Biodiversity isn’t just about abstract beauty and wonder. It’s what future-proofs our world. For Angela Mantilla, armed with a background in biology, this means interrogating how products are made at one of the world’s biggest sports brands. Her Footprint Analytics team was critical to the adidas vision of creating a low-carbon, high-performance shoe – an ambitious moonshot that saw the brand really pushing boundaries in sustainable product innovation. In 2020, they teamed up with eco-friendly footwear maker Allbirds to create the FutureCraft Footprint, turning a competitor into a collaborator to help achieve this goal.
In today’s Rebellious Optimists episode, Angela talks about the highs and lows of that FutureCraft Footprint project. She explains how her scientific thinking has helped drive difficult decision-making and why, when it comes to sustainability, it’s better to start simple.
Twiggy Jalloh 02:35
Angela, it’s such a pleasure to have you on Rebellious Optimists. And I’m really looking forward to our conversation.
Angela Mantilla 02:40
Thank you, Twiggy. Thank you for the invite. I’m really excited to be here.
Twiggy Jalloh 02:45
Previously on Rebellious Optimists we’ve talked about the challenges of developing high performance running shoes. But, for the FutureCraft Footprint, you set out with an even more challenging target focussing on sustainability. What was the goal of this project?
Angela Mantilla 03:00
We have a moonshot basically, and our idea was to create the lowest carbon footprint running shoe possible in the industry. So it was quite a challenge, because we already had from the beginning, this idea of not only creating a product, but a high performance product, which is where adidas has a lot of knowledge in. But also we wanted to aim to reduce the footprint of that product as much as possible. But as I was telling, from the beginning, like it was the beginning of the pandemic. So of course, flying was not an option, in from the beginning. We also say like, let’s try to reduce the footprint of the project itself. So it was more about having intense Zoom calls, all days, with Allbirds together with our experts here, and really work collaboratively for like, it was like a 12 month project, to really bring to life this this shoe.
Twiggy Jalloh 03:58
As we all know adidas a world leader in performance running shoes, what were some of the challenges creating a low carbon shoe that could compete with other shoes in the market?
Angela Mantilla 04:08
Yeah, so definitely for us, since we have such a high performance standards with our products, that was something that we could not compromise. So we needed to be very strict with ourselves that we cannot create a product that is going to be useless at some point, right? Like we still, and we also owe that part to our consumers or our athletes that we need to bring the best possible products, right? So that was our starting point, not compromising performance. But of course, it gives you a limitation of how many things you can do on the product. So we needed to start playing about changing different materials, changing different process, trying to combine different types of knowledge and new developments that both brands they have, and put everything that we could in the table to really try to address that challenge of reducing the footprint of the product. So I will say that already having that high performance standard, it’s already a challenge itself. But nevertheless, it goes into the right direction of creating products that are going to be useful and are going to be loved by our consumers. Apart from that, I will say that already putting ourselves a number of what we wanted to achieve in the project was already very challenging. Our moonshot, at the beginning was to develop a product that it was lower than two kilogrammes of co2 per pair.
Twiggy Jalloh 05:37
What is the average? What is the average per pair? So just so I can compare.
Angela Mantilla 05:43
You need to compare apples to apples. So you cannot pull any product for example, if you have a high performance hiking shoe, has certain requirements and certain material difficult for a running shoe. So if we only think about running shoes, what I have seen in the market, it can start from eight kilogrammes all the way to 12 kilogrammes of co2 per pair. And it is, it was quite a challenge like already our baseline, so we what we’ve started the project, we started with a with a product that it was our inspiration to create this lower carbon product. And our baseline it was the RC 3 Adizero running shoe. Already the footprint was around eight kilogrammes. So already going from eight kilogrammes to lower than three, I think that already shows like the big effort and all that knowledge that went into that product.
Twiggy Jalloh 06:35
Is it strange? Well, I found it a little strange that you decided to work with a competitor on this project. Of course, Allbirds create performance wear. Why did you, yeah, did you find it strange that you decided to work with a competitor on this project?
