Right On!

Dani Zizak, vice president of corporate communications and social responsibility for Wolverine Worldwide, on how the conglomerate is doing right by its employees, customers and Mother Nature.

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Dani Zizak has a really good job. As the corporate social responsibility (CSR) point person for Wolverine Worldwide, a $3-billion conglomerate, she gets the word out on each of the 12 brands’ respective sustainable and social responsibility platforms as well as what the company is doing as a whole in these areas. Zizak oversees all the good Wolverine Worldwide is generating internally and externally, be it community outreach efforts made by employees, sustainable design breakthroughs in products and the supply chain, in-house programs created to improve workplace environment and morale, or donations to an array of non-profit organizations. Zizak’s job can range from organizing a Two Ten Footwear Foundation pancake breakfast fundraiser for fellow industry employees in need to meeting with charitable agencies to determine whether their values align with the company’s to making sure the individual brands’ achievements in doing good are being recognized.

“My job is to share the stories of all the good things happening here,” Zizak says. “The people across our organization, from the supply chain to the brands to our retail division, all have a hand in creating this ongoing story, and I’m in charge of bringing that all to light.”

Welcome to the new world order in corporate America, where doing good is just as important as making good products. Matters of sustainability and social responsibility rank right up there with profits and losses these days. Consumers’ perceptions of a company are critical to its image and success. Ignoring matters of sustainability and CSR in the age of social media is risky. For starters, consumers can quickly vet a company’s green (eco-friendly) and good (CSR) rating with a few taps of their smartphone. And they do. Studies show consumers increasingly want to buy from brands that reflect their personal values. They want to feel good about their purchases. These days, a shoe that looks good, is good and contributes to a greater good has the best chance of being purchased.

“Consumers are more aware of their ability to make a difference in their community and the world at large, and they expect the same from the products and companies that they invest in,” Zizak says. “It’s important for our consumers to see their values and the social issues that are important to them championed by our brands.” She adds, “This isn’t just a fringe movement; every segment of the market is using their voice and voting with their purchases. I see this with my teenage kids and my parents, who are in their eighties!”

Equally important to a company’s success is its internal culture. Does it foster a welcoming, nurturing and healthy environment, where employees are happy, motivated and want to stay as well as attract talent in an extremely competitive labor market? Turning a blind eye to such matters is a surefire way to drain talent and stunt growth. “We know this is critical in attracting new talent to the organization, so our commitment to doing the right thing by our employees happens every day,” notes Zizak. 

It’s a key reason why Zizak was named to the newly created position in January of last year. She brings a unique, company-wide perspective, having worked in marketing roles for Cat, Harley-Davidson, Wolverine, Bates, Sebago (since sold) and Hush Puppies brands over the past 18 years. Zizak knows Wolverine Worldwide inside and out. Even though she never expected to become the company’s first CSR director, she was essentially groomed for the position all along. “It’s not that different from what I had been doing,” she says. “I’ve always told the brands’ stories, only now it’s on a different level and involves some different issues. My role today is really all-around brand building for the larger organization.”

Actually, Zizak got her first taste of working in a CSR role right out of Syracuse University—long before CSR was a recognized field. Putting her plans to play professional volleyball in Europe on hold (her parents’ demand), she took a position at a local Vermont bank where customers had a say in where their funds were invested. “It was pretty revolutionary at the time,” Zizak says. “Customers could tell us not to invest in concerns not aligned with their values, like businesses that had ties to South Africa’s Apartheid government or petroleum organizations.” The concept was a success, and it marked an epiphany for Zizak. “It was the first time that I understood the consumers’ power in the relationship, and that it was a two-way street,” she says. It served as an invaluable lesson, one Zizak has kept in mind throughout her footwear career journey, which has included stops at Prague Shoes (a division of Gabor), Dr. Martens (during its explosively popular run in the mid ’90s) and the launch of Bullboxer, before arriving at Wolverine Worldwide in 2001. Now that the social responsibility business model has gone mainstream, Zizak is eager and able to help make Wolverine Worldwide a leader on all goodwill fronts. For her, it’s a labor of love. “I feel lucky to help craft the next chapter of the Wolverine Worldwide story and to support our commitment to our people, our communities and the planet,” she says. 

Zizak has hit the ground running as Wolverine Worldwide rapidly ramps up its sustainability and CSR efforts. “We’ve done a lot in a short period of time,” she says. “While our brands have always delivered innovative, quality products for consumers, that’s the cost of admission today. Our intensity internally on what matters to them beyond product, price and performance is something that we’re really digging into.” Of course, philanthropic efforts have always been a central part of the company, throughout its 130-year history. “It’s simply a part of who we are as an organization,” Zizak says. “We believe that our commitment to doing the right thing will make great things possible for the communities where we live and work.” Through the Wolverine Worldwide Foundation, for example, the company is actively involved in supporting charitable organizations with a focus on education, the environment, arts and culture, and human aid and service. “We are longtime partners with Two Ten and The United Way, and we work with each of them to provide support where it is most needed in our local communities and in our industry,” she adds.

