Interview with Stefanie Buchacher, Head of Corporate Sustainability at Sport Conrad

Stefanie Buchacher is the Head of Corporate Sustainability for Sport Conrad. We talked to her about her work, learnings, plans, goals, and what sustainability means to her personally.

“We know that our greatest impact is not in our original business activities but in the upstream and downstream stages of the value chain […]”

What does sustainability mean to you?

Stefanie Buchacher: Specialist literature puts it well: sustainability is the balance between ecology, social issues, and economy, or ‘not satisfying today’s needs at the expense of future generations.’ We, as industrialized nations (Global North), currently live and work not only at the expense of future generations but also at the expense of current nations, the Global South – and we produce incredible amounts of emissions and waste. To me, sustainability means prosperity that is globally balanced. It also means that we manage existing resources and keep them in cycles – neither at the expense of the planet nor at the cost of the people of various nations – For a livable present and a livable future. The good thing is that we can shape this future!

What motivates you to work in sustainability?

SB: Impact starts with I. To put it simply, I want to make a difference, shape things and be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We must understand that we are all part of nature and that we are destroying our livelihood with our behavior. I love the mountains and I am fascinated of our nature with its harsh conditions, wilderness, and power. I am shocked by the climatic changes and the dramatic consequences of climate change. At the same time, I am convinced that we have the greatest opportunity for a more sustainable way of doing business, which is why I work in the outdoor industry – to contribute my passion and willingness for change.

What would you rate as your most successful measure for more sustainability in the last years, and why?

SB: Within my company, I would say to have planted a seed of rethinking growth. I believe that it is incredibly important to take all (or at least a large part of) the employees of a company with you to inspire and empower them to act and take responsibility. Sustainability cannot be implemented alone; every smallest effort makes a difference in the aggregate. As an owner-managed family business, we always have the next generation or generations in mind. But let’s be honest: we, as an outdoor/sports retailer, sell products that mostly can’t be recycled. We consume energy; we create waste and emissions – that’s not sustainable. So, what are the options? Stop doing business or change something? We chose the second. To be focused and effective, we have developed an ambitious sustainability roadmap with emission reduction targets. Our aspiration is to avoid and reduce emissions – and to compensate for unavoidable emissions. We calculate our carbon footprint annually – and we know that our greatest impact is not in our original business activities but in the upstream and downstream stages of the value chain and primarily indirectly through our product range. That’s why we are switching our product range to a more innovative and sustainable selection, and, above all, to durable, long-life products (made from recycled materials, renewable raw materials, etc.). Also, we have introduced a second-hand model and have already tested the rental of outdoor clothing. And together with various manufacturers, we are testing the possibility of taking back products and putting them into the recycling loop.

The key is collaboration within the industry because there is no competition when it comes to sustainability. The more we create as an industry (and as a society), the better it is for all of us! We need to work collaboratively and depend on each other. That’s what I see as success: collaboration in the industry. Change towards a sustainable future is the common ground here – exchange with other retailers without competition and with manufacturers to drive improvements throughout the value chain. And on the other side are the customers: here, it is part of our responsibility as retailers to educate, inform, raise awareness, and motivate us to consume consciously. To drive this change boldly and effectively, we need to broaden our perspective and mindset. The change we seek requires collaboration.

How did you become a sustainability manager?

SB: I originally studied journalism and media communications and worked in the fashion industry in editorial and PR offices for various brands and retailers. My responsibilities always included promoting seasonally changing trends. At some point, I questioned the meaningfulness of that and I additionally experienced it as challenging to not be empowered to work or create independently in these positions. My two children also changed my perspective on my own behaviors as well as on our way of doing business. During my second parental leave, I started another course of study on sustainability management part-time alongside raising the kids and later on my job. I wanted to apply my knowledge professionally, so I first switched to a sustainability consultancy and, finally, to the outdoor industry.

What are you doing to make your own life more sustainable?

