sean’s first job was to figure out what to do with their old computers—not the sexiest project, but impactful. “There is more to it than recycling and tree planting. It’s classic business stuff. Everyone thought that if it’s green the products would market themselves, but you still need to push it. You need to market it like anything else.” To support the SSF effort, they started SASS, an online magazine, the OSSA awards, the SSFtags program and MOSID – the Museum of Sustainable Industry & Design.

Espresso Shot Insights: (what’s this?)

  • Think Creatively   
  • Make Your Message Accessible
  • Think Holistically

 

Think Creatively

Sean likes spotting the opportunity for relationships between unlikely duos.

All clothes arrive in plastic. By saving all plastic every month, Nordstrom could resell the plastic as a commodity for $1000 a month on the market – the recycling program kept it from the landfill. Here, the plastic saved money and made money.  “It became clear that it was important to make part of the culture in a more holistic way.” There is tremendous value in efficiency and managing space effectively.

Make Your Message Accessible

Nordstrom now has a page on their site called Organic Style. “When we started SSF, everyone thought “green” or “sustainability” was Birkenstock and tie dies. Hippy, frumpy looking stuff. We wanted to show that there was more going on. Lexus was coming out with hybrids. Armani was using reverse weave hemp. Gibson was using sustainable wood in their guitar – we wanted to make it fun and positive. There are classic LEAN approaches to finding sustainable markets, but sustainability is about strengthening relationships, generating sales and reducing expenses”. 

Another example Sean cited was Audrey Hepburn. “Here was the most stylish woman in the world, bringing attention to important concerns – wearing a LaCoste shirt. Those  iconic black and white photographs of her communicated to people that they didn’t need to give up a living well  to do good in the world. You can still be who you are and be socially environmentally responsible.”

Think Big, Think Holistically

Nordstrom started developing sustainable angles to its retail partnerships, such as Nike which shared many of the same values. Like any partnership communication was challenging. Nike had been telling Nordstrom they wanted to do less packaging. Nordstrom had been telling another part of Nike that they wanted less packaging. Nordstrom buyers had been talking to Nike sellers. Sean refined this partnership idea at SSF creating the “Sustainable Retail Partnerships” model in which the relationship is more holistic, someone coordinates across product knowledge, operations, and best practice channels to ensure that the appropriate level of elements like packaging to ultimately communicate the proper story to the customer on the retail sales floor.

Working at Nordstrom, Sean embodies the “inverted pyramid” Nordstrom is so famous for. That is the perspective of leadership serving its management, who in turn, serve the customers—making customer the #1 priority in the company. “When you are living it, it really creates a different feeling, the customer first really matters and employees too.”

“We’ve always asked the question of how does The West influence the rest of the world. Now, the rest of the world is starting to get their own agenda. Places like China, Africa now have more of a thread economically – the rules used to be like playing the game “Risk” now it’s like playing Monopoly. There is much more economic vitality and innovation from India and China and the playing field is more level.”

When you go to Europe, you see that they are moving forward and the US seems to be going backward a little. Europe and others have a much longer term view. “One thing I’ve recognized is that Europe may appear to have more regulation than the US, but the effect of regulation has an energizing affect on ideas. The Germans love a new rule whereas we see regulation as a bad thing, dampening innovation—American businesses small or large, just don’t understand that.”

Parting words…

  • My most rewarding business moment meeting Jane Goodall, dealing with Sean Ferrer…(Audrey Hepburn’s son) during the OSA award, which posthumously went to Audrey
  • My scariest business moment opening the first office for Sustainable Style Foundation
  • Every entrepreneur should figure out how to “commodify” their passion
  • Success to me means best of all worlds, proved that you can have a renaissance list to choose from…smart, geeky, well, dressed people….
About the Author: Christine Haskell

Christine is a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft with several years experience in the .com industry. She recently started social venture labs, an idea incubator for those leading small mission-driven businesses or organizations looking to create relationships, share ideas and [...]

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