Interview: Christiane Nicolaus and Armin Scharf



At its headquarters near Tettnang in Baden-Württemberg, Vaude has been climate-neutral since as far back as 2012. The outdoor brand is in the process of gradually switching its product portfolio to recycled or bio-based materials. We spoke to head of design Mario Schlegel and innovation manager René Bethmann about cooperation between technology and design, supply chains and the challenge of observing and evaluating innovations so as to ultimately get them off the ground with their partners. And: just because something looks sustainable doesn’t mean it really is sustainable.

By the way, the company passes its experience on as well: with the recently established Vaude Academy, it has created a tool for showing companies and institutions from other industries strategies for more sustainability.

Photo: Design Center Baden-Württemberg
It’s often said that technology and design teams don’t always see eye to eye. How does that work out at Vaude, a company that is totally committed to sustainability?
MARIO SCHLEGEL: Technology is impossible without design, and the reverse is true as well: in order to design I always need technology. As a designer, I also have to be willing to accept that, every once in a while, the technology team will say something can’t be done the way I’d like. But that’s not a problem for me.

RENÉ BETHMANN: Ultimately we create a symbiosis of visible sustainability and actual sustainability. That symbiosis is the goal, but obviously the path that leads to it isn’t that simple. We have no shortage of creative ideas, but we evaluate each and every one of them very precisely. A textile with irregularities might look sustainable, but that doesn’t automatically mean that it really is sustainable. That frequently leads to intense discussions between the design team and us engineers, but basically we get along really well.
That brings us to the big question: how important is if for a product to make its sustainable character visible?
RENÉ BETHMANN: At the end of the day the customer should be able to see that a product is sustainable, without having to read a long text. Achieving that remains a major challenge.

MARIO SCHLEGEL: As the person in charge of design, my opinion is that sustainability is a quality that you have to be able to see, but not always and not everywhere. Today sustainability isn’t about sheepskin, it’s about finding alternatives that can replace petroleum-based materials. The new materials meet the functional requirements and are more sustainable, but look almost identical. That’s why it’s important for our collection to have a few products that stand out and visualise their sustainability in an unmistakable way. Then those beacon products provide support for the rest of the portfolio, which is no less sustainable.

Photos: Armin Scharf
Given that it’s such a strong brand, does Vaude actually still need to visualise sustainability at all?
RENÉ BETHMANN: It’s not the case that everybody equates Vaude with sustainability. We’re strongly represented in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but we’re not that well known in other markets. That’s why it’s important for the product to radiate a certain emotionality. If I use sustainable materials to create a one-to-one copy of an established product and people can’t see it, the customer doesn’t actually get anything out of it to start with. It doesn’t deliver any added value, except for a better feeling when they read the label and see what’s gone into making it. But with an attractive design we can make the product attractive at an emotional level, which ideally results in greater engagement. That’s the most important sustainability criterion of all: using a product for as long as possible.
How can all that be translated into a strategy?
RENÉ BETHMANN: We have clearly defined corporate goals that we refine on a regular basis. We use our corporate goals as the basis for deriving our innovation roadmaps for the coming years. We underpin the topics defined in those roadmaps with corresponding technologies. It’s not a one-person thing: here at Vaude, everybody is welcome to contribute. Every voice is heard, that’s what’s special about our company. Everything is evaluated and can be incorporated into our roadmaps.

Photo: Armin Scharf 

Essentially, the innovation areas fall into two major sectors. The comfort and ergonomics category covers the field of sports science and product development. The second area focuses on sustainable materials, which we call green materials. Here the focus is on finding alternatives to fossil-based materials. Turning away from oil is easier said than done: because we use a lot of synthetic materials it’s actually very complex. In order to achieve a genuine transformation, we don’t rely on one technology alone; there are several pillars to our approach. And they have to be scalable and a fit with our philosophy.
Vaude doesn’t make these materials, it processes them. How do you find suppliers who are willing to go along with the roadmap?
RENÉ BETHMANN: Unlike many of our competitors, we don’t just talk to our direct suppliers; we go further than that, all the way along the line to the companies that produce the raw materials, because that’s where we see the new technologies and solutions that we’ll need in future. Then we try to bring this level of the chain together with our direct suppliers. I have to admit that it was extremely challenging to begin with because we’re not the kind of company that can invest millions in a new technology. But for us, it’s not about exclusivity, it’s about new technologies catching on in a big way. That also makes it easier for us to scale them to our own needs. In the meantime our partners have come to realise that our ideas work and enhance their own portfolio as well.

