Climate Stories Episode #14 – Bonita Stewart (MBA 1983) – A Career Devoted to Creating the Future

Climate Story #14 examines sustainable manufacturing and retailing from the corporate board perspective of HBS alumna, Bonita Stewart (MBA 1983), entrepreneur, investor, senior corporate executive, author as well as corporate director.

“While my HBS classmates veered toward management consulting and Wall Street, I took the technology road less traveled. I’ve always followed my favorite quote from management guru Peter Drucker who says: ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.’ Most of my career has been centered around technologies that ‘created the future’ - PC, Web, AI.”

With realities of human-driven climate degradation becoming both more obvious and accepted, sustainable retailing and manufacturing have become trendy concepts of late, with direct appeals to eco-conscious consumers. The Deckers Brand – producer of UGG®, KOOLABURRA®, HOKA®, Teva®, and Sanuk® shoes and apparel – is an example. Despite inflation, ongoing Covid workplace worries, and supply chain limitations, the company just reported $1.346 billion in revenue for the third quarter of FY 2023, a 13.3% increase over a year earlier.

The company’s executives credit their determination to “do good and do great.” For example, in FY22, the Deckers UGG brand transitioned their standard Classic outsole to a “sugarcane EVA” composition beginning with the SS23 season. As Board member Bonita Stewart explained: “Sugarcane EVA is a preferred material because it is made using swift-growing, rainwater-fed, renewable sugarcane. Using sugarcane provides a more sustainable alternative to petroleum-based, non-renewable materials often used in conventional footwear. Additionally, sugarcane captures CO2 from the atmosphere thereby sequestering carbon.”

HBS alumna Bonita Stewart (MBA 1983) joined the Deckers Board of Directors in 2014 and currently chairs the Corporate Responsibility, Sustainability and Governance Committee. From that perch, she monitors the company’s ESG (environmental, social and governance) activities. Last year, Deckers was named one of the Top 100 ESG companies by Investor’s Business Daily, a ranking based on both ESG performance and stock performance for investors.

Bonita explained: “For Deckers, being transparent and honest about our sustainability journey is key to the success of our program. We also have well over 200 targets which we use to guide our progress under each of our sustainable development goals. We hope to remain steadfast in our commitment to creating change in our communities, our employees and our planet.”

Bonita admits that sustainability had not been at the forefront of her thinking when she began her career. Looking over her past, however, an undercurrent of interest in climate change and sustainability is apparent.

“My best experience at HBS was taking the Corporate Information Systems Management class taught by Warren McFarland and James Cash. I inherently knew the intersection of business and technology was a winning combination and they confirmed my thinking early on.”

In an interview with Climate Stories, she said she has focused her career on the arc of digital transformation which includes transformative and disruptive technologies.

“Since HBS, I have been intentionally inserting myself into businesses and technologies that have transformed humanity and the workplace as we know it today. In the late 1980s, I witnessed the PC revolution and rise of distributed data processing during my time at IBM. During the ‘90s, I saw the unfolding of consumer driven automotive online retailing at Chrysler and in the 2000s, I followed the allure of the wild, wild, web at Google. Today, I sit at the precipice of AI (artificial intelligence) with my role at Gradient Ventures, Google’s venture capital firm specializing in AI-enabled startups.”

And yet, sustainability has been a consistent theme in Bonita’s choices of corporate boards and investments. She explained, “For my board selections and my investments, I seek innovative products and services combined with a culture of corporate responsibility.” In addition to the Deckers Brands board, she has invested in ChargerHelp!, the only national EVSE-dedicated operations and maintenance service provider. Bonita also served on the board of the EV infrastructure company, Volta Charging.

“Prior to joining Volta Charging, I had already witnessed an automotive consumer revolution enabled through digital marketing. Moving the world from ICE (internal combustion engines) to electric vehicles was a transformation I didn’t want to miss.” She added, “Both Volta Charging and my personal investment with ChargerHelp! highlight the importance of charging infrastructure to support the growing purchase of electric vehicles (EVs). According to Kelly Blue Book, EV 2022 sales increased 65% versus 2021. I was particularly interested in the ChargerHelp! model with its focus on reskilling individuals, especially those from underrepresented communities, to participate in the CleanTech movement with substantive job creation.”

