By playing sport at a high level from a young age, Katja Schreiber knows adidas provide products that are built to last (she still owns her favorite pair of adidas shoes from her days competing). 17 years on, she is now the Senior Vice President of Sustainability at the brand she loved as a child, still with the same athlete’s mindset and desire to push herself.
In this deep dive interview, Katja explains why adidas is focusing on sustainability with more intensity than ever before, and the three key areas they have chosen to double-down on. She talks about how the brand has the potential to make a massive impact, and what drives her to make sure that they get it right.
Twiggy Jalloh 02:54
Katja, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you on today and looking forward to learning so much more about you, about sustainability, about your career and everything you have planned at the company.
Katja Schreiber 03:06
Pleasure to be here with you, Twiggy.
Twiggy Jalloh 03:07
So Katja, sustainability has been a topic we’ve touched on a lot in this series. Why is it so important for adidas?
Katja Schreiber 03:15
It’s great to hear that it’s been touched upon a lot. And I think that, that goes to show a lot. Sustainability really is super important for us as a company. It’s integrated into our strategy on the game. And it’s a crucial part of who we are. We always say at adidas that through sport, we have the power to change lives. And we actually find that we will always strive to create a more sustainable future. So we’ve really made sustainability part of our DNA. It’s part of who we are. And actually, for a lot of us, it’s part of why we come to work and why we are so motivated to contribute to, yeah, doing a good job every day.
Twiggy Jalloh 03:54
So what is the adidas approach to sustainability?
Katja Schreiber 03:57
So what we did is we looked at what really is our impact as a company on our planet. So what’s really material in how we do business? And based on that we’ve defined three areas as part of our sustainability strategy that we’re focusing on and really doubling down. And the big one there is how do we get to climate neutrality by 2050? So that’s a very, very long term objective that we have. And of course, we’ve broken that down into how do we get there. So first of all, for example, with our own operations, our own offices and our own stores, we want to get to climate neutrality by ‘25, already, which is actually only three years down the road. So gotta do some, gotta have some work to do on that one. So decarbonisation is one of our big three areas. But there’s two more. The other one is innovation. And what we mean with that is we want to find ways to make nine out of ten of our articles sustainable by ‘25. So what we’re doing is we’re looking into different ways of manufacturing our products, different ways of dyeing our materials, different ways of using materials, and actually different materials to use to really bring, like, different products and a more innovative way to life, and make them more sustainable. And innovation doesn’t stop with materials. It also looks into consumer experiences, for example, offering Give Back solutions to our consumers, or offering product that are recyclable and can be turned into new product at the end of their lifecycles. So innovation is that second focus topic. And the third one is communication. And what we mean there is, as a big brand that operates globally, we know that we have a huge opportunity, but also obligation to bring our consumers along, and to make sure that we give them easy access to sustainable experiences, sustainable solutions, and at the end of the day, offer them opportunities to consume more guilt free. So those are our three areas decarbonisation, innovation and communication.
Twiggy Jalloh 06:03
Katja, I know adidas has a commitment to sustainability that runs through all departments of the business. Can you please tell me about the challenges, but also the benefits of this?
Katja Schreiber 06:13
Let’s start with the glass half full then, with the benefits. So the reason why we’ve actually embedded sustainability across all parts of the business is we want to make sure that every part of the business is fully accountable for contributing to our plan. So that I mentioned earlier how decarbonisation is a very big and focus area for us. And in fact, the majority of our carbon footprint sits in our supply chain, so it sits with external partners we work with. So making sure that our sourcing organisation actually feels fully accountable to partner with our suppliers to drive lower carbon manufacturing processes, to find ways to increase the use of renewable energies is super, super important. And that can’t be done from headquarters, you need to do that hand in hand with your partners on the ground in the countries where we source. So we’ve really decentralised sustainability, we have a small team that kind of drives the direction, sets the tone, comes up with the like, kind of like guardrails comes up with where do we want to go as a company with sustainability. But then we’ve created more than 100 additional jobs over the last 12 months, in all kinds of areas of the business – from supply chain, product operations, innovation, marketing, tech finance. So we have a lot of expertise around the company to drive sustainability. And you asked about the challenge. And obviously when you have so many people working on something so big all over the company, of course, the biggest need is to really ensure strong alignment across our teams, to make sure that we know what our Northstar is, we know where we want to go. We have the same priorities. And we then can also help each other overcome hurdles and really have a joint understanding of the opportunities.
