Businesses today are grappling with how to transition into more sustainable operations. WARC speaks to Nathaniel Gregory, Decathlon’s services and sustainability leader, about how the designer and distributor of sports products made its sustainability journey and what advice it can give to other brands that want to follow suit.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on conscious consumerism in Southeast Asia. Read more

Key insights

  • Decathlon’s strategies for sustainable development from 2020-2026 involve the objectives of Developing People, Preserving Nature and Creating Sustainable Value.
  • The company is committed to extending the lifecycle of its products through reparation or giving them a second life, as well as targeting zero product waste by 2026.
  • Sustainability efforts need to be supported by the C-suite to ease decision-making – the I say-I do ratio can increase dramatically by placing leaders in these strategic positions.
Over the last few years, Decathlon has made strides towards a greener future through various sustainable initiatives. Tell us about the transition and what kind of impact it has had – not just for the environment but on the business?

Decathlon is actively making strides towards a greener future through various initiatives. We are one of the 21 companies involved in the Net Zero initiative, a scheme which proposes a unique framework for private sector action in favour of the only carbon neutrality objective. Its fundamental belief is that companies must maximise their contribution to reducing emissions and increasing global sinks by acting on three levers in parallel:

  • By reducing their direct and indirect footprint by following a 1.5°C compatible trajectory.
  • By helping others to reduce their own emissions.
  • By removing carbon from the atmosphere through sinks – both in and out of their value chain.

In order to do so, Decathlon has decided to create a Transition Plan with strategies for sustainable development from 2020-2026 – supported by three pillars of objectives, namely Developing People, Preserving Nature and Creating Sustainable Value.

Playing our role as a designer and distributor of sports products, it is our responsibility to reduce our CO2 emissions in line with the recommendations of the scientific world. We are convinced that the best way to do this is to adopt a scientifically recognised trajectory. Aligning our vision with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, our brand has decided to adhere to the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi), which has validated the alignment of Decathlon’s goals concerning scopes 1 and 2 with the global path to limit warming to 1.5°C, which is the IPCC’s most ambitious baseline scenario, requiring global carbon neutrality to be reached by 2050.

Its climate commitments as follow:

  • To reduce by 90% absolute scopes 1 and 2** GHG emissions (tCO2e) by 2026 from a 2016 base year.
  • To reduce by 53% scopes 1, 2 and 3*** GHG emissions intensity (tCO2e/Eur value added) over the same time frame.
  • To engage 90% of suppliers by emissions covering purchased goods and services in having Science-Based Targets by 2026.

Scopes 1 and 2 are direct emissions from operations that are owned or controlled by Decathlon and indirect emissions from the generation of purchased or acquired electricity, steam, heating or cooling consumed by Decathlon.

Scope 3 includes other emissions occurring from sources owned or controlled by other entities in the value chain (eg, purchased raw materials, components, products and services, employees and clients travel, upstream and downstream transport of goods, management of waste generated by Decathlon's activities, use and end-of-life of products and services sold, capitalisation of production goods and equipment).

To support this initiative, we are creating a circular economy to realise our goals in a three-pronged approach.

  1. The brand is committed to achieving 100% of products conceived with an eco-design approach by 2026. Some examples of eco-designed products are textiles and equipment made from recycled polyester, organic cotton, recycled rubber, recycled plastics and recycled cotton.
  2. We are committed to extending the lifecycle of the product through reparation or giving the products a second life. Workshop services are available in Decathlon stores for repairable products such as bikes and scooters. These products are checked and certified by our skilled technicians as safe to use so that customers can enjoy their rides without throwing them away. This falls in line with Singapore’s Green Plan 2030 where cycling networks will be tripled by 2030, increasing the ease of eco-mobility.

    Decathlon is also committed to zero product waste by 2026. In SEA, the second life initiative has been launched where defective products from returns or testing have been checked and inspected by Decathlon teammates before being put on sale as a second life product. Second life products are offered at a discount and are a pocket-friendly option for sports customers who believe in extending the lifecycle of a product.

  3. Lastly, we are recycling plastics, cardboards and metal waste generated from its operations with recycling partners and reducing single-use plastic in its logistics and e-commerce operations. We have engaged companies like Plaspulp & Paptic to provide upcycle or alternative solutions to single-use plastic.
  4. To encourage our community to be a part of this transition, we feel that it is crucial for us to make sustainability the overarching value in the brand. Our team has plans to consult an ecosystem of open dialogue and governance about sustainability at the workplace, running on understanding and integrity – led by a specialist committee dedicated to sustainable development, governing the sustainability issues between our stakeholders, administrators and suppliers.

    What advice can you give to brands on how to think through and “operationalise” different elements of sustainability?
    • Ensure proper planning and follow-through

    Sustainability initiatives can be overwhelming if the discernment process is not done thoroughly. It's really crucial to have an execution-impact matrix which will define your key priorities and to tackle them a few initiatives at a time as the process of implementation may vary.

