The VAUDE Path to Eco-Friendly Outdoor Products
Responsibility is what drives VAUDE CEO Antje von Dewitz and everyone on her team. For us, entrepreneurship means always being aware of how our actions impact both people and the environment. That’s why we launched our own sustainability label in 2010: Green Shape. A lot has happened since then – the share of Green Shape products in our collection has grown drastically each year, and the strict criteria for Green Shape have been refined and made more stringent. We’re aiming to have Green Shape externally accredited as an environmental standard this year. After more than 10 years, it’s high time we take a look back at our Green Shape success story.
“Our vision is to be a thoroughly sustainable company, and we want to objectively guarantee that our products are manufactured in an eco-friendly and fair manner.”
Green Shape is launched in 2010
The textile industry is harmful to the environment. Many materials contain chemicals that cause cancer, affect our hormones, or are otherwise hazardous: from harmful fluorocarbons (PFC) to plasticizers and on to solvents. Other problem areas include water consumption and pollution as well as working conditions in the textile industry.
Antje von Dewitz has always been clear: “As a producer of textiles, we’re part of the problem, but we want to be part of the solution. We’re aware that our business activities are inherently harmful to the environment and that our planet has finite resources. We accept this responsibility and are continuously striving to keep our ecological footprint as small as possible.”
A key milestone on the journey towards this goal came in 2010 with the launch of VAUDE’s own Green Shape eco-label, which has since come to stand for functional, eco-friendly products made from sustainable materials under fair working conditions.
But why was Green Shape created in the first place?
“It was about consistently steering our entire product development process towards sustainability,” Antje von Dewitz recalls. Back in 2010, however, there was no suitable overarching evaluation system for our products worldwide. We at VAUDE had already been a system partner of bluesign®, one of the world’s most stringent standards for environmental protection in textile production, since 2001. VAUDE was already working with many bluesign® system materials at the time, but the manufacturing of our outdoor products involved a vast array of different materials including synthetic fibers, metals, and organic materials. And each individual material required its own standard, which was not always covered by bluesign®.
For this reason, VAUDE decided to create its own meta-seal that would be based on the strictest textile and environmental standards while also considering the entire product life cycle. Things were set in motion when specialist retailers requested that VAUDE develop a label to help consumers identify especially eco-friendly products. VAUDE listened and began work on Green Shape. Hilke Patzwall, CSR Manager at VAUDE, was a key player in the development of Green Shape from the very beginning.
“In 2009 we established the first criteria our materials would have to meet in order to receive the Green Shape label. Our ambition was to create the world’s most stringent textile standard for outdoor products.”
A challenging task. The company developed an extensive catalog of criteria and a strict evaluation system. There were still many open questions to address, though. For which materials and substances were there already compelling certificates and standards other than bluesign®? Could problematic chemicals be replaced? And what was the best way to get suppliers on board? To answer the tricky question of how to assess different organic materials, VAUDE received support from its longstanding partner World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as well as many specialized outdoor and sports retailers.
“We were a pioneer in the industry. Developing our own environmental standard was trailblazing work. It was a stressful and time-consuming process, but it was worth it,” Patzwall declares.
To receive a Green Shape label, a product had to consist of certified and/or particularly eco-friendly materials. In addition, the manufacturer of the material was also required to have an environmental certification. VAUDE then began setting itself internal targets each year for how high the proportion of Green Shape products in the collection should be.
Clear strategy for pollutants and chemicals
With Bettina Roth at the helm, VAUDE set up its own chemical management system as part of its quality management. “The first step involved systematic testing to determine which materials actually contained pollutants,” Roth recalls. This was far from an established practice in the industry at that time. The assessment revealed that there were large differences in quality and levels of knowledge among VAUDE suppliers. It also quickly became clear:
“Testing the finished product for pollutants was the wrong approach. We needed to start by the testing the materials,” Bettina Roth recalls.
The next question was how to keep harmful chemicals out of the production process. Roth and her team began defining substances and pollutants that would be either entirely forbidden or restricted to marginal values. In this process, VAUDE considered the respective knowledge levels and worked closely with important stakeholders such as bluesign®. Over the years, this resulted in the compilation of a list known as the Manufacturing Restricted Substance List (MRSL), which was continuously updated. The ambitious goal: to completely rid the production process of harmful substances. All VAUDE producers pledged to comply with these specifications.