Twiggy Jalloh 08:01
Katja, you mentioned alignment across the teams. How important is it to empower the adidas community to support your work in sustainability?
Katja Schreiber 08:10
So making sure that our employees are part of this journey, and active ambassadors, are super important. We have more than 60,000 employees globally. And we want to make sure all of them really understand how they can contribute both personally as well as professionally. And what we’ve done actually to do that, we’ve created a training programme to really start an internal movement around sustainability. We call it Think and Act Sustainably. And it’s all about what is sustainability? Why is it important for us as a company? What are we doing as a company? And then most importantly, what can I as employee, contribute too? What can I do personally and professionally. And I think the amount of passion and energy I’ve been seeing is inspiring. And what we do at the end of this programme is every employee commits to personal behaviour changes, that they then also publish and post and it’s fantastic to speak to employees from around the world to hear their stories of how they are committed to really creating that more sustainable future.
Twiggy Jalloh 09:15
Okay, we’ve talked about some sustainability initiatives within adidas, but what about the external partners? For example, I know adidas has collaborated with outside companies to find more sustainable materials to use in clothing and footwear.
Katja Schreiber 09:30
Mm-hm. For us, sustainability really is a team sport because the challenges we’re trying to tackle, and the solutions we need to come up with, they often are pretty big, they’re actually quite massive. And that means we need all the insights, all the expertise we can get. And we believe strongly that together in close collaboration with partners, thought leaders, innovators, we’re going to be stronger. And we’re going to have more of a positive impact at scale. So what we’ve done is we’ve actually invested into some startups that hold knowledge and expertise in areas where we might not have that much internal knowledge. And we’re working with them on materials of the futures, we’re looking into fossil free materials based on agricultural waste, or wood, wood materials. So really alternatives to the materials we’re using right now. And then we’re also partnering with, with others to come up with, you know, new solutions, like for example, Allbirds. Together, we set out to create the running shoe with the lowest carbon footprint out there. And we really challenged each other to to rethink how do we approach the design process, the development process of a shoe, and the outcome was something that all of us are super proud of, because it has become the lowest carbon footprint running shoe in the world. And I think what I’m super excited is to then, how do we take back this one product, and actually apply the learnings into all of our creation processes going forward? To make sure that what we learned with this product, we apply at scale with the biggest possible impact.
Twiggy Jalloh 11:08
In my research, I found out that you’re also collaborating with Spinnova, and that you’re creating a hoodie that is made of 25% wood based fibres, as well as 75% organic cotton. And I think it’s so fascinating that you can actually use those fibres that would otherwise be discarded to make an item of clothing. And an item of clothing like a hoodie as well, something that people, most people actually wear.
Katja Schreiber 11:33
Yeah, absolutely, Twiggy. And that’s, that’s like an absolutely fascinating area to work in that kind of like where innovation and sustainability meets. And I think we talk in this podcast about rebellious optimists. And really going into sustainability. And working on those solutions of the future is fascinating, because quite often, we start with a blank sheet of paper, we don’t know what the solution is like. But we know kind of the direction we want to work towards. And then having access to fantastic partners like Spinnova, like Infinited Fiber, is, of course, a fantastic way to really see how we can push boundaries and reinvent materials.
Twiggy Jalloh 12:12
Sustainability has so many different elements. What have been some of the biggest challenges when it comes to making adidas a more sustainable company?
Katja Schreiber 12:19
I would say the biggest challenge is to focus, focus and focus. And what I mean with that is there’s so much passion for sustainability in our organisation, there are so many employees who have fantastic ideas of what else we could be doing. And it’s my team’s job to then really ensure that we focus on the, on the big ticket items. And instead of boiling the ocean, by doing a lot of little things, without lasting impact, really doubling down on what really counts, and what really can have the biggest impact. And what we decided a couple of years ago, for example, is to really double down on polyester, and to replace all virgin polyester that we use in our millions and millions of product with recycled polyester. And why did we do that? Because we felt we can actually have the biggest impact, because this material is used in so many of our products. And it also probably created a bit of movement in the industry, because by us coming up with such an ambitious target of really replacing our virgin polyester, we of course challenged our partners in our supply chain to come up with alternative solutions. And that, like, definitely triggered then change, also across the industry. So by us really focusing and doubling down on one big problem and solving that first, that allows us to now move on to different materials and to see what else we can replace, and what other ideas and ways there are to make our product more sustainable.