Angela Mantilla 06:50
I will say that at the beginning of the project, I was surprised. But I will say I was happily surprised. And to be honest, a bit proud as well of the type of collaboration that we were building at adidas. Like really looking beyond the brands and the marketing behind it. But more like, let’s learn together. Let’s try to bring all the knowledge and let’s try to achieve this big goal and look beyond what is obvious and what people will say, like exactly what you just say, like why two competitors will come together. So definitely was a bit strange at the beginning. Also, personally, for me, it was a bit strange that when we were exchanging ideas, but also sometimes we were exchanging data with the other brand. That’s something that normally it’s very tricky internally, because you are…
Twiggy Jalloh 07:40
Angela Mantilla 07:41
…opening your books. And you’re opening into, this is how we do our products. This is what we put in them. And similarly with them, of course. But nevertheless, it was very exciting to have also a person on the other side of the word that I could bounce ideas with. Yeah. And also because of the nature of this project, it was very exciting that we kind of like have like, like an open canvas where we could try many different things that maybe we were not able to do in the past. So definitely, yes, a bit strange, but as well, very exciting to be part of this collaboration. And yeah, and working with competitors, why not?
Twiggy Jalloh 08:26
Much of the development of this shoe, like you said, was done remotely during the pandemic period. What extra challenges did that create for you and the team?
Angela Mantilla 08:36
Well, personally, for me, it was, it was difficult to support the developers who are working on this project, and from which I was getting all the questions all the time, without really seeing the product. I, I saw the product only after the end of the project. So it was very challenging sometimes when, for example, they wanted to bounce ideas with me about embroidery or about this part of the midsole and so on. It was basically like zooming in, into the chat, like sending me pictures and all of that. So I will say that definitely technology, it helped us. I cannot imagine this, how this could have been done, I don’t know, 10 years in the past probably. But it was definitely a challenge because myself, I am not a developer. I am not a designer. My background is sustainability. So I also needed to challenge myself to imagine things that I have a limited knowledge, and still try to support my team into drive the decision that they needed to drive. So definitely this part of not being in person, and not even having the pieces of the product in my hands and be able to compare things and support them in that sense, I will say that was one, also one of the biggest challenge in the project, personally for me, but I think it was something that we definitely addressed it very well. And we were successful at the end.
Twiggy Jalloh 10:08
So what does the future of sustainable footwear look like?
Angela Mantilla 10:12
Well, very, very interesting questions. I will say, not only for footwear, but I will say in general for our industry, definitely innovation is going to be key, and is going to be the enabler to bring products to life that are more sustainable. And as I mentioned before, sustainability, it’s a journey. So it’s something that it will never stop. And innovation, it’s always something that it will constantly bring the new ideas and the new technologies that we need to bring products to life in a better way. What I will say also when it comes about footwear, in particular, definitely rethinking in the way that we’re using the products, that can also be a way that we support our sustainability journey. So instead of like owning things, but sharing them, or instead of like throwing things into the garbage once you don’t use it anymore, but bringing those products back into the brands that are creating those products. By more in a circularity kind of way, I will say that that should be the way forward. Rethinking the way that we are creating our business. And in the way that we consume. I will say that that’s the, that that’s going to be the challenge in the upcoming years that we need to, we need to rethink the way that we’ve been doing things until now. And try to find new ways to innovate, but also to create new products and new business models.
Twiggy Jalloh 11:50
Taking a bigger picture view of sustainability – it’s clearly a passion of yours, but it’s also a really big concept. What does sustainability mean to you, Angela?
Angela Mantilla 11:59
I mean, sustainability, it has three aspects. So we just, we don’t need to forget about that part. It is heavily on the environmental side. But it also has social and governance components. So it’s really important to keep the three things into mind. Because we should not be addressing problems that are just affecting the environment and maybe finding a solution that is going to have a heavily social impact, for example. So for me, the way that I see sustainability is, it’s holistic. It’s something that it requires not only the knowledge in one of the areas, but again, like bringing everybody around and try to understand how one situation can be a can be affected in many ways. So I will say that the way that I, I see sustainability, it’s it’s a practice that it needs to be embedded in order to be truthful and meaningful. But it’s a journey. It never stops. It’s something that we need to strike day by day decision by decision that were taking. But always try to analyse and always try to look into the different variables and different, and the different aspects and see how we can best contribute, but also that we are not hindering other aspects of sustainability.
