Sustainable Brands Pioneer: Alexis Haass, Director of Brand Sustainability at adidas

As part of our media partnership with Sustainable Brands,we’re interviewing global business leaders and practitioners who are speaking at the SB15 London event to shed their experiences and insights on shifting the world to a more sustainable future. To kick-start our Sustainable Brands Pioneer programme, we’ve had the pleasure to interview Alexis Haass, Director of Brand Sustainability at adidas.

adidas, the multinational corporation that designs and manufactures sport shoes and clothing has an impressive sustainability strategy that is rooted in their values. The adidas Group strive to continuously integrate sustainability into its business, using innovative ways to make its products while minimising its environmental footprint and improving the lives of factory workers, its employees and those people in the communities in which the Group operates. Sustainability is a team effort: therefore, the adidas Group works with partners such as the Better Cotton Initiative, Bluesign Technologies and Parley for the Oceans to take the industry to the next level.

The adidas Group are recognised for their innovative work and you’ll find them featured in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices-for the 16th time in a row – plus ranking third in the ‘The Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World easily puts the company among the best-in-class sustainability performers in the world.

Read on to find out what has been Alexis Haass’favourite projects to work on at adidas, the biggest barriers they face and what advise she would give to someone wanting to change norms…

What is your role in your organisation?

I’m the Director of Brand Sustainability for adidas, which means I focus on our brand sustainability strategy, new innovations, and business models we’re going to implement across our business units and our global creations centers.

What have you been working on in the last year that you’re proud of?

It has been a big year: but there are two big initiatives that I am particularly proud of right now. The first is our efforts to transition our materials to more sustainable alternatives. This started in earlier years with our commitment to use 100% Sustainable Cotton by 2018 (both organic and BCI), and is being further pushed by our mass transition to recycled polyester. We have made great strides here and all of our business units are increasing their use of recycled polyester. To give you an example, 25% of our Football business volume is already recycled polyester, including most of our club jerseys such as the Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.

This past year we also announced our partnership with Parley for the Oceans, an organisation that brings together environmentalists, scientists, creatives, and businesses to attack the problem of ocean pollution. Parley not only fits well into our existing goal to transition our materials to recycled polyester but also promotes recycling in a cool and engaging way to our consumers. Parley is a good example of what we mean when we talk about our ‘open source’ business strategy. We believe that we reach the best solutions when we bring together our expertise with the knowledge of networks such as Parley to invent new ways of creating product and doing business.


How significant is sustainability in your organisation? I.e. Does it sit in the heart of your business and is central to business transformation?

Sustainability is fundamental at adidas – it’s a central topic and in almost everything we do. It’s integrated in our brand and our open-source partnership strategy and is an essential principle in all of our supply chain relationships. In addition to working towards integrating sustainability as much as possible, we believe that being transparent about our actions is important. We’ve demonstrated our commitment to this by publishing a yearly sustainability report since 2001, when we published the first sustainability report in our industry.

What are the big barriers or frustrations you face to achieving change?

I’m not going to give you the ‘normal’ answer you may hear as to which barriers we face when trying to achieve change – I’m going to go with my pet peeve, which is the lack of readily available, and high-quality life cycle analysis data. Life cycle analysis data enables you to find out where your biggest impacts are, i.e. how much water you use, how much electricity you use – unfortunately, our industry is not quite at the big data age yet. There’s a lot of info you can get – but it takes a long time and it’s difficult to find.

This is one of the reasons we’ve joined the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). The SAC is working to drive metrics forward. We’re hoping that this will help move the industry toward high quality, detailed data to make us make the best choices. You might think a certain option is the most sustainable choice, but if you measured these in numbers, the outcome could be the complete opposite. So it is important our industry has clear data, to ensure we make the right choices right from the beginning.


How important is communications in pioneering change?

Communications in pioneering change is key – it ends up working as a multiplier to affect change. For example, we see this in consumer’s reaction to our sustainability efforts, like in the comments they left on social media following the release of the Parley shoe. Consumers are excited, they want to get involved, and want to share this information with their friends. This type of action by companies not only makes consumers hopeful, it also makes them think this could be a NORMAL way of doing business in the future, and makes them eager to participate in any way they can. Hearing these stories makes people believe that change is within reach, and makes them eager to find out what they can do to support change from where they work in their job or in how they live their life.

What brand do you most admire that are doing interesting things in sustainability?

I find businesses out there that are using a new business model approach to support sustainability goals really fascinating. An example is Solar City, an interesting big-solar company in the US that has led the change from solar energy being expensive and ‘niche’, to enabling more people to use solar energy via leasing solar panels to anybody at any capability. Solar City moved the industry away from the mindset of needing to ‘buy’ or ‘own’ an asset like a solar panel and moved towards being able to rent or lease a solar panel. You’re no longer buying a solar panel; you are buying the service of getting solar energy. This is the same mental shift that other brands such as AirBnB, pioneers of the sharing economy, are doing: showing the world how you can meet consumer needs, without using more resources. Our industry is shifting to this mindset as well which I find fascinating.


Is there something you’ve read over the last year that has inspired you or contributed to your thinking? I.e. a book, campaign or whitepaper?

There’s a blog that I read called that I find really interesting. It’s run by a guy who writes simple, exciting and funny explanations on large and complex topics. He did one recently on Elon Musk and Tesla – it went viral (very buzzworthy!) about the electric car industry, and how that integrates and enables us to transition to a cleaner energy grid. I forwarded this on to everybody – it’s a great example of how to change a complex topic people find difficult to grasp into something both fascinating and accessible.

What insight can you share that would be useful to other people wanting to change norms?

There are four main things that I have realised in this career that others may find useful if they want to change sustainability norms. First is that you have to have passion for this topic, and a belief that you make your own reality. I have found that passion and belief is contagious. That’s often what will win you friends and help you gain influence.

The second is to build your network. I work surprisingly close with sustainability colleagues from other companies – we exchange notes, give each other suggestions, and even share solutions. There is a strong network of folks across my industry and in others working to change business. Find the right network and they will lend you a hand, even if you work for a competitor!

The third is to make the sustainable choices easy or automatic. Everyone is busy, whether it is consumers scanning the racks in a clothing store, or product managers trying to keep an overview of hundreds of products a season. The most effective way to create sustainability change is to make it happen with little or no effort. For example, one way we have made the default choice to use sustainable materials easy here at adidas is by converting most of our commonly used fabrics into recycled material.

The last lesson I learned was to approach every challenge with a degree of humility. When your business colleagues do not make the most sustainable decision, it is usually because they were not aware of a better option, or because an easy solution was not readily available — no one actively chooses to make a less sustainable choice. These are challenging problems to solve, and colleagues are looking to you to bring solutions, not criticism. When you bring solutions, they are eager to help you make it work.

If you would like to know more about adidas’ Sustainability work or their Parley partnership, you can find more information on their website or you can follow adidas on Twitter.