Twiggy Jalloh 13:46
Thinking about the big problems of sustainability, and about the impacts of change – are you optimistic about the future?
Katja Schreiber 13:54
Always, always super, super optimistic. I think that’s what you like have to bring when you work in sustainability, you have to bring that optimism and that passion to actually follow through. And I think if I look at the the future of sustainability and what a company like adidas can do, I think for a lot of our employees, sustainability really is a big, big reason for why they work with the company. It gives them pride and gives them purpose. And for us, we have that huge opportunity to actually not just inspire and engage our own employees. But really make sure we bring our consumers along on that journey, and to allow them to make choices that contribute to a more sustainable world. So that’s probably what I’m most excited about, to really make sure that we are bringing our consumers in, like we have this big kind of narrative – end plastic waste. And, like, educating consumers on what they can do to personally contribute to ending plastic waste, I think has so much potential because yes, there are 60,000 adidas employees out there, but the amount of consumers that we interact with every single day, be it in retail, be it in digital, is a much, much bigger number. And I think that’s what I get excited about – how can we really bring all of these consumers, all of these people we have touch points with, how do we bring them along? And how do we create a movement? And where we started to do that is with Run for the Oceans. So Run for the Oceans is a movement where a couple of years ago, we actually started to invite consumers to, to run and to be active. And in return, we committed to cleaning up beaches and islands. So it’s running for good cause – the more you run, the more we clean up. And I have been fascinated to see how employees and athletes and consumers around the world actually get personally involved. A couple of years ago, I lived in the Middle East, and I had the chance to actually participate in Run for the Ocean in Beirut, in Dubai, in different locations. And it was super, super fascinating to see what power the ability to contribute to a more sustainable word really has to people. And how people get up super early, how they roll up their sleeves, clean up the beaches to really make a difference. And I think that’s the huge opportunity companies like adidas have to make sure we drive awareness and to make sure we make sustainability accessible to consumers, and make sure that it’s something that they can make easy choices to really have a positive impact personally.
Twiggy Jalloh 16:36
That really is a positive and inspiring outlook. I would love to know, what keeps you going? What motivates your work in sustainability?
Katja Schreiber 16:45
So in my case, for me, with everything I do, my goal is always to have a positive impact on people’s lives. And I think with sustainability, the huge privilege is that I get to work not only on impacting the lives around me, but also on the lives of future generations. And I think that’s, that’s a massive purpose, gives me massive pride. And I think, with us being one of the biggest players in the industry, the impact we can create at scale is pretty, pretty huge and impressive. I think that, that philosophy of like how can we really make use of this huge obligation that we have to make the most of the impact we can create, because of our sheer size, and the sheer access to resource that we have.
Twiggy Jalloh 17:43
Katja, let’s talk about your personal career journey. I heard you were an athlete earlier in your life?
Katja Schreiber 17:50
That’s a good one, I played sports competitively when I was a little younger, I still think that I still have an athlete’s mindset, but definitely not competing at that high level anymore. But it has absolutely shaped who I am. And I think competing, it’s, in sports definitely shaped kind of my character. I’m super ambitious, I love winning, I’m not good at losing. I was probably never the most gifted in the sport I played. But I learned that hard work and consistency and training really pays off. And I think that growth mindset is something that, you know, you learn in sports, you get better through training. And I think also, like, training with others, and that whole team spirit that helps you also just become more confident and, in who you are as an athlete and as a person. So definitely sports has shaped who I am, definitely opened lots of doors for me, because I got to travel through, through my sport early on, got to meet athletes from other countries. And that definitely also instilled a bit of curiosity. And and I think the biggest one is it also ensured that I always knew what I wanted to do in my career, I always knew I wanted to work in the sports industry, tried a different, couple of different things and ended up actually joining adidas. And funnily, that was my plan A in life was always to compete in the Olympics, to represent my country, that didn’t work out. But plan B was nearly as good. And that was working for Adidas, and getting to work on a couple of Olympic Games. So definitely has had a big impact on on who I, who I am and how my career has turned out.