With this strategy, VAUDE went – and continues to go – far beyond the statutory requirements. “By consistently using MRSL-compliant chemicals and certified environmental and safety management systems in our production locations, we were successfully able to work with certified materials and meet the highest sustainability standards. That also means these materials are produced with no risk or with the smallest possible risk to the environment and to the employees on site,” Roth explains.
From hurdles, missteps, and conflicts to positive results
The path to environmentally friendly material was not easy. Our product managers were afraid of losing important suppliers they had been working with for years, and it was incredibly difficult to find any materials at all that met the Green Shape criteria. What’s more, the few that existed were far more expensive than conventional materials. Some producers refused to participate due to the additional costs entailed by audits. The VAUDE sales team also received feedback from retailers that there was hardly any demand for eco-friendly products among consumers. And the banks, too, dismissed the company’s ambitious plans as “rubbish” that would never bring in any money.
“There were serious conflicts at all levels in the first few years,” Antje von Dewitz recounts.
But with a clear vision and plenty of discussions and training sessions, things began to inch forward. An interdisciplinary sustainability team led by Jan Lorch, Sales & CSR Manager at VAUDE, introduced the various departments to sustainable thinking and always worked to find feasible solutions. The success also came because all departments cooperated hand in hand to implement the initially challenging Green Shape criteria.
Over time, however, more and more customers grew interested in an ecological VAUDE collection. In 2011, VAUDE collaborated with Sport Scheck to roll out the first Green Shape areas on sales floors. “That felt really great, and it was an important affirmation of the path we were taking,” Antje von Dewitz recalls. Green Shape turned out to be a success story – consumer interest in eco-friendly outdoor products had been piqued.
Bumps on the road to PFC-free outdoor gear
There were several enormous challenge to overcome in the history of Green Shape. One example: polyfluorinated and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), also known as fluorocarbons, which are critical in textile production. Because they aren’t biodegradable, they reach the ecosystem via our wastewater and accumulate in organisms along the food chain, including in our own bodies. What’s more, they are suspected of being carcinogenic.
Being aware of these problems, we began working to remove PFCs from our collection in 2010. We started by replacing all PFC-containing waterproof membranes used in our rain wear, for example, with PFC-free alternatives. But the real problem was in the waterproof finish on the outer fabrics ensuring the water-beading effect. There wasn’t a single viable alternative on the market at the time, so we conducted extensive experiments with our partners in order to rid the collection of PFCs. There was no successful breakthrough at first, though.
Only with the Detox Campaign launched by Greenpeace, a high-profile call for the textile industry to stop using all hazardous and environmentally harmful chemicals, did the decisive pressure develop on the whole industry, and with it the impetus for more rapid innovation. In 2016, VAUDE became the first large outdoor brand to sign the Greenpeace Detox Commitment. In doing so, we voluntarily committed to eliminating eleven harmful substances from our supply chain by 2020 and to reporting extensively on our progress.
After a grueling phase with real marathon testing, we arrived at our first promising results. In close cooperation with our chemical supplier, we created the various PFC-free waterproofing substances that have since come to be known as our Eco Finish. In 2015, Eco Finish became yet another criterion for products to receive the Green Shape seal. In 2018 – far earlier than anticipated – we finally succeeded in releasing an entirely PFC-free VAUDE apparel collection.
State-regulated Grüner Knopf seal for all Green Shape products
As a medium-sized family business, it was not always easy to change the parameters of our industry alone, especially in terms of the supply chain and textile production. Antje von Dewitz and her management colleagues long sought to pursue a common approach for the sector as a whole and build political support. It was only natural, then, when VAUDE became a founding member of the German government’s Partnership for Sustainable Textiles in 2014. “That was a great chance to drive change through joint action,” von Dewitz says. For the first time, the Federal Government, the textile and apparel industry, retailers, trade unions, and civic institutions voluntarily pooled their expertise and resources with the goal of implementing internationally recognized environmental and social standards across the entire textile-production value chain more consistently than ever before.
All the while, work on the Green Shape standard continued apace. In 2015, the criteria initially developed for materials were extended to cover the entire production cycle. From the design to the materials and their manufacturing processes, on to the production locations, the use and maintenance of the product, and finally to its disposal in a manner as eco-friendly as possible. The share of Green Shape products continues to grow year after year. While you could count them on one hand in 2010, 100% of apparel in the 2020 collection received the Green Shape label, as did almost 90% of the remaining products.
2019 brought yet another triumph for the Green Shape concept. Under Development Minister Gerd Müller, the German government established the first state-regulated seal for textiles produced in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner – the Grüner Knopf (Green button). The seal was designed to enable consumers to make more informed purchases. Products with the Grüner Knopf must be manufactured in accordance with high environmental and social criteria laid out by the state. VAUDE played a central role in the creation and conceptual design of the Grüner Knopf.
