Transforming society in The Spirit of Mountain Sports – interview Part 2

VAUDE® is one of the most sustainable-profiled brands in the outdoor sector. With a several hundred pages long sustainability report, and frequent engagements in initiatives working for improved environmental, social and economic conditions, they are being recognized world-wide as an inspiration. Read our interview with CEO Antje von Dewitz to find out why the company has transformed and what challenges a ‘green company’ faces.

Among the apple farms and green meadows around lake Constance in southernmost Germany, an unusual business is located. The newly renovated headquarter in Tettnang is a wooden and concrete building with lots of large windows letting in the sunlight. A climbing wall is meeting you in a green space outside the entrance.

The VAUDE® company, developing garments and bags for the outdoor sector, may seem to be a conventional company at first glance. But the last decade they have changed from being an environmental-concerned family business, to become a ‘green-blooded’ pioneer for sustainability with a growing team of around 500 employees.

The VAUDE headquarter
Photo: VAUDE

In a previous blog post, I focused on the person behind the transformation, Antje von Dewitz, who replaced her father as CEO for VAUDE® in 2009. Here, focus is set on the business and why VAUDE® has chosen to take a leader role for the sustainability movement in the outdoor sector.

According to Antje, sustainability is a strong issue in the outdoor industry today because of initiatives taken by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Germany. “They all concentrated on the outdoor industry, which had an image of being environmental, and highlighted the problems we have. Greenpeace, for example, started the campaign Detox My Fashion in 2011 that pushed the industry a lot” Antje says. The Detox campaign targeted the fact that hazardous chemicals are being used in the manufacturing process.

“Today, many European brands are connected through the EOG (European Outdoor Group), so we have a common platform for sustainability efforts. But still there are differences within Europe. The south European brands are not so focused on sustainability. British companies neither, apart from a few exceptions like NIKWAX®. In Scandinavia there are many sustainable brands. Germany is the strongest market though, which implies that the higher the topic rises in Germany the more the others look into it” Antje explains.

VAUDE® has chosen to actively join several campaigns and projects1 initiated by NGOs, and to work closely together with them. Antje tells me that “at VAUDE® we see the NGOs as important stakeholders and experts in several fields, always with the highest expectations, and therefore important partners for a common goal.”

Are there any challenges with working so close together with the NGOs?
“Of course! In the beginning it was very hard. I have always seen myself as being on the side of the NGOs. When the PFC-challenge2 was brought up by Greenpeace I was thrilled. Finally, this is what we have been fighting for for years, I thought. But Greenpeace were criticizing VAUDE® too, because we were still using PFCs at that time. So that was really hard” Antje says.

Antje von Dewitz, CEO
Photo: VAUDE

“We had already defined a goal at VAUDE® to remove all the PFCs, but there were no alternative solutions available before Greenpeace initiated their campaign. Thanks to the Greenpeace campaign, though, there was a movement in the industry that enabled us to reach the goal within a few years. When everyone focused on the same problem, alternative chemical solutions were created very quickly.

Antje is talking a lot about ‘we and them’ during the interview, and with ‘we’ she refers to VAUDE® and their collaborators, including the NGOs. I wonder who ‘them’ are to her. “The other side is a typical reflex of the lobbyism and the politics to protect the industry from too high environmental expectations. You can clearly see it in the automobile industry in Germany. Antje says. “But the problem is that the reflex prevents industry from finding solutions for the future and it shelters industry from people’s expectations and wishes.”

Transparency has been Antje’s key tool during the transformation process. Another important aspect has been the support from her management team. A team she did not compose herself, but that was there when she started.

“When I told them my vision at first, I said something like – I want a green company, like a glass house where you can look under all carpets. Even in Asia where we have our own production facility, because it is fair and it can be shown to everyone. I was worried that my colleagues would say that is a nice thought, but this is not how business functions. Instead, they supported my vision and said, yes let’s do it!”

Some people say that sustainability is just a new and temporary fashion, what is your comment on that?
“I believe the term ‘sustainability’ is misleading, because it is about ‘taking responsibility’ for your actions. You should be responsible for all the direct and indirect effects of your actions as a company. First, you should know what the effects are. Secondly, you should take responsibility for them. It is about avoiding harmful actions for mankind and nature.”

“You can call it sustainability, but then it becomes something you may volunteer to do or do not. You can do sustainable business and you can do business. It should be that you do responsible business” Antje adds.