Twiggy Jalloh 13:24
What can we as consumers try and do if we want to make more sustainable purchasing choices?
Angela Mantilla 13:30
I will say that, if everything starts to be well informed. I think we all need to be critical and try to spend a couple of minutes to read about for example, if you’re going to buy a product, you need to understand where that product is coming from what that product is made of. What kind of like for example, social standards that that company has around their workers in order to produce that product. It has many aspects. I will not say that sometimes it’s easy to just get informed, that sometimes like the information is not as easily available as we wish it could be. But I will say that in the way that people can take better decisions is by be better informed. And they need to be a bit critical because of course, any product that you want to buy, you can find information that it can make like look beneficial for the product itself. But you need to be a bit more critical of the information that you’re absorbing, and try to understand where that information is coming from, and if it’s good enough for you to make a decision. So I will say definitely for any person, my personal advice, like, try to, try to read a bit more on the topic, try to understand like the different decisions that you can take on a day. And it starts sometimes simple. I will say also don’t, don’t, don’t go big and get overwhelmed about all the data. Start with one decision at the time. For example, if you feel that you are consuming a lot of plastic on a daily basis, and start for example, with your haircare. Yeah? So as you start to look into your shampoo, your conditioner, how can I look into the same products and start for looking for an alternative that is better for the environment? And then you find your solution, and then you move into the next thing and to the next thing, don’t try to tackle everything at the same time, it can become very overwhelming. But once you’re taking one decision at the time, you can also leverage in that knowledge that you’re already building, and then it’s easier for you to go along and then take decisions on a daily basis.
Twiggy Jalloh 15:48
So Angela, I would love to know more about your personal career journey. Please tell me more about how you got to where you are.
Angela Mantilla 15:57
I come originally from Colombia. My background is actually in natural science. Myself, I’m a biologist. And my major was in biotechnology. So back 10 years ago, I used to work in a lab and do full research. And so that’s, that has been quite a journey for me to move from that scientific background into a more management style. So I moved to Germany nine years ago, I came to study and, and specialise more on resource management and sustainability. And since then, I was, I’ve been able to join different companies and gain a lot of knowledge in the industry, and support different brands into how to bring products to life that are more sustainable. So I’ve been in adidas for a bit more than five years, I joined the sustainability department since then. And my focus area is to support the company into do environmental impact assessments so that the company can understand what are the areas where we are generating the most impact, and that we can address it accordingly. And nowadays, I also focus more on products, which is something that I completely love. And we are bringing products to life that are more and more sustainable. And my role is basically to support the development of those products and answer the questions to them on how we can, for example, exchange different materials or different processes in their materials, so that we can achieve that goal of bringing to life more sustainable products.
Twiggy Jalloh 17:48
What sparked your interest in sustainability? Because of course, you said that you worked in biology at first. And was there something that happened when you were younger? were you always interested in somewhat saving the planet and wanting to make the planet a better place? I’d love to know more.
Angela Mantilla 18:04
Well as I say, come from Colombia, and Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. But at the same time, because we have such a beautiful landscape and so many natural resources, sometimes those resources also get explored in the wrong way. So I think for me to have seen that in my hometown, also firsthand how the effects of the environment can also alter the way that we live, and we enjoy our landscapes. That was something that really struck me from the beginning. And I will say that my background in biology also allowed me to understand more how those impacts affect the different ecosystems and the, and the different environments that we have. And so definitely, for me, it was a natural transition to not only work on science, and different experiments, and all of that, but really trying to influence in a way on how we can better interleaf our lives more sustainable, and that also comes on how we buy things and the products that we buy and the different things that we as individual can do to support the planet, and also to live a more sustainable life. So definitely for me, that part of coming from such a rich country, and seeing how it has been affected by different industry that was for me, one of my main motivations to study and to work in sustainability.
