Feb 07, 2023

It Takes Teamwork, Collaboration and Curiosity to Achieve Sustainability at Scale

Teamplay is a value that can make a real difference, and there’s no better example than our goal to make 9 out of 10 articles sustainable.
by Sigrid Bührlestaff

For many years, adidas has been concerned about its impact on the planet. Now a shared mindset, a common objective, collaboration and teamwork – both inside and outside the company – is helping us to be an industry leader for sustainable innovation.

But sustainable innovation doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen in a vacuum. It takes many people from across our organization and it requires us to take a step outside of our comfort zone to bring it to life.


Set the bar high and bring the team along

Have you ever set goals that make you feel uncomfortable, given the sheer volume of people and complexity involved in making them become a reality?

Having taken on the lead for adidas’ Sustainability program in Q2 2022 that’s sometimes how I feel, despite 25 years of experience in this amazing sports brand. But let me share what keeps me motivated, focused, grounded, and believing that we can achieve our goals… it’s teamplay

"The collaborative way people across adidas – and our partner organizations – work day in, day out to help us become an industry leader in sustainable innovation."

Over the years we have kicked off many sustainability initiatives, each running independently from one another and spanning across our entire value stream. To consolidate our efforts, we brought them all together under one central sustainability program, teaming up to deliver against one set of clear and tangible goals. Our moonshot is that by 2025, 9 out of 10 articles made by adidas will be sustainable

Creating sustainable products doesn’t happen overnight. You need a team of experts around you to bring them to life.Creating sustainable products doesn’t happen overnight. You need a team of experts around you to bring them to life.

In 2022, we achieved 7 out of 10, but the last 20 percent will be the most challenging because while we have done the groundwork, we now need to put even more effort into the remainder of our journey. In addition, we are constantly driving up our product standards to be a leader in this field.

Does this worry me or keep me awake at night? The answer is no, because as a company we have embraced our value of teamplay to get us to our 2025 goals.


Sustainability is a team sport

Every season, adidas makes well over 25,000 articles across apparel, footwear and accessories, which could be anything from a football jersey to a sock, backpack or a running shoe.

Our products are created by various teams, spread across many different locations around the world, from Portland and LA in the US, to Shanghai in China, and Herzogenaurach in Germany. It’s a highly complex operation involving many business units and functions along the entire value chain. There are a lot of people involved in creating and selling sustainable products, from design to creation and production.

Our suppliers play a key role as well, and we collaborate with them and support them along their journey to reaching 100% renewable energy and to decrease our carbon footprint through the scaling of new innovative processes and manufacturing solutions, such as low carbon coloration.

The sustainability projects at often involve external experts who specialize in their specific field. Fiber coloration is just one of these areas.The sustainability projects at often involve external experts who specialize in their specific field. Fiber coloration is just one of these areas.

While we accept that our operations are complex, we also have other levels of additional complexity that have to be addressed:

"When we say a t-shirt is made from 70% sustainable materials, we need to be able to substantiate our claims with transparent and compliant data."

When we come to sell the product, the story we tell must be compliant too.

But the great thing about sustainability at adidas is the incredible passion and the dedication of our teams. Even the people whose roles are not directly connected to sustainability take pride in what we are doing. The fact that we are so serious about sustainability also makes people outside adidas want to be part of our team too.


Creating a common understanding

In our sustainability program, we ensure that all business functions are represented, making it easier to create a common mindset around our objectives, how we achieve them, and defining the time scales involved.

And to make this happen, clear communication is incredibly important. We make use of all the channels and tools available to us to ensure that everyone in the company can educate and upskill themselves, understand what we have committed to, understand the roadmap and how to collaborate so they can play their part.

"I also believe that if you’re pulling people together to achieve a common goal, transparency is vital."

We need to trust and listen to our experts, provide safe spaces that allow everyone to speak up and bring in their expertise. When you create an inclusive environment, that’s where the real collaborative teamwork happens.

Collaboration is a key ingredient that needs to work at all layers of the organization. I work with partners from brand strategy, innovation teams, our business units, creation and material teams, sourcing, and brand communication. This ensures there’s a common goal and a common understanding of what we want to achieve and how we can achieve it.

Relationships from across the organization will help us achieve our goals.Relationships from across the organization will help us achieve our goals.

Working together across the business is not easy and we have often encountered conflicting KPIs or interests. We are all driving sustainable innovation, but at the same time, some of our teams are under pressure to deliver against their required margin targets. So, we need to find smart ways to allow us to align those KPIs and find joint solutions.

To overcome challenges like this, we get out of silo thinking and return to offering the best products to the consumer in line with adidas’ purpose that through sport, we have the power to change lives.

Like any successful team, it comes back to having a common goal and a shared mindset on how to achieve it.


Real teamplay sometimes means looking beyond adidas

Not only do I have to bring internal stakeholders at adidas onboard, We also collaborate with external partners, who help us on our journey to be the leader in the field of sustainable innovation.

"The holy grail of sustainability is circularity, where every product has a second life. But those of us in the textile and sporting goods industries are facing huge challenges."

It’s difficult to shoulder the cost of pioneering on your own so that’s why teamplay with the right partners can really help us transform the industry.

We’re working with sustainable material startups like Infinited Fiber, and organizations like Textile Exchange, Global Leather Working Group, and Fashion for Good, to name just a few successful examples of collaboration so far.

Sometimes, it even means teaming up with a rival. Our collaboration with sustainable sports shoe brand Allbirds is a great example. By combining the expertise and knowledge of two companies, and by listening and learning from one another, we achieved a great leap forward. This proves that by bringing together people who have different capabilities and one common goal, you can create something with real impact in sustainability.

Our collaboration with Allbirds is just one way we're breaking down traditional silos.
Our collaboration with Allbirds is just one way we're breaking down traditional silos.
Our collaboration with Allbirds is just one way we're breaking down traditional silos.

"When looking for collaborators, we think about what we stand for, our creativity, sustainability, our understanding of the next generation, and our desire to influence them in a positive way."

adidas has always believed in open source and the value of teaming up with others, and once we find a partner, there is one quality in particular that is essential to making it work, and that’s curiosity.


My approach to building a winning team

Curiosity is the willingness to learn. We always want to understand the consumer, their culture, what they think and believe and are looking for. We want to help them, and we want to be relevant.

What I appreciate the most about working for adidas is that whatever your age, your time with the company, or your background, you have the opportunity to learn, develop and grow. I want the teams I work with to stay curious, and to not stand still. Instead of pushing people, I try to provide an environment that makes them feel comfortable learning and doing new things, and that stimulates their curiosity.

I have worked in many different areas, including on the brand side and the operations side. Working in those two functions taught me not to think in silos. Now, I lead my teams to ask not ‘what’s the right thing for the function?’, but to take it back to what’s the right thing for the consumer and for the company.

"I feel very strongly that great teamplay is being able to put on different hats and really think about a problem through different perspectives before you take decisions. We build bridges, not silos."

Proud to be heading up a team of dedicated experts.Proud to be heading up a team of dedicated experts.

Thanks to the teams inside and outside adidas and the way they collaborate together, we are doing amazing things in sustainability. Our next challenge is to communicate what we’re doing to help the consumer understand that it’s the right thing to do. We’re not just providing the best products, we’re providing the most sustainable products. So, we need to educate our consumers to help them take well informed and conscious decisions.

If we do that, we can bring them onto our team too, and together we really can change the future of our planet.

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