Another common argument against sustainability actions is the cost increase, and that customers are not willing to pay for it. What is your reflection?
“In constitutions where business is mentioned it is always said that business and private ownership are there for a common good cause. Profit is never mentioned in constitutions as a purpose of its own. But in our current economic system, profit has become the top goal” Antje replies.

“Some effects of transforming into a sustainability engaged company are that we have a lot more costs than before, because we need to put more effort into our processes, and we must handle a higher degree of complexity. Therefore, we have smaller economic margins than our competitors and smaller marketing budgets, which makes us less competitive from a simple economy perspective.”

Antje describes how VAUDE® bounces into system barriers for every step they take towards improved sustainability. “Either you care about man and nature and you improve voluntary. Then you get ‘punished’ for your efforts in terms of higher costs. Or you do it the common way, do ‘business as usual’, generate more negative effects for man and nature and benefit financially. This is weird, and the reason for why we are fighting for an equal playground for everybody, plus why we have chosen to become pioneers for the initiative Economy for the Common Good3“ Antje says.

The ‘ecosystem’ of the green company VAUDE
Photo: VAUDE

Another big task when turning sustainable is to teach and support the dealers and sellers on the shop floors with information. “We offer sustainability trainings for our retail partners and enlighten them about global challenges, sustainability and good solutions to enable them to promote sustainability. Moreover, we provide have a 200 pages long sustainability report in form of an easy-to-read magazine on our website.”

Antje says that she does not entirely rely on customers’ choice, because sustainability is a complex system to get into. It is one thing to enlighten the customers, but she believes that a system change is needed too.

“EOG is a good platform for fighting within the industry for common standards. For example, a good project we are running together within the EOG now is the replacement of polybags. Our dealers want our products to be delivered in plastic polybags. We can only find a common solution and replace these polybags together with our dealers and our competitor brands. That is a perfect way to work together to find a better economic and ecological solution.”

VAUDE uses the device The Spirit of Mountain Sports
Photo: Attenberger, VAUDE

VAUDE® presents itself with the wording ‘The Spirit of Mountain Sports’. What is that spirit I wonder.
“That you love mountains, nature and life, and that you maintain, protect and enjoy it. You act in a positive way because you are close to nature and you receive energy from the mountains, which makes you love and protect it. It is about mountain sports but the same goes for sustainability” Antje answers.

How do you put that into a company? “First of all, we are a mountain sports brand so that is the mountain part. The spirit is the same as you see in the Friday for Future movement, where people go out on the streets and say – stop discussing, analysing and denying, just act!” Antje emphasizes.

“That is what we have been doing for years. We see the global challenges like climate change, plastics, extinction of species. Moreover, we have always been open with the fact that we are part of the problem. Since we are an economic player in the textile industry, we are a big user of natural resources. But we don’t want to be part of the problem, we want to be part of the solution” Antje continues.

Antje brings up examples of actions VAUDE® has taken, like turning the headquarter climate neutral, using a lot of recycled materials, signing the Detox commitment of Greenpeace and becoming partners of bluesign® already in 2001. “Because we want to get rid of all chemicals that are harmful. That is why we put a lot of effort into research with our big innovation team and try to create sustainable solutions. For example, we have created a fleece out of wood fibre instead of synthetic materials, and we use castor oil instead of raw oil.”

“We put the mountain spirit into action by recognizing the challenges we are responsible for in a direct and indirect way, take responsible for them and find solutions. We act” Antje concludes.

VAUDE offers repair service for all their products
Photo: WIMA

The main change during VAUDE’s transformation is that the company values are no longer parallel to, but the core of, the business. Additionally, transparency has been added as a very important value Antje explains. “Partnership at an international level is also crucial for sustainability. One of our core principles from start has been to be a trustworthy and reliable partner, and to work with continuous improvements. It has been crucial for us as a middle-sized family business” she adds.

“Another important principle is to provide good quality products, because for most of our customers sustainable is still only the cherry on the top. Therefore, all the rest must be perfect too.”

The strong sustainability concept has been fruitful. Antje describes that many dealers found their sustainability focus a bit naive in the beginning, but they are on it now because it seems to interest their new consumers. “Although not all dealers are top sustainable today, they realize that they can position themselves with a brand like ours. Thereby, they reach out to a rising number of target groups that are buying products with a good conscious” Antje says.