SB: I believe there is no such thing as more sustainable – you can only make the decision to live more responsibly and, above all, more consciously. And that includes weighing the pros and cons carefully: what do I really need? What can I do without, and how can this renunciation give me a better life and greater freedom? In daily life, this can be seen in small things: less packaging and garbage or organic products. The last time I went on vacation by plane was in 2010. If possible, I refrain from driving and use the bicycle — but to managecompletely without a car is difficult to manage for a family living in a very rural area. When I’m in the mountains or out walking, I collect trash. And since 2020, I have had a climate subscription from ForTomorrow. The start-up uses subscription fees or donations to buy CO2 trading certificates from the market and decommission them: this way, sooner or later, emission- intensive companies are forced to transform. And on the other hand, trees are planted in Germany, thus actively binding CO2 from the air.

What’s something new you learned in the past year?

SB: I am learning something new almost every day because my job involves breaking new ground and moving out of my comfort zone. I’ve learned to be brave and stand up for my ideals. Because if you want to question and change the status quo, you have to be courageous enough to ask uncomfortable questions and you have to tolerate not always meeting advocates and supporters but also encountering obstacles and resistant people.

What do you think companies lack to become better at sustainability?

SB: In business, the key targets are growth and profit. Yes, companies must operate profitably – but it must not be at the expense of people and the planet. That’s not how a circular system works. It has a completely different approach than the linear way of thinking. The circular economy can help to solve our problems today. Another very important aspect of collaboration and cooperation is sharing knowledge. I think that’s how nature works, too: with feedback loops and the distribution of knowledge. In addition, fortunately, there is an increasing shift in thinking and with that purpose-oriented movements and economic forms – for example, B-Corps or companies that work for the common good. A great role model is Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, who transferred his company to a charitable foundation last year, and made his assets available for environmental protection.

What do you think the world needs most to combat global warming and pollution?

SB: At a recent conference, I heard the following saying: you can’t make the devil greener. We need to stop glossing over outdated business models and start a transformation: we need to change how we extract our energy, stop subsidizing climate-damaging business models and we need to adapt our mobility and consumption habits. Sustainability and profit are not contradictory. We must always ask ourselves: what impact do my actions have on the planet and our ecosystem? We need to understand that we are acting as part of a living system – and this learning needs to happen quickly now.

 

What’s the biggest thing hindering you from implementing changes for more sustainability?

SB: There is not one big obstacle. For one thing, we need to change our politics and our economy – and we also need social change. For real change, we need a critical mass. The paradox: change scares and fear blocks. A big hurdle is the attitude-behavior gap – the wide gap between “saying” and “doing.” And also, we need a new understanding as a society, moving away from egocentrism to public spirit – and in doing so, we need to broaden our view: We often think too much in terms of specialties without a view of the broad systemic impacts that our actions might have on our ecosystems or our society. We need a better systemic understanding of the interconnections in nature.

If you had one wish from a legislative point of view to make your job easier – what would you wish for?

SB: When you think about heat waves, climate change, and species extinction, it’s obvious that we need to respond now. Many carry on as usual and governments are slow to change regulations. But we don’t have time. We need a post-competitive environment where innovation and a new narrative of a livable and circular future can emerge. We need forward-looking legislation that drives innovation and rewards actions beneficial to the climate. And we need more transparency and credibility, especially regarding the sustainability of products – here, I see the EU’s Green Claims Initiative as an important step to promote truly more sustainable products and with that conscious consumption and to penalize greenwashing. I also see the CSRD, the corporate social reporting directive, as an important step that obliges companies to report transparently on their own sustainability management and to shed light on both the risk and opportunity perspectives.

 

If you had one wish from your supervisor or colleagues to make your work easier – what would you wish for?

SB: Sustainability management is a cross-functional discipline and impacts the entire company regardless of departments and hierarchies. My wish is to break down thinking in silos and promote interdisciplinary exchanges and changes of perspective. And my wish would be to talk about fears – because from the moment we talk about our fears, we can start developing solutions. Change is fun, especially when everyone participates. We can shape our future.

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