In hindsight, Bonita now sees the link between sustainable retailing and environmental change in her first entrepreneurial venture. “I landed in the now referenced ‘circular economy’ when my co-founder, Cheryl Mayberry McKissack, and I posed the question: ‘Why should women buy formal wear for a single occasion?’ We launched One Moment in Time (prior to the Internet) to develop a model for formal wear rental and were recognized as ‘one of the hottest businesses’ by Entrepreneur magazine in 1993. If you fast forward, today my fellow HBS colleagues launched Rent the Runway as a sustainable retail model enabled by digital technology. Personally, I have witnessed how technology can change industries, consumer desires and, ultimately, improve humanity and our everyday lives.”

Bonita may well be sure-footed in the world of technology, but the word “sustainable” does give her pause. “Unfortunately, the term sustainable is ambiguous and not well defined, which has led to a lot of confusion in the marketplace. At Deckers, we believe in a holistic approach to sustainability, meaning you have to not only be looking at environmental indicators (greenhouse gas emissions, waste generation, waste diversion, water consumption, etc.) but also the social indicators (minimum wage, forced labor, child labor, health and safety, etc.). We strive to be mindful of our actions, respectful of our planet, and to ensure our employees and factory workers feel appreciated and empowered to be their true authentic selves. If we do these things, we believe we will be a sustainable and resilient business.”

Bonita described another example of Deckers’ thoughtful approach involving the repurposing of wool. “Many may not know that the wool used in our UGGPlush® technology is almost entirely repurposed. We use the wool that comes off the hide used to make our twinface sheepskin products, meaning a live animal is not being sheared. We have taken additional steps to further eliminate our use of virgin wool, including the use of plant-based TENCEL™ Lyocell, and are committed to either eliminating virgin wool entirely or ensuring it is Responsible Wool Standard certified in the near future.”

Deckers’ Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Tom Garcia works closely with the board committee that Bonita chairs. Last fall, he was named a Modern Governance 100 Honoree, an “ESG, DEI, and climate trailblazer.”

When asked by Climate Stories, Garcia did not quantify specifically Deckers’ emission reductions, saying: “With our products being the biggest contributor to emissions, we have to focus on our materials. Our brands have targets in place to increase the amount of preferred materials used in their footwear and apparel (as applicable) and we are seeing terrific movement to date.” He added: “At a product level, we are proud that each of our brands have reduced footwear emissions, water, and energy per pair, since our FY19 baseline year, and are making progress towards their established physical intensity targets. It will certainly not be easy, but our brands are committed and up to the challenge.”

The global scope of textile emissions overall is daunting. A 2020 BBC report warned that “textile production alone is estimated to release 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere every year” And three months ago at the COP 27 climate change summit, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterrez warned that the world is on “a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”

Garcia can understand the Secretary General’s panic. “We all must start reducing emissions at a faster pace and we each have an obligation to help mitigate the effects of climate change. We strive to reduce our energy impact in our stores and offices, decrease our travel footprint, reduce our use of fossil fuel-based materials, decrease our emissions in line with greenhouse gas protocols, and work with our supply chain partners to reduce energy consumption.”

Bonita added: “At Deckers, we are continually modifying our strategies, adding to our targets, reallocating our resources, and challenging ourselves to make an even greater impact. There is so much more that we want to do and while our own journey will likely never conclude, we hope our actions continue to inspire others, be a positive light, and create change for all.”

Note: Bonita Stewart and Climate Stories author, Jacqueline Adams, are co-authors of the 2020 book, “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive.” They have also written three Executive Summaries to accompany their proprietary research, Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey ©.

Bonita Stewart Photo credit: PagerDuty

About the Author

Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. She and Bonita C. Stewart (MBA 1983) are co-authors of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive” as well as a series of groundbreaking proprietary surveys, Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey©.