The sustainability concept is also popular among VAUDE’s bank investors. “We perform very well, because otherwise we don’t get our investors along. Currently, we have the highest grade in the investment grading system, so we have a very good base but a small margin to move witin.” Antje describes how their bank investors were very sceptical about the sustainability concept when she started as a CEO. “But now they are our biggest fans and present us in their own marketing campaigns” Antje laughs.

Are you not afraid for being misused in greenwashing by investors not being genuinely interested in sustainability?
“They are human beings after all and as human beings I truly believe they are engaged. And as business beings they also see the profit side of it. Because banks in general have a weak reputation.”

“In the beginning we asked them for sustainability reports, we had killing criteria setup when choosing investors and we have kicked banks out. But of course, we had to be pragmatic in the beginning too because we needed money. But the banks we have on board now are very good, and next year we will have banks with a sustainable business model on board too. So, I am not concerned about greenwashing in this respect. Every step forward is good!” Antje says.

Photo: Attenberger, VAUDE

The business culture within the company is important for handling conflicting sustainability targets. “If you do business as usual you have conflicting targets, but when you add sustainability to it, you increase from having three balls in the air to having eight balls in the air. To find a working method and a culture that can deal with the conflicts without killing each other is tough. The business culture therefore becomes very important. It is a challenge but also an advantage” Antje says. She describes how the working culture they have formed at VAUDE® is based on the idea that different experts work together to find a common solution.

“The culture we have formed is very future-oriented and it makes us an attractive employer. Moreover, it is the perfect culture for handling digitalization, which is also a very complex matter” Antje says.

Are other companies interested in your culture?
“We are not promoting it, but yes. We have a lot of companies, politicians and people from different universities visiting us every day. The interest is biggest in German-speaking countries, but students from South Korea and Japan have been here too. Currently, we are thinking of starting a ‘sustainability academy’ because we found out that we have built up a key knowledge on sustainability and how to transform business.”

Can your company grow and still be future-oriented?
“It is all about finding the right size. From an employee-side the size is perfect now, because now we have a great culture. The bigger we become the harder it will be to maintain this culture. But on the other hand, there is a big concentration process within the textile industry, where our competitors are growing stronger and stronger because they are buying other brands. It is either dying or buying. So, it is good to be bigger because it is dangerous to be small. For the economy of the common good, however, it is better with smaller companies and less imbalance of power.”

Finally, I ask Antje for a take-home message for companies that want to transform into sustainable businesses.
“Put the image of what you want to achieve in words from the very beginning, when you still are very ambitious. Later, there will be so many challenges, and then you must hold on to that image you created in the beginning. Otherwise, you risk losing the vision out of your system. It is well spent time, because it will be your guidance during rough times, and it will help you to convince people on your side to walk the way with you.”

Out of 14 outdoor brands, which recently have been evaluated by the international community Rank a Brand, VAUDE® is the only brand receiving highest rank. They position themselves well above more powerful European and American brands. Taking responsibility for your actions – is VAUDE’s motivation behind their sustainability efforts. My personal reflection is that VAUDE® is indeed an inspiring example of how transformation of business is plausible, and that sustainability can be integrated into a company. Mountain spirit can obviously be very energetic and powerful.

Photo: Gantzhorn, VAUDE (as well as top image in the article)

1 VAUDE® is currently involved in 23 associations and initiatives (for example bluesign®; Partnership for sustainable textiles; European Outdoor Conservation Association (EOCA); Fair Wear Foundation; Higg Index; Economy for the Common Goods). Moreover, their CSR report is following the international G4 guidelines drawn up by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). A complete list of involvements is presented in their CSR report at csr-report.vaude.com
Moreover, they are engaged in several projects, for example Detox my Fashion by Greenpeace and Fight against plastic pollution by WWF.
2 PFCs (fluorocarbons) are popular compounds used during the production for obtaining water resistance among other things. But they are very long-lived and don’t break down as easily, therefore accumulating in bodies and nature. The long-term effects on humans are not yet clear but damages on animals have been scientifically documented.
3 The Economy for the Common Good advocates a more ethical economic model, in which the wellbeing of people and the environment become the ultimate goal of business. They have developed a Balance Sheet measuring business success by new standards. See more at www.ecogood.org

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