VAUDE has grown in partnership with nature and with people as a proud family run business. They were the first outdoor outfitter to produce an entire product segment under the standards of Bluesign®, proving themselves a worthy advocate for social and environmental behaviours. It is innovations such as this, that have earned VAUDE their title as Europe’s leading sustainable outdoor brand.
The German producers have incorporated ethical behaviours in everything they do so that future generations will be able to continually enjoy the great outdoors. In consequence, VAUDE is remodelling the industry with their sustainable corporate philosophy and creating an inspiration to many other retailers.
In our exclusive interview with Antje Von Dewitz, CEO of VAUDE, she tells us how you can still be successful in contributing to the economy, even with adopting a sustainable business management.
What does being ethical mean to you?
Antje von Dewitz: In order to be ethical, you have to be clear about your values. As a CEO, being ethical means that I must take personal responsibility and act accordingly to my core values. When referring to VAUDE as a company, this means doing business in harmony with people and nature. Thus, we must act eco-responsibly and fair towards all our interested stakeholders: including producers, suppliers, production sites worldwide, employees, customers and – considering our company headquarters – even our neighbours.
What do you believe to be the biggest issue within the ethical industry today that needs the most addressing?
Antje von Dewitz: In my view, global responsibility is one of the most demanding issues. We need to apply ethical standards and values to the entire supply chain, not just mentally outsourcing the ethical challenges in the production countries. A concerning issue of mine is this conventional concept of an economy that focuses exclusively on economic figures, which is still very much prevailing.
It is not a broad conviction that ecological, social and economic aspects belong together and can be combined to make the business a success. According to our experience, the combination of these aspects is not only economically successful, but it also supports innovations and makes companies stronger for the future. If this becomes the common concept of economics, we can make the world a better place with more fairness and less pollution etc.
Was your company born out of an Eco focus or did it have to evolve to become more ethical? Was this a challenging adjustment? How did you overcome these obstacles?
Antje von Dewitz: VAUDE has always had an eco focus, which for many years was mainly applied to singular projects like our Ecology Recycling Network initiated in 1994. In 2009, we consequently decided to adopt sustainable practices in all departments. From that point on, we have evolved to become a thoroughly sustainable company which is a long, challenging journey that will always go on. With every step you go, you discover more challenges, further fields to consider, new questions, unexpected harmful substances or new target conflicts between sustainable solutions and costs. We have managed to convince and enthuse our own team for our vision and thus, set free a tremendous energy to go this way together. This is important as you need everybody in the team in order to solve such complex challenges which are often combined with conflicting targets. If there are doubts about the vision, there will not be enough power to develop excellent solutions. Therefore sustainability must be firmly established throughout the entire company, not just as a side to your main business.
In terms of innovation, how have you incorporated ethical procedures into your business? Have you ever sacrificed sustainability over profitably to remain a competitor?
Antje von Dewitz: At VAUDE, we have built up a culture of trust which means that we all act at eye level with each other, no matter what position one has. Every opinion is important. This way every angle of a position is brought in the discussion, independently from hierarchies. We manage to balance all aspects and find the best answers for complex questions while we keep our major target in sight. This climate is very inspiring and supportive for innovative thinking.
I find it important to be aware that sustainability is never black or white. We have to solve ethical questions almost on a daily basis considering ecological, social and economic aspects. For example, PVC, the typical material used for tarpaulin bags, is harmful to the environment. The alternative PVC-free material we found, however, costs up to 100% more. We have decided to completely convert to this material although it will reduce our margin as we cannot transfer the price difference completely to the customer.
Another example: For years, we have been determined to eliminate PFCs from our apparel collection. However, there was no alternative available that was sufficient water repelling. So in 2010, we changed the membrane but not yet the chemical finish. We decided to leave it as is for the time being in order to be able to provide the expected function of water repellency and at the same time, to take up the efforts and costs to develop environmentally friendly but workable solutions. It took some time until we found alternatives which complied with our ecological and functional demands. We started converting our apparel collection, wich is now 95% PFC-free. By 2020 the latest PFCs will be eliminated completely from our collection.
At what moment did you realise/feel like your business was really making an impact? Do you feel like your implementations to go ethical are making a difference?
Antje von Dewitz: It was a significant moment when large retailers became keen on promoting our sustainability issues in their stores. I remember when we established the first prominent Green Shape areas to promote our ecological product range with Sports Scheck, featured across several stores in major German cities.
This was an important signal, also internally to our team, to show that our sustainable approach does have an economic value. Naturally, in the beginning, there was not everybody in our team convinced that the sustainable way causing more costs and higher efforts will be worth it. When our retailers started to promote VAUDE as a sustainable brand it was like the kick-off to a common conviction in the team that our positioning will be economically successful.
In external respect, we experience that our story gives people hope that it is not just possible and reasonable but also economically successful in acting sustainable and value-oriented as a company. We are very happy to inspire and encourage people in different fields like economy, politics, universities etc.
What are your future targets in terms of ethical responsibility? How are you moving forward with your objective to remain “sustainable”?
Antje von Dewitz: One of our main targets is to delve deeper into the global supply chain. This should be high on the agenda for our whole industry. VAUDE has launched a pilot project to achieve high environmental and social standards among suppliers. The project “Environmental Stewardship in the Supply Chain”, supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), aims at transmitting expertise and an awareness of environmental and sustainability issues directly to suppliers. Together with external experts, VAUDE started training and empowering its main Asian suppliers intensively in the fields of environmental, chemical and safety management and in implementing high social standards over a period of two years. We want to use this project to demonstrate how the upstream stages of production can be clean and responsible. As a best practice, it may serve to establish higher environmental and social standards throughout the textile industry.
We have further launched several innovative initiatives in the field of a circular economy to extend product life cycles. Like the VAUDE Seconds Use Store on eBay, where private sellers can sell used VAUDE products. Recently we have started a cooperation with the service platform iFixit making repair manuals, spare parts and tools available to customers. Sustainability is driven by new ideas, so we will never run out of targets.
For further details, check out VAUDE’s Sustainability Report here: http://csr-report.vaude.com/