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The spirit of leadership in sustainability

The adidas Group is famous for leading many fields. A not so well-known field of leadership is sustainability.

Whether it is nature or nurture to create leadership, in other words whether leaders are born or made, one thing is sure: if you want to be a real leader in the long run, behave like actually being on a long run. Sprint when necessary, but always keep the rest of the race in mind if you want to make it to the finish line. True leaders don’t sprint just to be seen in the front row. They trust their game plan because they have thought it through carefully. Unpretentious leadership pays off. This is the spirit the adidas Group’s “Social & Environmental Affairs” team believes in.                             

Today, this attitude was rewarded once again as the adidas Group has been ranked eighth among the 2014 Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World. Over the last decade, the adidas Group has continuously improved its placement in this ranking as a side effect of extending and improving its numerous initiatives in the sustainability field. This is a clear sign of leadership, even though some would not think so.

We are not always perceived as being among the most sustainable companies in the sporting goods industry, which is fine, because we don’t engage in this field for the glory. Nevertheless, I have to admit that this top ten ranking feels really rewarding for me, the team and the adidas Group as a whole. Especially as this recognition is based on the most extensive data-driven, independent corporate sustainability assessment in existence, 

Frank Henke, global director Social & Environmental  Affairs at the adidas Group

What do adidas Group employees think about sustainability? Check it out in this video!

Frank has been with the company for more than 20 years, and has thus accompanied the adidas Group on a big part of its journey to becoming a global responsible player. His team embodies the unpretentious leadership spirit of the adidas Group.

We work behind the scenes, but if we believe that something is the right thing to do and it is good for the cause, we are not afraid to take bold decisions – even if the decision puts ourselves under pressure.

 Frank Henke, Global director Social & Environmental  Affairs at the adidas Group.

Frank Henke

In 2001, the company decided to take such a bold decision when it raised the bar for the entire industry by publishing its first Sustainability Report. Even though this type of reporting has become best practice for many to follow, the adidas Group is still today the only company in the sporting goods industry which publishes a Sustainability Report on an annual basis.

“As a global company, the adidas Group cannot afford to ignore the impact of its business practices. We recognise our responsibility to be accountable to all our stakeholders, which involves regular and open reporting about our social and environmental performance. As such, reporting became a natural extension of our work: by reporting regularly, we aim to build up a picture of our sustainability performance that can be tracked from year to year.”

Sometimes though, it is creativity and pragmatism, not boldness, which make the difference. Faced with some concrete challenges, such as the need to improve communication with factory workers in order to better understand their concerns in the factory, or the extensive use of water in the dyeing process, the company identified creative ways to solve them: the adidas Group’s SMS for workers project as well as the launch of the adidas DryDye collection are good examples of this attitude. You can read more here.

THE SMS worker hotline project

“Obviously, we are proud of our track record, but when you candidly admit, like we do, that sustainability is like a marathon, not a sprint, you imply that there is a lot of work that needs to still happen. We want to constantly improve ourselves.” You can listen to Frank’s full interview here.

Interview with Frank Henke


Over the past two decades, the adidas Group has been very focused on driving change within the company’s global supply chain. To achieve this, the company’s Sustainability team has worked closely with its manufacturing partners to safeguard workers’ rights and reduce environmental impacts. New challenges are constantly knocking at the door though. How to increase the use of recycled materials in our products? How to determine what a living wage is? These are only a few of the questions requiring an answer, with major learnings for the company, as well as for the industry as a whole. Frank explains:

The management of issues such as working conditions in global supply chains or the environmental performance of companies themselves is a complex challenge, requiring many actors to work together and play a role in achieving effective and sustainable solutions. There is no competition when it comes to sustainability. 


With this statement he's implying another important value of leadership: team play and putting the overarching goal at the centre of the decision-making process.

This approach explains why the adidas Group engages as an active member of many Alliances, Industry associations, etc., all looking at embedding new thinking and ways of working within the industry, such as when the Reebok brand donated its own supplier monitoring database to a non-profit organisation; it was the beginning of the Fair Factories Clearinghouse, an industry-leading compliance data-sharing platform. Still today, the FFC database is the most prominent tool in the industry for the sharing of audit results – which is key to more transparency and collaboration in the entire industry.

A lot has happened in the first two decades of sustainability work at the adidas Group, and significant efforts have been made to integrate sustainability measures in the company’s core operations. Along the way, it is of course good to receive recognition from leading indices and sustainability experts: it is testimony that not only is the company on the right track, it is also among those driving the change. This is an incentive to continue on this track on this journey to becoming a truly sustainable company. Because, remember? It is a marathon, not a sprint.