Delivering the good news goes way beyond generating good publicity. While pats on the back are nice, Zizak believes Wolverine Worldwide’s goodwill efforts can also provide inspiration for consumers. In an era of government gridlock and a deeply divided electorate, companies can lead by example. They can show consumers that, with their support, plenty of good can be achieved. “This is a perfect opportunity for companies to take a stand,” Zizak says. “It’s a big responsibility that consumers are placing on businesses, but it’s a huge opportunity that we are excited to pursue.”

Just how different are this platforms of sustainability and CSR compared to the way businesses were run before?

It didn’t really exist before. For a long time, it was all about differentiating your brand and company by price and performance.

Management didn’t care about much else? Or did consumers even know to care?

Consumers didn’t know to care. There were so many fewer options that companies could succeed on price and performance alone. It’s just wildly different today.

Why are such efforts resonating so strongly with consumers today?

It’s a couple things. First, people tend to gravitate towards others who share the same values and ideas, so it makes sense that they behave the same way with brands. If the consumer feels that our brands really “get them,” they’re more likely to engage with them. Secondly, the consumer today better understands the power of influence they have in their purchasing relationships. Euromonitor Intl. reported that 51 percent of people surveyed globally agree with the statement: “I feel I can make a difference in the world through my choices and actions.” Consumers are committed to having a positive impact, and the brands that support them will win.

This isn’t a temporary shift like previous passing interest in eco-friendly products, for example?

I think it’s a shift in the consumer mindset. Consumers today expect that their values match up with the products they purchase. What’s also different today is this isn’t just a fringe segment of the market. When I think back to the previous green waves, for instance, there was always that eye rolling space. You know, ‘Oh, they’re one of those types.’

You mean hippie, tree-hugger types?

It’s not just that segment of the population today interested in sustainability, and that’s why it wasn’t a sustainable business proposition before. Now every demographic segment is concerned about these issues. What’s more, they understand their power in the relationship with brands. They’re using their voice and voting with their purchases. I see that with my own family. My teenage kids look into whether a brand matches up with issues that matter to them. The same goes for my parents. They care about a brand’s values and actions, and they’re paying attention to them. It’s moved beyond that fringe space.

Would you say conscious consuming has become a macro movement?

Definitely. The trend Me + We supports the idea that consumers know their values and that knowledge drives how they take care of themselves, their community and the world. Our trend team states that when one to two people you know have started to tap into the concept, it’s likely on the rise. Additionally, all types of industries, categories and products have emerged to support this belief and behavior. The cost proposition has also changed. Cost isn’t always the primary consideration for consumers. Brand purpose, for a variety of industries, is emerging as the top reason to purchase. This makes room for sustainability to be at the forefront of buying decisions. 

Are consumers really willing to pay more for eco-friendly shoes?

I think in some cases they are. Again, it points to a shift in consumer behavior. We can buy many things today, but a lot of consumers are trading purchases for experience. There is also something sustainable about making an investment purchase, which is paying more for better quality so you won’t need to purchase a replacement pair as soon.

It helps that sustainable designs have come a long way in terms of quality and style.

Absolutely. Before, it was almost like you’d get a pass. It doesn’t have to be the most stylish because it’s doing good. Now it’s not product that automatically gives that association. You don’t know that this is made from recycled materials or that the manufacturing process conserves water. It had to reach this point, because the consumer doesn’t want to trade on style and performance to be green. The fact is consumers want to do good when it’s easy. But now they don’t have to compromise. The benchmark has changed on style, quality, performance and price.

Any potential drawbacks to making eco-friendly claims? Like you can never do enough to please radicals. Or if it’s not genuine, the blowback on social media can be quick and devastating. 

I don’t think so, because we’re not just checking things off a list.  We believe that the path to greater sustainability and social good is a journey, and our focus is on continuous improvement. It’s why it’s so important that our actions are authentic and that they are sustainable. We’ve been very considered in our approach to developing a sustainability platform that represents who we are as an organization as well as supporting the efforts of the brands in the portfolio. This is not about creating a campaign or aligning with a trend because it is “good for business.” This is a long-term strategy of operating our business in a manner that we and consumers can be proud of. While consumers want companies to strive for better, they’re generally supportive of the efforts to do so. That said social media provides a venue for critics to weigh in on our efforts, but it also gives us a chance to understand a different perspective and to reaffirm our commitment to the long story and not look for a quick fix.

Consumers can do their own sleuthing.

Everybody can be a researcher today. That’s why one of the key components of our sustainability and social good efforts is transparency, because consumers will flush that out quickly if we’re not.

How do the brands align with their respective causes?

Each of our brands has a unique approach to sustainability yet aligns with the value continuum of Wolverine Worldwide. It’s always centered on their brand purpose and brought to life in a way that’s authentic and important to their consumer. If it isn’t, the consumer will see through it.