Twiggy Jalloh 19:23
I’ve spoken to some other people as well who have also been sports people, and have fallen into working in sportswear, at Adidas. So it makes a lot of sense that a lot of you are also interested in sports as well.
Katja Schreiber 19:35
It has. Passion for sports certainly helps in this company.
Twiggy Jalloh 19:38
So you’ve worked at adidas for a number of years, and have risen to the level of Senior Vice President. What has been the most pivotal moment in your leadership journey?
Katja Schreiber 19:47
I guess I was an expert in my field for the longest time. So I worked for many, many years and in communication and marketing roles. And I got to the point where I probably wasn’t learning that much new anymore. And I took a bit of a risk and a leap of faith. And I started over in a completely different field in our company. And from, from then on, I knew I was never going to actually reach expert level in that new area, which was HR, back in the days. And instead my role actually changed. And it became more focused on actually creating that environment where others thrive, and finding the best experts to really take us forward and to turn us into the best team. So really kind of empowering others to be the best version of themselves. And defining goals together and giving them that freedom and trust to choose how to get there. I think that really was a big pivotal moment for me, when I stepped out of my comfort zone, stepped out of that area where I had all my expertise, and kind of, yeah, left that comfort zone and then did something completely new.
Twiggy Jalloh 20:52
This is something that’s come up a lot on the podcast. Guests have said they were able to progress in adidas because they decided to step outside of their comfort zones, and try something new – but that’s something that can also come with a lot of fear or anxiety. How do you get over that?
Katja Schreiber 21:07
I think it probably comes back to who I am as a person, right, and that curiosity to see what else is out there. And that real passion to challenge myself and that passion to, yeah, I guess like, what you go through as an athlete always, like, seeing, like, what else can I do? And what else can I train for? So I think that’s probably where it comes from. Does it always feel super comfortable when you’ve left your comfort zone? Absolutely not. Do you sometimes go, God, why the heck did I choose this different path? Yes, absolutely. At least in my case. But I think at the end of the day, I want to make sure this, like I use my life getting as many different experiences, and learning as much as possible, and living it to the fullest. So yeah, that’s, that’s why I’ve chosen to embrace opportunities whenever they present themselves. I think we really are a company that empowers those type of cross lateral moves, and really, like, instills that curiosity in people to see what else they’re capable of. So we’re hiring. So we have a lot of open positions in sustainability. So for those who are interested to also see what else they’re capable of, there’s definitely a lot of open, a lot of opportunities to contribute.
Twiggy Jalloh 22:21
Katja, as you know, this series is all about rebellious optimism. I would love to know what advice would you give to people wanting to lead sustainable change?
Katja Schreiber 22:31
I think sustainability is probably the perfect playground for rebellious optimism. So if you’re not an optimist or not rebellious, then you’re probably better off learning a bit of that in sustainability. Because what we want to create is huge, right? We want to create a more sustainable future. And the impact we can have is massive. But while we understand the task and the direction, we don’t always have all the answers. So this is really an area to get creative, to really think big picture. And most importantly, often get started and try and test and learn. And then kind of quickly also adjust course, if you see it doesn’t fit. So it’s definitely an area where if you have that rebellious optimism, you’re in a very, very good spot. And I think what, what advice I would give is probably one is to to find allies and make sure that you find like-minded people. Because sustainability is a team sport, you’re not going to be able to bring solutions all by yourself. Second one would probably be to be patient and not give up. That’s something – I’m not a patient person, but in sustainability, those solutions don’t come overnight. So really making sure that you kind of stick to, like, that longer term ambition, you understand the direction, and then you keep pushing boundaries every single day. That can sometimes be a little exhausting. But I think it’s super important to just stick to kind of that Northstar that you’ve set. And then for me the last one, and that’s not just sustainability, but probably in any role. Surround yourself with great people. And make sure that the team that you work on has, that’s ambitious, has a go getter mentality, it has each other’s back and doesn’t just work hard, but also play hard to really enjoy and be proud of what you’re achieving together as a team.
Twiggy Jalloh 24:20
So teamwork, optimism, curiosity, and a love for what you do seems to be the pillars of achieving great things. I’ve learned so much from you today Katja, not just about sustainability but about developing skills and also about progressing in your career as well. It has been an absolute pleasure speaking with you.
Katja Schreiber 24:39
Likewise. Thanks for having me, Twiggy.