    We recommend that the implementation process is kept easy and simple, ensuring that this process is integrated into the everyday roles of employees. Something as simple as consolidating plastics can be challenging if we do not identify the right resources to undertake this task. We also strongly believe that meaningful actions create the biggest changes at an organisational level, so it is imperative to debrief the results achieved so that employees know that they are a significant part of the sustainable transformation.

    • Learn from the experts

    Sustainability is also a team game where there is an opportunity in the ecosystem to leverage on. Choosing the right partners for the right projects can go a long way in ensuring that the brand’s sustainability efforts are really sustainable. We recommend that the brand’s internal sustainability team work alongside and learn from external partners if the brand intends to scale at speed. The sustainability community should ideally be a closely knit one that is willing to share, exchange and be receptive to new ideas.

    Our best advice is to be courageous enough to start a sustainable trend. Go against the grain if you believe that the initiative will really create a sustainable impact. At Decathlon, we made the decision to sell recycled bags in place of giving out free bags and our customers loved it.

    • Trust is the name of the game

    As a brand, we understand that customers can make or break the business, so it's important to truly communicate what the brand is really doing so as to gain the customer’s trust and confidence. At Decathlon Singapore, customers can learn more about the brand’s sustainability efforts and commitment on our website dedicated to sustainability.

    • Sustainable mentality starts from the top

    Lastly and most importantly, sustainability efforts need to be highly encouraged and supported by the C-suite level of management in order to ease and increase the pace of decision-making. The I say-I do ratio can increase drastically by placing leaders in these strategic positions.

    E-commerce is becoming a big business worldwide but it usually prioritises speed over more conscious consumption. How has Decathlon balanced customer promise, operational excellence and business reality?

    We believe that preserving the planet and its population protects our purpose: to make sports accessible to the many. Integrating quality and affordability creates long-lasting products and this is the first step toward sustainability for us. We do not just innovate to create the best gear for you; we innovate to pursue sustainable practices for everyone.

    As part of our efforts to encourage conscious consumption from our product design stage up until the last-mile delivery, we are always looking into our existing products and infusing sustainability into their designs. We looked into how we could better minimise redundancy on the design while not compromising quality and build.

    For example, we discovered that by cutting the number of stitching panels from 21 to eight on a particular backpack design, not only will less material be needed on fewer assembly lines but the number of articles shipped per box would also increase. Reduced packaging and waste help the environment while also lowering costs for our consumers.

    Extending to our supply chain, we also make sure our manufacturing and logistics sectors are always reducing waste and improving our eco-footprint. The Decathlon two-hour delivery promise was determined with sustainability as a big part of our considerations. We try to strategise and plan our deliveries most effectively and efficiently to reduce our carbon footprint. Each delivery van carries up to 50 parcels per trip instead of individual deliveries to individual customers. This reduces our carbon emissions and footprint.

    How can local markets balance global commitments to sustainability with on-the-ground realities, especially in Southeast Asia? What guidance can Decathlon give marketers?

    Southeast Asia is still a developing region, with the potential to become a green superpower. While specificities differ from country to country, we recommend for each organisation to define its level of autonomy rendered across several sustainability topics across three levels – globally, regionally and locally.

    We strongly recommend giving local teams the autonomy to head the sustainability efforts, which will empower them to undertake local sustainability specificities that are more relevant to each country. Coupled with this autonomy given to various teams, we also believe that the feedback loop both up and downstream is important to keep the on-the-ground activities and efforts aligned with the overarching brand’s sustainable vision.

    At Decathlon, we communicate our local sustainability targets, relevant to our product range choices, with our regional teams so that they are then able to help us improve our eco-design offer. This is an example of an initiative that can be started at the regional level to guide local teams in making autonomous decisions.

    Decathlon is slated to launch “Second Life” that will feature products that have been repaired or have minimal defects. How open are consumers in Southeast Asia towards buying secondhand goods or is this a behaviour that Decathlon is still looking to educate consumers about?

    We stand by the belief that too much is thrown away these days and materials are going to waste, instead of being repaired or reused. Dedicated to being sustainable, the Second Life initiative sees no reason why these items can’t still be enjoyed by sports lovers. The products still work but more often than not, they cannot be sold because they are not “brand new”.

    As thrifting is starting to have its following amongst the youth of Singapore, the brand is at the forefront of the sporting industry in bringing this practice to sports lovers of every level. With more people opting to lease second life to the products, there is less demand for new production, reducing waste incurred. According to the National Environment Agency, 168 tonnes of textile and leather waste were generated by Singaporeans in 2019, of which only six tonnes were recycled. The clothing that ends up in our landfill is normally made of synthetic fabric fibres and will never decompose.

    With the Second Life scheme, we aim to reduce the waste generated by one-time uses of our products, especially when they are still in good condition. Furthermore, with the lower price tag thanks to the secondhand nature, more people would be able to get their hands on these products, making sports even more accessible for everyone, a goal we always envisaged.