In the case of Sperry?

Sperry’s brand origins are the sea with its iconic boat shoe. Their social cause is reducing plastic waste in the oceans. It’s a huge global issue that impacts everyone, whether you ever step on a boat or not. To help address the issue, Sperry is making sustainable products like the Bionic collection, which is made from recycled plastics recovered from marine and coastal environments. Through a partnership with Bionic (makers of the recycled plastic yarn) and Waterkeeper Alliance, its campaign #Sperry for Good also rallies consumers to take the pledge to reduce single use plastic. It’s a totally integrated approach that’s fully aligned with their business strategy and important to their target consumer.

And Chaco?

Chaco is also a brand with roots in water recreation. It launched the E Dye collaboration, a waterless color system that reduces the consumption of water in the manufacturing process and financially supports the National Park Foundation, Conservation Alliance, the U.S.A. Men’s Rafting team and O.A.R.S. That’s putting your money where your mouth is and giving consumers the option to buy a product that they can feel good about because it’s allowing them to make that impact with their purchase. Similarly, Merrell’s Gridway collection features a range of sustainable materials. In addition, its Merrell One Trail campaign is about diversity and inclusion on the trail. The brand also supports a variety of outdoor organizations, such as Camber Outdoors, American Hiking Society and the Conservation Alliance.

Is it easier to align with a cause as a performance-based brand as opposed to a fashion one?

It doesn’t have to be. Take Keds, for example. Their approach to sustainability is championing women through gender equality and its Lady’s First initiative. It involves how they operate the brand. For example, its photo shoots are run by female-only teams. It’s an empowering message that speaks directly to its target customers. Likewise, Wolverine’s Project Bootstrap campaign is putting a spotlight on the gap in skilled trade workers in the U.S. It doesn’t have to be an environmental focus, or a performance hiking or running scenario. There is a social space for every brand. I think Project Bootstrap is a genius approach to identifying that gap, highlighting people who are employed in the trades and how they do amazing work. We want to make people aware of that option. Young people today have a choice: they can go to college and begin acquiring student loan debt or they can enter a trades program where they get paid. There’s a shortage in these workers, they’re super-important jobs, involving honorable work and it pays very well.

Can brands just use a product and price platform today?

You could. I mean, not every brand is putting the same calories behind this approach, but I don’t think it’s going away and consumers are going to look for it more and more. Of course, the pendulum can always swing too far to one side. I forget the name, but a company recently took that product/price approach and said it was just delivering good stuff in the package. Period. Our job is to sell product, so how we tie in the good endeavors has to be on point yet not preachy. The website is where consumers can educate themselves about where they’re investing their money. But when shopping online, they also need to be able to get to the product, make the purchase and get out.

Doing good is good for sales, but what are benefits of doing so internally?

It’s very important in terms of employee retention and attracting new talent. The same way that sustainability is important to consumers buying our products, our employees have passionate feelings about community and social issues. When employees know that the organization they work for is doing something positive and has values that they hold dear, it’s powerful. It helps our employees to be engaged and want to do more. Data shows that employees who are inspired and aligned with their organization are more productive and efficient.

It’s in step with the rise of conscious capitalism, which is an about-face from the “greed is good” corporate mentality.

We don’t only think of sustainability as green, we think about it in terms of people as well. And given the talent gap in a lot of spaces combined with the super-high employment rates, companies have to be intuitive and responsive to their employees’ needs. Burning your employees out and ushering the next wave in doesn’t work today. Who wants to work for a company with that reputation? There’s definitely been a change on the sustainability side in this regard. We see that in equity pay, gender equality, diversity and inclusion. It’s a huge shift in the employment equation.

And a refreshing one.

For sure. We, as an organization, understand that our employees have full lives and how can we support them in that. How do we support maternity and paternity leave, commuting, volunteerism, and all these things that at one point were relegated to the corner of HR. We want to be the place that supports and cares for the total person. CSR is getting lots of traction, but so is career pathing and thinking about employees as more than just an employee.

This is a radical shift, no?

Yes. Before, you were thought of highly if you talked about how many hours a week you worked, whether you were on call all the time, etc. That was a badge of honor in the ’80s and ’90s. That’s not the discussion anymore. If you’re saying you work 60 hours a week, the average person is asking why. There’s more concern about the individual, and that level of work and stress is not healthy. That’s a huge difference. Granted, we have to run a business, but it comes down to which comes first: do you push employees to deliver and then reward them, or do you create an environment where they feel supported, valued and able to do the things that they’re passionate about, which then inspires them to be more productive and creative. I happen to think it’s the latter.

What do you love most about your job?

I love this role. I also love the opportunity to step out of the single brand perspective and work across a portfolio and help tell a lasting part of Wolverine Worldwide’s ongoing story. Having the ability to craft the next chapter of what people know about this 130-year-old organization is just super-exciting.

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