The adidas Sustainability Series
There are a million reasons why I joined adidas five months ago, but there’s a specific one I always mention first to spark thought-provoking conversations: sustainability. It is no secret that the fashion industry has a long way to go to achieve it, and as the world begins to open up again, it is clear that there is an opportunity to rebuild the industry better and stronger. And because I believe in participatory action and individual involvement, there was no chance I would miss the newest adidas employee training – How to Think and Act Sustainably – offering employees the opportunity to contribute towards a more sustainable world through their day-to-day actions.
This four-week training is a combination of self-study and super insightful conversations with colleagues from across the globe. Given that the six people in my team were spread across Egypt, Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany as well as across departments, from product design to sustainability project management to strategy and marketing, I became aware of how we practice sustainability through a different lens, with a different starting point and with diverse possibilities to make a change.
Here are the four biggest takeaways on sustainability I’ve had the pleasure to learn about thanks to them.
1. Think and act sustainably: Define the scope
In general, sustainability is a word that my team was not very fond of, but most of us have accepted it as the ‘lingua franca’ to name environmentally conscious initiatives. It took us some time to agree on a solid definition of sustainability, which is a frightening indicator of how over-saturated communication channels are, where brands tend to use and peruse sustainability as an ambiguous token with blurry definitions.
After our first workshop, in which we shared our own thoughts on the word sustainability, I came to realize how my own picture of it was tremendously incomplete. When we talk about sustainability, we tend to imagine vegan shoes, swapping plastic bags for paper ones, or clearing beaches of plastic. These are all great initiatives, but 360 sustainability boils down to a more complex net, which spans across many areas – from supply chains to business models to communication – some of which are quite complex to understand.
It’s great to know a lot about eco-friendly materials, but you also have to understand how those materials have been sourced, transported, fabricated, costed, priced, and marketed, amongst others, as she explained. Sustainability of an intertwined system of components, thus understanding sustainability is to make peace with complexity, and widening the definition is probably the best starting point to inspire change.
2. Think and act sustainably: De-fluff the message
Once we came to understand the symbiotic nature of sustainability, we became aware of how sustainability messages tend to be vague or difficult to understand for many. Sure, sustainability might be a holistic concept, but there must be a way to ensure we don’t let complexity overwhelm us. The question was then, how can we go about letting the world know about adidas’ efforts towards sustainability in an inclusive manner? Do all consumers understand sustainability claims?
In short: probably not. As an example, a the most recent study on sustainability communication has revealed that terms like mitigation, carbon neutral, and unprecedented transition are the hardest climate-change related words to understand. Many participants in the study found that some of the terms contained in the latest IPCC report were unfamiliar and too technical. What made matters worse is that sentences intended to clarify were also full of jargon. Are we shooting ourselves in the foot by not being clear in our messaging?
We all agreed that it is our responsibility to connect with our communities of consumers, and to make sure information is packaged in the most compelling and accessible way. For me, this was especially enlightening, as working in consumer communications puts me in the forefront of value messaging: within adidas, it is my responsibility as a sustainability changemaker to de-fluff the message.
Shifting the narrative from complex to understandable will not just make sustainability more attractive, but also more accessible to all, so that more and more can join the mission with us.
3. Think and act sustainably: From use less to use better
There is a common thread between us, even though we came from diverse backgrounds, generations and departments: we are all against over-consumption and waste. In fact, I saw that our internal narrative mirrored sustainability’s key influence, shifting from ‘use less’ to ‘use differently’. You could see how sustainable ambitions on a personal level brought us together for a common goal, and we all agreed that a paradigmatic shift starts to happen within the mind of consumers (us included).
Following this shift from less, to better, adidas is creating experiences that change consumer behaviours in a more engaging, creative, and innovative way. From recyclable shoes with a circular lifecycle to new usage models, waste-reduction and gear consumption. One of our team members, Amanda – a footwear developer – even highlighted an example of using the pits and skins of avocados to make a natural pink dye. Same waste, but better put to use!
It makes sense that times change with new generations, and why societal change takes a bit to catch up on. Gen Z (me!) and millennials have started living more fluidly – juggling jobs, passions, careers, travels, eco-values – and material accumulation plus mindless consumerism is no longer trendy.
This is why subscription-based services, recyclable loops, and many more innovative processes will shape the future of fashion and consumption. And now is our chance to be part of such change.
4. Think and act sustainably: Embrace collaboration and participatory action
Rewind five years ago. Who’d have thought that adidas would partner up with competitor Allbirds, we would have probably laughed at the idea of two rivals working together. Fast forward to the present, intra and inter collaboration has never been more relevant if we want to save the planet.
As I learnt from my team members, the main challenge to achieve the ambition landscape for change is not individual commitment and actions but leadership, collaboration, and innovation: there’s no way forward if it’s not together.
So how can the industry manage the collective effort to both develop new solutions and scale promising technologies to commercial viability?
With help from other super brands, consumers, and regulators, fashion can achieve the vision of a better future. For instance, aligning on environmental regulations, powerful investments into material traceability and state-of-the-art technology sharing are all tools for progress which can be unlocked faster through inter-cooperation than through lengthy individual try and fails.
In the end, the fashion industry can drive much needed systemic change and fuel disruptive innovation. However, only through multi stakeholder collaboration, companies can support pilot programs and scale them up; only through consumer participation, commercial viability will be a potential success; and only through employee allyship towards sustainability, change can start from within. Such commitments will enable the magnitudes necessary to move the needle; just wait and see!