Is it truly possible to create a 100% sustainable sports brand?

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Enjoying outdoor sports in clothes from environment-impairing materials seems to be absurd. More and more outdoor brands try to implement sustainable strategies. But where does sustainability start – and how far can it go? Is it possible to create a 100% sustainable sports brand?

A sustainable sports brand should leave the nature in better shape than before.
A sustainable sports brand should leave the nature in better shape than before. talked to Mike Schragger who is the founder and director of the Sustainable Fashion Academy (SFA) and also the Chair of The Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel (GLASA). Since 2008 he has provided strategic advice to companies and organizations on their sustainability practices and mobilised industry stakeholders - researchers, policy makers and investors - to create more sustainable solutions for the industry.

The limits of sustainability Mr. Schragger, is it truly possible to create a 100% sustainable sports brand – and how would it look like?
Mike Schragger:
This requires a very detailed and scientific answer, but to simplify: a 100% sustainable sports brand would ensure that its business model is 100% circular and renewable, that workers in its supply chain receive fair working conditions, and that it gives back to the communities and stakeholders that it works with. Another way of summarising this is:

  • Economically, it should create profits and good job opportunities.
  • Environmentally, it should leave the nature in better shape than it began with. It would mean not only producing zero carbon emissions but even creating opportunities to reduce emissions for the broader industry.
  • It would mean having waterless production processes, using no harmful chemicals and reusing and recycling all its resources as much as possible.
  • Socially, it would mean providing living wages and respecting human rights throughout its supply chain.

Mike Schragger is a dual citizen of Sweden and the U.S. and lives in Stockholm. He has been working at the forefront of sustainability and business since 1996.
Mike Schragger is a dual citizen of Sweden and the U.S. and lives in Stockholm. He has been working at the forefront of sustainability and business since 1996.
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In other words: we are a long way off?
Getting there is no small task, but it is essential that we start. Already today companies can begin to use more environmentally friendly materials, encourage their suppliers to use water efficient dying processes and more environmental friendly chemicals. They can implement clothing take back systems. They can ensure better working conditions by engaging with a number of global auditing and capacity building platforms.

Successful companies already know what success looks like economically, we now need to be concrete what success looks like socially and environmentally, and create the proper economic incentives for companies to get there. This will also require leadership from policy makers, investors, watch dog groups and researchers, as companies cannot do it on their own.

A lot of managers still think that investing in sustainability is too expensive. What do you tell those people?
The demands placed on companies because of sustainability are not going away. If done right, investing in sustainability can lead to risk reductions, cost savings and market growth. Each company will have to decide how much money to invest in order to sufficiently address these three areas and ensure a ROI.

Sustainability starts with building a plan

For those companies that aren’t involved yet in the sustainability movement: What could be the first step in this direction? Some of them might feel paralysed of the huge number of options they have.
Understanding the complex nature of our sustainability challenges requires expertise, and it can be confusing which initiatives to engage with. But integrating sustainability into your business begins with many of the same management tools that a company applies for their other activities.

A company new to this should start with assessing its risks and opportunities related to key sustainability issues and building a strategy and action plan to capitalise on them. In this strategy it needs to be clear what the short term and longer term sustainability priorities are and how they link to key business indicators. This will then help the company assess which initiatives to engage with and which not to.

With the SFA you provide advice since 2008. What are the main changes and learnings when you compare your former work with now?
The main change is that companies need to move beyond compliance and risk reduction to actually using sustainability as a driver for cost savings, product and service innovation and growth. Additionally, more and more people understand the nature of the global challenges we are facing, which has created an increased sense of urgency to act and to use business as a force for change.

Does it help your business that you are from Stockholm which is known for its sustainable strategy?
(Mike Schragger laughs) Living in Sweden surely helps strengthen our commitment to sustainability. The Swedish and Nordic culture and values prioritise many aspects of the sustainability agenda. We spend a good deal of time outdoors, meaning closer to nature. We also have a number of leading companies that are sustainability leaders driving the agenda.

Video: Sustainable Sports Fashion

Joscha Thieringer Author: Joscha Thieringer