Twiggy Jalloh 19:45
Oh wow. Considering your background in biology, which I think is very fascinating, how much biology do you use in making shoes more sustainable, or how much of your biology knowledge do you use in making shoes more sustainable. Are the shoes alive?
Angela Mantilla 20:03
I think the first question is something that I get very often, especially from my former classmates, is like, how is is as a biologist working at adidas? So that’s, that’s quite an interesting one. I will say that definitely something that it had helped me to do my job better is the way of how in science you learn to think in a holistic way. Like in a systems way, that everything is interconnected. So really not looking into a problem and really just start to deep dive immediately. But kind of like having the ability to zoom out and understand how that problem comes from a context. And from many variables that around. I will say that that scientific thinking it’s something that I can easily apply into my job, and something that it helps me to drive decisions and support my team in the best way that I can. And to your question, if shoes are alive. Naturally, they’re not. But we do use a lot of natural materials. And also, from the places that we extract our raw materials, it’s important to understand also how their systems are being affected or maybe altered by those decisions that we’re taking.
Twiggy Jalloh 21:26
What have been the most important lessons you’ve learned along your career journey?
Angela Mantilla 21:31
I will say that, that you can learn from anyone. And also that sometimes even when you think that you are the expert in a topic, bringing other ideas, even if they come from completely different backgrounds, that’s something that, it has really shift my professional life as well. Since I also left home and I started to be in different cross-functional but also very diverse setups, I also learn more and absorb the beauty of being part of teams that are diverse. And I think this is something that I have seen the the benefits in my career, having people that are completely different than me not only on things like nationality and so on, but also on, on way of thinking. I think diversity can be reflected also in a cognitive way. And having, and being surrounded by those people, it’s something that it has really changed my career pathway in the way that I think and the way that I address things. So for me, it’s very important to be part of those setups. And also one of the reasons why I’m in adidas, because it’s a company that, it really brings this multicultural aspect that I was really seeking to have in in my professional life as well.
Twiggy Jalloh 22:58
Angela, what keeps you going? What are your motivations?
Angela Mantilla 23:02
I will say that I believe in what I’m doing. And I think it’s very important for anyone’s career to have a purpose, and understand how what you do on a daily basis is contributing to something that is greater than you. I know that I myself am not saving the planet, I am aware of that. But I do believe that I am supporting a big brand, who has a huge influence around the consumers that are behind the brand. And by me playing my small part here, helping the company to drive decisions, and to really bring the data aspect into the sustainability decisions that we take at adidas, that’s something that, it keeps me going. Because I believe in what we’re doing, I believe that we are addressing the right topics, here, I believe that there is so much things that we can do. So there will always be work for me to do. So that feels like it’s a good thing. But definitely, because I believe in the purpose of my job. And in the role that I have. It’s something that, it keeps me going day by day.
Twiggy Jalloh 24:18
So Angela, this series is called Rebellious Optimists. What advice would you give to people out there who are passionate about sustainability?
Angela Mantilla 24:28
My advice would be, I know that right now we are in very difficult moments, like there are so many hot topics going on. Like we’re just coming from a pandemic. There are always at difficult situations around the world. And I will say, try to always stay optimism. It can be challenging sometimes, but it’s always about finding the ways on how you as a person can showcase and any, and be more sustainable as well. So my advice is don’t, don’t, don’t, if you want to be more sustainable and you want to bring that into your life, try not to get overwhelmed. Try not to think super critical and everything that is happening, and just go day by day and try that. Every decision that you’re taking, it’s it helping you in that journey.
Twiggy Jalloh 25:27
Angela, today’s conversation was so inspiring. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Angela Mantilla 25:34
Thank you to you, Twiggy.
- Learn more about the process of developing the original Futurecraft Footprint shoe and how it came to life.
- Hear the story from the side of the collaborating partner – Allbirds co-CEO Tim Brown
- Listen to more sustainability on Rebellious Optimists – adidas Head of Sustainability explains the company’s ambitious targets and how they aim to achieve them.