To conclude our Get Back to Nature series, MiND had the pleasure of taking part in an interview with Rolf Schmid, Former CEO at Mammut, and founder and former president of the European Outdoor Group. Schmid created a strong identity not only for himself but an equally admirable reputation within the whole outdoor Industry.
We had the chance to take a closer look into his personal experiences within nature, gain further insight into his valued opinions towards sustainability, and also see what’s in store for the future, as he embarks on a new career journey.
What triggered your interest in the outdoors and the environment?
ROLF SCHMID: First, I was asked to join the company Mammut. At that time, they had a good reputation as a small niche brand, but I liked them. Second, I like the mountains, more as a hiker and skier than as a climber, but thinking that I could work for that trade and with the outdoors sounded fantastic. For me, the environment and nature also meant leisure and relaxing and so if you can combine that with your job, it is heaven.
Unfortunately, over time, I had to realise it’s not quite all that because working for an outdoor industry does not mean you have more time to spend in the outdoors. In fact, it kept me pretty busy, and towards the end, I spent more time indoors at the office.
Did you find someone or something in your career to be a particular influence on your environmental mind-set?
ROLF SCHMID: In the last 20 years, a lot has happened in general around the environment and consumer consciousness as you see on the daily, articles featured in every newspaper. I also have a lot of friends doing outdoor sports and living outdoors, and all of that made me really reflect on it much more so, compared to 20 years ago. Being an actor in the outdoor scene, we used to say to ourselves, “Don’t destroy what you want to enjoy,” so if you want to be with nature and work with nature, then you have to make do with what you can, not to destroy it.
The European Outdoor group is a community that shares knowledge, research, and business behaviours among competitors. What was your reasoning for founding such a group?
ROLF SCHMID: Truthfully, it happened without it really being planned. I was originally within the German Outdoor group, I wasn’t with my countrymen. I wanted to get to know these people, see their side of trade and perspective. When I was in the first meeting I saw big disagreement among the people sitting there and I saw strong characters, but there were mainly two groups fighting against each other.
Sitting among them, and with me being Swiss, we are known for being neutral and diplomatic. I started to act as a moderator between these two strong groups. So, they asked me to join in on the second meeting, and during that, they asked me to become the president of the German group. So, that’s how I initially became involved in these activities.
Then after two years of being president of the German group, I thought ‘what the hell am I doing as a Swiss person in a German group?’ At the end, we all have the same challenges and the same goals. And together, we can all get stronger. I thought, instead of having a German group, why don’t we make a European group? So, I asked a couple of friends and colleagues if they would join, and together we started to create this European group.
In the first year, it was very informal, we met maybe three times a year. Then we thought this could only work if we try to get some funding, we had to consider asking members for money for being a member, and have people working for us and help reach our goals. That’s when we truly founded the group; we could finally employ people and invest money toward what we wanted to achieve.
You’re considered a spokesperson for the ethical industry since you have founded the group. But how do you educate and motivate others on ethical procedures in business?
ROLF SCHMID: First, you have to be credible, you, yourself. You have to do everything yourself, you have to take that first step completely yourself because if you are saying and not doing, you wind up being a green washer. At the same time, it’s also dangerous to be a moral preacher, because you don’t want to overdo it. So, we try to always do small, reasonable steps that our consistent and understandable for the organisation. So, to answer your question, it’s not just about speaking but doing.
What was your innovation process when coming up with new ways to be sustainable?
ROLF SCHMID: I think what has helped us especially within the last 10 years, we introduced an environment ‘God Father’ into our organisation. We said at each meeting there has to be one person who is the godfather for this evening’s environment issue, and I am not speaking about a small bilateral link. From that, we each took a position at a topic, having a role to ask when looking at the issue from an environmental point of view, would we do the same thing? Or would we think differently?
By giving somebody that role, they had the obligation to make these questions. So, that was for us a big step to being much more aware of these points and creating a change in mindset.
At the end, we all have the same challenges and the same goals. And together, we can all get stronger.
Where do you feel needs the most improvement in terms of ethical behaviour within the outdoor industry? How do you see the industry evolving in the next 5 years?
ROLF SCHMID: I think that the most important concern is to make long lasting products, it doesn’t help if you make environmentally better products if you have to throw them away after two seasons.
I also think people are going too fast, and quickly assume just because they don’t need something, they can recycle it. Yes, recycling is good, but it is still throwing away. At the same time, if a product comes to the end of its use, it should not be thrown away, it should be given to someone else. There are millions of people who will be thankful for this product and will use it even if it doesn’t look nice or is no longer in fashion anymore. Products should be reused for other purposes, with other people, but not just thrown away.
Another issue, I believe that raises concern is that we speak about environment, but we should also try to educate ourselves and our end consumers in the way and how they travel within nature. By that, I mean a lot of people take their big cars and trucks and travel to whatever mountain. They should be more careful in how they organise themselves, see if they can take public transportation or travel together. So, this is all part of the thinking which all of us should try to change within our industry.
Would you agree that there has been a rapid shift towards eco-friendly behaviour in business? What ethical changes do you believe have made the most difference?
ROLF SCHMID: I wouldn’t say there was a rapid change, I think the change has been steady. I think if the change had been rapid, it would mean that we have done something wrong.
This change has to be done year by year. I think pressure from our consumers and certain organisations gets bigger every year. We, as an outdoor industry, play a certain role as a model because we work so close to nature, we have to be more involved than other industries, and we feel that we should do more than other companies. Having companies like the European outdoor group has helped to build up this awareness among the industry, at the same time the pressure from the end consumer and the role of the press have also helped to speed up this process.
They had a mind-set change and being people living outdoors, and seeing what is going on, we have made the change. I don’t think it has been a rapid thing. Society is changing as a whole, and the urge to change has also changed. It hasn’t been one thing that sparked this ‘ethical shift’.
During your time at Mammut did you feel that you successfully implemented the mission statement ‘to leave behind the best possible ecological footprint so that future generations can be mountaineers as well,’ and if so, how?
ROLF SCHMID: I think we have done a lot and changed a lot. Have we done everything possible? Probably not, but I think we have done what we could economically afford. We have done what has made sense. I think one important thing is that if you work with manufacturers who are living the same goals as you have, they behave according to your instructions. We can oblige them to invest, for instance, in water treatment plants. The selection of your partners is essential, and I think with that we have done a good job. I think also we had been with Cortex for a long time and we were the only ones to take back products to recycle them. We also have a process in all our stores where we take back old used products. I think here we have done a lot, but for me, it is a journey, the whole thing, we have definitely not arrived where we want to arrive. We are in the middle of this journey and that’s why there is still a lot to do.
Having stepped down as CEO of Mammut and the president of the outdoor group, how will you maintain your efforts to help create a more sustainable outdoor industry?
ROLF SCHMID: At the moment, with the outdoor industry, I am working as a board member in a car sharing company called Mobility. It’s one of the biggest and most successful worldwide. For me, the whole sharing economy is a very big contribution to being environmentally friendly. One car, we estimate, when shared replaced 7-10 mobile cars. By making people become members, they drive less and take more public transportation and when they get closer to where they need to be, they take the car from the partner. So for me, the sharing economy is something which is extremely sustainable. I’m not leaving the outdoor industry, but the sharing economy is part of my future.
What has been your greatest accomplishment in terms of changing ethical behaviour in business?
ROLF SCHMID: I think for me, being able to found the European outdoor group with my colleagues has been the biggest success. Having been the president for 12 years and being able to make a personal impact has been my biggest contribution to the environment at the end of the day.