Photo: Armin Scharf
René Bethmann, innovation manager 

Do you use a fixed matrix to evaluate innovations?
RENÉ BETHMANN: A matrix is good for gathering experience and expertise. But right now technologies are evolving at an incredibly rapid pace, a lot of new issues and topics are being added, and that means you have to stay flexible and adapt your system accordingly. That’s why a fixed innovation process would be more of a hindrance than a help, although orientation – in the sense of roadmaps – is definitely necessary: innovation simply doesn’t work without any guidelines at all.
Isn’t your Green Shape label that kind of matrix?
RENÉ BETHMANN: It’s fair to say that Green Shape is our key tool for ecodesign: it takes all aspects into consideration and defines the requirement criteria. If certain criteria aren’t met, we know it will be difficult to use that particular technology or material. But at the same time, we always look at cases like that with an eye to how we can develop them in the Green Shape direction. At the end of the day, Green Shape is a living process that has to incorporate the state of the art.

And by the way: we’re in the process of having Green Shape externally accredited so that it can become a registered standard that other firms can adopt as well.

Photo: Vaude
So flexibility takes priority over fixed procedures?
RENÉ BETHMANN: When you’re dealing with recurring tasks you need defined procedures – in production, for example. And we have that kind of process management too. We’ve established fixed definitions of the processes with the people who work there. It’s very important to us for that to take place internally. But wherever creativity is called for, fixed processes tend to be a hindrance.
How does Vaude’s design department work?
MARIO SCHLEGEL: Right now there are 18 people on the team, 14 of whom are designers. Roughly speaking, the work is split between clothing and hardware. Hardware covers everything that isn’t worn directly on the body, from tents all the way to backpacks. We define our guidelines ourselves. In 2015 we developed a design language that correlates with our corporate goals and the brand. Right now we’re revising it because everything is speeding up. Back then we touched on a lot of things like repairability and material efficiency. But in the meantime, thanks to detailed analysis, we’re able to elaborate on those aspects in a more concrete way.

Photo: Design Center Baden-Württemberg
Mario Schlegel, head of design 

And what does the process look like in concrete terms?
MARIO SCHLEGEL: We get together with product management and look at the gaps and weaknesses, draw up a brief, fine-tune everything with sales and marketing – and then the classic design work starts. That’s also the point when our colleagues from the innovation team get involved and contribute new solution strategies. Our approach to maintaining the collection is also driven by sustainability considerations: we’re gradually adapting a great many products in terms of the materials we use. And if I’m going to change a material, I may as well think about what else I can optimise while I’m at it.

RENÉ BETHMANN: One interesting project is the Novum 3D, the prototype of a backpack that consists of a completely new material. Rather than a textile fabric, we use a foil that’s fused. And the back pads are 3D-printed. That’s a totally new approach. At first glance it doesn’t look more sustainable, but it is because the foil is a mono-material, which means it’s easier to recycle.

Photos: Vaude
Foils and films are often used for packaging as well. What’s your position on that?
RENÉ BETHMANN: That’s something we’ve been working on for years and we’ve looked at the issue from all sides. Our packaging has to serve a certain purpose: products that are manufactured in Asia shouldn’t get damaged during shipping, for instance. At the moment we’re switching to films made of recycled raw materials. We’re also working on a consistent collection pathway for our industry based on the fact that these packaging films are mono-materials: they’re easier to recycle if they’re collected separately. Our paper and card packaging materials are FSC-certified and recyclable. None of all that is really optimal, but alternatives have to be genuinely more sustainable.

