Global sporting goods retailer Decathlon is nearing the finishing line on a decade-long project that will see all textile and footwear items labelled with their environmental impact by the end of next year. The data is also enabling more eco-friendly design – and will be made freely available to other companies, as Raffaele Duby, sustainable development leader for product and design, tells just-style.
With around 1,352 stores in 39 countries, 82,000 employees, a total turnover of EUR11bn (US$12.5bn) last year, and 250m customers, France-based Decathlon is one of the largest sporting goods retailers in the world.
Yet the group is acutely aware that with this scale also comes a responsibility to reduce its impact on the environment, the “outdoor playground” where its customers spend so much of their time.
To help shoppers evaluate their purchases more responsibly, Decathlon took the first steps towards environmental labelling back in 2009. Since then it has slowly but steadily been labelling products with a rating of A to E based on a Life Cycle Assessment approach to show at-a-glance the environmental impact of individual products – and how one item stacks up against another.
By autumn/winter 2017, just over 16% of all textile, footwear and heavy stitching products (such as backpacks, tents and sleeping bags) sold online had been rated, with this almost doubling to 30% – around 1,500 products – for autumn/winter 2018, Raffaele Duby explains.
With momentum now accelerating, Decathlon is planning to roll out the initiative within its stores in France from spring/summer 2019 – by which time around half of products will have been evaluated. And by autumn/winter 2019, all textile, footwear and heavy stitching items will carry environmental labelling.
A member of Decathlon’s sustainability team, Raffaele Duby is also in charge of the retailer’s wider eco-design initiative, which encourages the design teams take environmental issues into account at the beginning of the creative process – especially by using raw materials that come from more sustainable sources.
In turn, product and component eco-design is a key component of the company’s latest 10-year plan, Vision 2026, with the goal of reducing the environmental impact of products throughout their entire life cycle.
Decathlon has already pledged that all textile products sold in France will be made from polyester from more sustainable sources by the end of 2021, and that it will only use only sustainably produced cotton by 2020.
“One of the challenges was to embed these actions in our environmental strategy,” Raffaele Duby explains. “The best way was to show the consumer what we were doing, and make a link with our design and help customers to get more involved in the environment.”
The company settled on the A-to-E performance rating – with ‘A’ being the least impactful on the environment – because it is easy to understand and already used on household electrical appliances and in the automobile industry.
But while the simplicity of the A, B, C, D or E rating to compare similar products, such as T-shirts or trousers, has “reduced the complexity for our customers,” it has also “made the methodology more difficult for us. Behind each letter we have had to make a choice: how to compare, how to create the data, the database, then translate this to another value for comparison.”
In order to calculate environmental impacts – such as climate change (greenhouse gas emissions), depletion of resources, water and air pollution, and electricity consumption – they have to be evaluated across each and every step of the product lifecycle, from raw materials, production, transport, retail, use, and end of life.
Each product is then attributed a value for each different indicator, and also a global score. So, for example, two T-shirts obtain a score by comparing them with the entire range of T-shirts. A T-shirt rated ‘A’ will have the lowest impact, and a T-shirt rated ‘E’ will have the highest impact.
Decathlon has worked on the project with several French government agencies – including the Association Française de Normalisation (AFNOR), the French organisation for standardisation; le Ministère de la Transition Écologique et Solidaire (the Ministry for Ecological and Inclusive Transition); and ADEME (the French Environment and Energy Management Agency) – as part of a wider national pilot on environmental labelling of consumer products in a number of different sectors, including textiles.
These initiatives have defined common standards, compiled a public database, and created automatic calculation tools for environmental impact to ensure the results are consistent and comparable between products in the same family. The retailer’s role has been to add industry-specific information on textile life cycles, which in turn have been verified by an independent third-party.
Crucially, the database is also being made freely available to other companies who want to share the environmental impact of their products.
“The goal was to make it easy for everybody to evaluate in the same way,” Raffaele Duby says. Translating environmental impact “into something useful for the buying act involves evaluating the components, then the finished product. We add information on the lifecycle, the transportation, the end of life, then we make the calculation.”
Integration into design tools
For Decathlon, the next step has been to integrate the data into its design tools, enabling the design teams to model – and ultimately take steps to reduce – the environmental impacts of products. Over the longer term, this process should also encourage a continuous improvement in environmental performance.
“From the outset, my point of view has been to integrate the environment in the design process…and integrate it from the very beginning.”
Decathlon Group owns more than 70 brands covering sports ranging from cycling, fishing, fitness, horse riding and golf, to running, swimming and mountaineering. Its designers can therefore make a big difference by choosing inputs with less impact on the water, soil and air and by selecting more sustainable materials. Its database currently includes almost 15,000 textile components, of which more than 8,500 have undergone an environmental impact assessment.
The evaluation process has to be undertaken individually for all items “because we want to show the difference between two products to provide information to make the right choice.
“The way we do it is evaluate all the components separately: every fabric is evaluated by a component engineer, and we bring that into the product design part, so when they do the bill of materials they select the component and the quantity used, and everything is evaluated automatically.”
At the material level, “we’re looking at the fibres, the yarn, then the way it is knitted or woven, the dyeing, the quantity of cutting waste. For now it’s more an average woven factory, average knitting, but in the future we want to collect the quantity of energy used by all our suppliers, and also the kind of energy.”
That said, around one-third of products are carried over from one season to the next, “so some of the products we have already evaluated will be there; we are not starting from scratch every single season.”
And unlike a fashion retailer, the business still operates to two distinct seasons, spring/summer and autumn/winter, when new product goes into stores. “We are now evaluating the product line for spring/summer next year.”
A better letter
Raffaele Duby acknowledges that the scoring system has already created pressure from product managers for “a better letter” if they see items assigned a lower ‘D’ or ‘E’ score at the design stage.
“But we will not change every product in one year; there will be some ‘E’ product, some ‘D’ product. In fact, the ‘E’ product adds value to the labelling because it shows we are making it transparently and not trying to hide anything – which might be the case if we only had ‘A’ products.”
He also points out that some strategies can have more impact when they are overseen at a corporate level, such as the move towards more sustainable polyester or cotton. “When we decide all together to make that action it’s much more efficient.”
For now, the focus is simply on “making the environmental labelling information available everywhere, for every product, every device and every user. For the French team there is a key performance indicator (KPI) to reduce the environmental impact of every new product by 20%,” but there are currently no targets for product ratings.
Testing has also been carried out to assess the impact of this information on online purchasing behaviour, with consumers saying the labels have helped them to select more environmentally friendly items. The tool also offers the potential for Decathlon to showcase – and potentially push sales – of those products with a lower environmental impact.
Taking the labelling in-store presents different challenges, not least of which is having to train 50,000 staff around the world in the new labelling criteria.
For Decathlon product in Decathlon stores, the information will be displayed on the shelf rather than on the product; but for its brands sold in different stores, the labelling will be on the product. “We are designing new labelling and store signs, which will be available from spring next year.”
Looking ahead, the retailer admits it wants to be the first to roll out environmental labelling, but it doesn’t want to be the only one. “We want to lead the move, but also to make everybody move,” is how Raffaele Duby puts it.
“For example, on organic cotton we are building the data with ADEME, and then have six months for only us to use it; but then the data will be available to everybody around the world.” He also notes that a common database will benefit from economies of scale, and be much more impactful into the future than lots of smaller initiatives by individual companies.
“This is a difficult process, and what we’re doing is not perfect, but we want more and more people to be involved and we’re trying to make it happen.
“I hope we will change the way people buy product, that they will be aware that the products they consume have an impact, and will change their way of thinking.”