It was especially gratifying when the Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), an agency commissioned by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), recognized Green Shape as the standard for the Grüner Knopf.
“That was a massive success and a valuable confirmation that we had taken the right path with the strict Green Shape criteria we had imposed on our own operations”, said CSR Manager Hilke Patzwall recently.
Closed-cycle thinking is at the heart of Green Shape
But VAUDE is not content to rest on its laurels: Green Shape was updated yet again with the 2022 summer collection. Every new Green Shape product must now consist mainly of recycled or biobased materials. This saves climate-damaging emissions and supports the development of a circular economy. Further obligatory criteria such as reparability, material efficiency, and recyclability all contribute to achieving this goal. And VAUDE is once again a pioneer in this area – hardly any other brand has incorporated these strict criteria into its product development process at all up to now.
But what exactly do the Green Shape criteria mean for the topic of reparability, an important prerequisite for sustainable products?
VAUDE developed its own repair index to ensure that reparability is already consistently taken into account throughout the product development process. This is why VAUDE bike bags, for instance, have buckles that can easily be switched out in no time. VAUDE has also offered its own repair service for years now, and the company cooperates with many repair cafés. In addition, VAUDE provides DIY repair instructions with replacement part orders on its own website, and on the online platform iFixit.
The product designers are also intensely reviewing how to ensure that as little waste as possible is created during production. Optimized material efficiency is key here: perfectly coordinated tailoring and design can prevent almost all excess waste. This saves valuable resources.
The topics of recycling and disposal are also new criteria. VAUDE products are conceived and designed to be reparable and to last as long as possible. But even the most functional, longest lasting, and most reparable product will one day reach the end of its life cycle. Textile recycling is unfortunately still in its infancy – thus far, only around 1% of all textiles are actually recycled. VAUDE is nevertheless anticipating progress with its Green Shape criteria. Hilke Patzwall explains:
“We’re already establishing criteria in product development for which materials and processing technologies are selected, since the ideal products for textile recycling should consist mainly of mono-materials that can easily be separated from one another.”
All materials are assessed according to their recyclability as well as the current status of the existing recycling infrastructure. For materials that are difficult or impossible to recycle (e.g. elastane or polyurethane), the product managers examine whether they are truly required for the product to function or if their proportion can at least be reduced. All of this is enshrined in the VAUDE Material Policy.
Climate protection thanks to a range of recycled materials
To fulfill not only the Green Shape criteria, but also our own ambitious climate targets, 90% of all VAUDE products are to have at least a 50% share of recycled or biobased material by 2024.
There is now a wide range of recycled and biobased materials available: whether recycled PET bottles, recycled coffee grounds, recycled fishnets, recycled down, or biobased fabrics produced from castor oil or corn. The latest innovation in this long list is the recycling of end-of-life tires to produce polyamide.
Mass balance processing makes it possible to use hard-to-recycle plastics such as end-of-life tires in the production of polyamide. The resulting sustainable polyamide is just as functional as the conventional kind, but it conserves around 60% in CO2 emissions during production! This material is now used in many of our apparel pieces, including trekking pants. As of the 2023 summer collection, it will also be used in backpacks and bike bags.
The Green Shape success story continues…
One thing is for sure: the Green Shape success story is far from over. The goal remains to make our products even more eco-friendly, to consistently reduce our ecological footprint, and to ensure that our ecosystem and climate are harmed less and less by the production of outdoor gear.
“We’re also aiming for an external accreditation to make Green Shape an environmental standard that is equally valuable and valid for all interest groups,” explains CSR Manager Hilke Patzwall. To this end, a Green Shape Advisory Board of external experts was founded recently to incorporate the independent expertise of scientists and representatives of consumer groups, retailers, the media and environmental groups in the further development and accreditation.
VAUDE CEO Antje von Dewitz is convinced that the Green Shape environmental standard is one of our most important tools for operating in a holistic and pioneering manner:
“We need to do everything in our power to preserve natural resources for future generations. That’s exactly what has been motivating me and all of us at VAUDE for many years now: doing business in a sustainable and forward-thinking manner while actively standing up for the climate – for the future of our children and the future of our planet.”
You can find more information about our eco-friendly Green Shape products here. And if you want to delve further into how our environmental standard works in detail and all the criteria we take into account, head over to our Sustainability Report.