MARIO SCHLEGEL: That’s a great subject for illustrating the conflict between design and engineering. Our colleagues can work out and explain exactly why a certain kind of packaging is the right one. But the customer can’t actually see it when they look at something like a plastic film. People are always critical of a plastic bag, but I can hardly spell out the whole chain of reasoning to each and every buyer. There are certainly materials that are a lot more convincing in terms of customer appeal.
Let’s go back to the design side of things. In your opinion, how can design ensure repairability?
MARIO SCHLEGEL: Within the design team, we’ve developed a catalogue of internal guidelines for making a product easier to repair. First and foremost that means reduction, because something that isn’t there in the first place can’t break. And we think in modular terms so that individual parts can be replaced rather than the product as a whole being broken. We use as many readily available standard and spare parts as possible. And one really important aspect is that, together with our in-house repair workshop, we identify where there are weak points and what concrete steps we can take to eliminate them.

RENÉ BETHMANN: If the components are easy to separate, the different materials are easy to return to the loop via specific recycling paths. That’s a nice side effect and an exciting aspect of repairability.

Photo: Armin Scharf 
Do designers need more expertise with regard to sustainability?
MARIO SCHLEGEL: Yes! For me, it’s what happens before and after the product that’s important. As a designer I can influence which material it’s made of, which process is used, what kind of footprint is latent in the production methods available. And at the end of its useful life – which hopefully means after lots of repair cycles – it’s a question of where the product goes from there. It’s absolutely vital for designers to look at that, even if it’s uncomfortable. And not just in terms of the technical aspects, but from a social perspective as well. It’s simply not enough to design things that are only attractive and functional – that’s been the case for a long time now.

Here at Vaude we get a lot of training and have all the information available to us, which makes it very convenient for us. But when we involve external designers, we obviously expect them to have the corresponding expertise as well. Freelance designers need to act on their own initiative to keep their knowledge and knowhow up to date.

RENÉ BETHMANN: There’s definitely a need for new skills geared towards holistic design. That includes things like being able to do a rough life cycle assessment in order to estimate the impacts. And you have to be in dialogue with institutions, research, suppliers and upstream supply chains. Trade fairs and conferences play a hugely important role in that. It’s certainly a challenge, but it’s also fun to learn new skills. And yes, studying the literature is part of it as well.
So is it important to establish contacts with research and development?
RENÉ BETHMANN: Collaborating with external partners is indispensable. Even basic research can be interesting because it contributes to a better general understanding. We need that in order to assess what’s feasible and where it’s worth investing our energy. For us it’s always a learning process, and the same is true the other way round, because researchers get an insight into our perspective on products and the market. The research projects with the biggest chances of success are always those in which partners along the entire value chain are involved. At the end of the day, everybody has a commercial interest in the technology becoming established.

Photos: Vaude
One last question: how should an SME go about making progress in terms of sustainability?
RENÉ BETHMANN: What matters is that management wants this development and supports it. At the same time, the entire workforce has to be included in this transformation process so that everybody can get behind it. Transparency is vital: if you can’t answer critical questions, you leave yourself open to attack. Through knowledge building and a continual learning process, by being agile and dynamic, you can evaluate new technologies better and argue the case for them to the outside world. Ultimately, every company has to define sustainability for itself.

MARIO SCHLEGEL: I think a lot of firms are afraid of doing something wrong. But becoming sustainable is relative, not absolute. I can only ever try to do what I do in a better way. In order to reduce its ecological footprint, a company has to identify and define the areas where it can make adjustments. And of course you have to be willing to venture into new territory.


The company was founded by Albrecht von Dewitz in 1974, with alpine backpacks numbering among its first products. In 1980 the company moved to Obereisenbach near Tettnang and began gradually expanding its product range. In 2001, the Vaude-Kinderhaus childcare centre was opened in cooperation with the City of Tettnang and the company began producing in accordance with the Bluesign eco-standard. Antje von Dewitz has headed the company since 2009 and has mapped out a consistent path to sustainability. The company’s Obereisenbach site achieved climate neutrality in 2012 and the entire product range has been climate-neutral since 2022. Unavoidable emissions are currently offset via the nonprofit organisation myclimate. In 2015, the company was awarded “Leader” status by the Fair Wear Foundation for its fair production conditions in the Far East.   

Source: Vaude
Vaude Sport GmbH & Co. KG’s headquarters in Tettnang

Source: Vaude

If you’d like to find out more about Vaude’s integrated sustainability strategy, click on the following link: