Being green is good for business, proves Vaude boss Antje von Dewitz
“When I was younger, I wanted to work for Greenpeace or the World Wide Fund for Nature,” entrepreneur Dr. Antje von Dewitz. Instead, since 2009 she has been CEO of Vaude, an outdoor clothing and equipment company founded by her father in 1974.
Still based in rural Germany near the borders of Switzerland and Austria, Vaude began manufacturing backpacks and today sells its hiking, cycling and mountaineering products worldwide.
The factory headquarters in Tettnang has been carbon neutral since 2012, part of von Dewitz’s goal of making not only the company greener but – more difficult – its Asian supply chain, which went carbon neutral last year.
(Approximately 5% of Vaude products are manufactured at the headquarters in Tettnang, 35% are produced in the company’s own factory in Vietnam, the rest are manufactured by independent suppliers in Europe and Asia.)
Von Dewitz studied economics at the university and worked as an intern for environmental and women’s organizations southern german newspaper and the German broadcaster NDR.
She later did an internship at Vaude as well, but had no intention of continuing to work in her father’s company as she thought that after her PhD she would start working for a socially responsible NGO. Instead, she returned to Vaude in 2005 as a product manager and realized she could make an environmentally friendly contribution by improving the company’s environmental footprint and showing – her father – how this could be profitable.
Vaude – pronounced “Faudi” from the initials of von Dewitz – is known today for its strict environmental standards and its policy of social responsibility.
“I wanted to take responsibility for keeping this planet livable,” von Dewitz said in a Zoom call.
Von Dewitz was already greener than most EU companies and made it even greener.
“Not only do we have a responsibility to make products right, we also have a responsibility for the working conditions here at headquarters and around the world,” she said.
Von Dewitz is an ambassador for the common good economy, which measures entrepreneurial success in terms of financial profits and contributions to the common good. She is also Deputy Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of the German Federal Foundation for the Environment. Several awards recognize her economic, social and environmental commitment, including the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award (2021), the Chief Marketing Officer Award (2021) and vanity fair‘s Changing Your Mind Award (2020).
She is not afraid to speak up and believes strongly in the political power that corporations can wield. For example, she has strongly advocated tightening the new German supply chain law. This came into force in January and obliges German companies to comply with strong social and environmental standards.
Many countries have adopted, or will adopt, similar corporate sustainability standards and regulations, tracking a company’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies to encourage – and sometimes compel – corporate responsibility.
In Europe, the Non-Financial Reporting Directive (NFRD) obliges large public interest entities (companies with more than 500 employees) to publish environmental information.
The directive will soon be expanded as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD). This requires more detailed reporting on ESG issues and establishes a corporate duty of care.
The aim of the CSRD is to “promote sustainable and responsible corporate behavior and to embed human rights and environmental considerations in the business operations and corporate governance of companies”.
The policy requires companies to identify and prevent or mitigate environmental impacts in their operations, subsidiaries and value chains.
Vaude was ahead of the ESG curve, and von Dewitz showed her father that this ethos of environmental responsibility is good for the bottom line.
The company had sales of $158 million last year. Bicycle products accounted for 45% of this.
“Our employees are outdoor and bike freaks,” says von Dewitz.
And since they enjoy being outdoors, they are very often deeply involved in environmental issues, which made it easier for von Dewitz to make the company greener.
“We took an enterprise-wide approach,” she said.
“We started here at the headquarters in southern Germany, but then expanded to include the entire product cycle. When we started in 2009, awareness of sustainability was not very high, neither among our dealers nor among clients or customers.”
And it wasn’t easy on the mothership either.
“Our employees were very skeptical at first,” von Dewitz recalls, “because they saw the bureaucratic effort involved in becoming more sustainable; They weren’t sure if this was anything more than a marketing gimmick.”
The first changes were tiny, like switching the headquarters’ coffee beans to Fairtrade, and expanded from there, including measuring all of the headquarters’ emissions over a year.
“We have launched programs to reduce emissions. We have switched our energy to renewable energies and equipped the roof with solar panels. We got rid of our paper catalog – at the time the most important marketing tool we had – because we calculated it [after manufacturing] that was our second largest source of emissions.”
Mobility turned out to be the company’s third-largest source.
“We have created a mobility program where the best parking spaces are [at HQ] did not go to the management, but to Carsharing. We also bought bikes for the employees to use to commute.”
For those emissions that could not be reduced, Vaude paid compensation through the non-profit organization Myclimate.
Greening the supply chain was a tougher nut to crack.
“It was important that the whole team was behind the idea,” said von Dewitz.
“Transformation has always been difficult. In 2009 we had sales of just $52 million and a very complex supply chain. We have worked with 65 manufacturing sites in Asia; We bought materials from 150 suppliers. Our corporate task force chose to transform them all.”
Vaude created Green Shape, a private label certification program for its organic products, and suppliers had to submit eco-audits to become part of the program.
“Each audit cost $21,000 a year, and here was a rather small brand that sometimes challenged larger companies to meet our requirements,” von Dewitz said.
Some suppliers let Vaude cover their costs.
Almost 90% of Vaude’s products now bear the Green Shape seal, which means they are ecologically harmless and can be easily repaired and recycled. (Vaude’s Green Shape program is stricter than the German government’s similar Green Button program.)
“From an economic point of view, it is very worthwhile to take this sustainable path,” emphasized von Dewitz.
“Yes, because it helps our brand image,” agreed von Dewitz, but also because it “convinces your team that they’re working towards a common goal.”
And more and more consumers are also choosing companies with strict environmental standards.
Going green “made us a stronger brand and a stronger company,” von Dewitz said.
And it’s a virtuous cycle, with more robust growth funding further ecological transformations.
No bow tie
Making the company’s mobility even greener remains a key concern for Vaude.
“Eight years ago we removed 60 parking spaces and replaced them with a recreation area and a climbing wall,” says von Dewitz.
The rural location of the headquarters used to mean that a car was essential, but the company successfully lobbied the community and a local bus company for a bus stop.
For business trips, Vaude managers are obliged to use public transport.
“When I go to Berlin, I don’t fly; I’ll take the train, a journey of about eight hours,” von Dewitz said.
“We use our time efficiently, work on our laptops or have business appointments on the train.”
Taxis are only allowed if several employees are traveling together.
“I never take a taxi,” said von Dewitz, “I always take the subway or bike sharing or walk.”
Vaude employees cannot fly within Germany, Switzerland or Austria.
This policy of low car use and flying only for trips to Asia was a culture shock for the company’s older employees.
“There was a lot of discussion as to why they shouldn’t fly or take taxis anymore,” von Dewitz said.
Employees who have joined more recently have been partially attracted to this type of environmental policy.
“They joined because we have values that support them,” von Dewitz said.
And with Vaude now generating stronger sales than the industry average, von Dewitz has proven it’s green Is financially rewarding.
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