On is designing a more circular and sustainable future
In her spare time, Viviane Gut is an ultra-trail runner. Often, it’s the perfect way to take her mind off work and forget about that day’s troublesome roadblocks. But sometimes it also provides her with a sense of perspective about the job. ‘It really helps to remind me, this is not a sprint, this is even more than an ultra-marathon,’ she says. ‘And you have to be able to stay focused, motivated and creative for a very long time.’
Even when she’s not bounding through the woods outside Zurich, Viviane is more often than not thinking about running. That’s because she is Head of Sustainability at On, the start-up Swiss sportswear brand that has for over a decade been building a global reputation for its high-performance running footwear. Before Viviane joined the company in 2019, the position didn’t exist, but she entered with years of experience working at top sportswear brands, including Nike and Under Armour, and studying sustainability and supply chains in China and around the world. She joined, in other words, with a deep knowledge of the sector’s biggest problems.
‘It’s an industry that has stayed the same for probably 50 or 60 years and is super resistant to change,’ she says. Partly this is down to the age and scale of its biggest players, multi-billion-dollar businesses with hugely complex supply chains that are difficult to overhaul. Partly, though, according to Viviane, it’s down to internal company cultures. ‘It’s this really rusty, slow, big machine and it has a certain culture,’ she says. ‘When you come in as someone younger or as a woman, it’s hard to really move things.’
It was her frustrations with this culture that initially attracted her to On, a company that – while it has offices in five countries and is still growing rapidly – has managed to maintain a more agile ethos. ‘At On, almost every day, we learn hard lessons,’ says Viviane, ‘but I think that’s part of the openness and the appetite to take risks.’
She herself has tested that appetite. Even though she only joined the business two years ago, Viviane has already made huge strides in bringing sustainability closer to the centre of everything On does. During that time, she has built a small team of global sustainability specialists. (On has been committed to virtual working way before the covid crisis.) These roles are hyper- specialised – one of them is focused purely on On’s use of chemicals, for example, while another has a PhD in life cycle assessment and concentrates on this alone.
For her first six months, Viviane and her team had one priority: ‘just crunch numbers’ – calculating the company’s CO2 footprint and understanding where their efforts would pay greatest dividends. Following this process, she set three areas of focus. First was materials. ‘About 80 per cent of the product’s footprint comes from the processing of materials,’ she explains, ‘so there’s a lot of leverage if you innovate or develop new materials.’ Next was setting (and keeping to) science-based emissions targets for the business.
The third area is what Viviane describes as her ‘North Star’: circularity. This refers to the principle that a used or discarded product should become the raw material for a new product, creating a continuous cycle. ‘Nowadays, we design so many products to be put in landfill,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t make sense.’ In her ideal future, all On products would be fully circular, meaning that ‘we take responsibility; we design the shoe, we create it, the consumer uses it, and then we take it back, recycle it and make a new product out of it.’
Last year, thanks to the R&D capabilities that On has through its own in-house lab, the company announced a massive step forward in circularity, introducing to the market a fully recyclable and circular running shoe: Cyclon. The innovation was not only in the use of a recyclable polyamide made from castor beans; On also reimagined the business model for such a product. Instead of buying a pair, customers rent the shoes, paying a monthly fee to do so; then, after running for around 600 kilometres, they return the trainers and On swaps in a brand new pair.
While the prospect is exciting, however, Viviane admits there is still a long way to go. Firstly, scaling solutions like this is still really challenging. ‘We can’t only produce the highest-performing, highest-priced materials,’ she says. ‘We have to find solutions that everyone can buy, not just those who have the budget.’ Then there is the battle to educate the consumer and convince them to change their habits. ‘Bringing the consumer on board and changing their mindset is as challenging as making the product itself,’ she notes. In the case of Cyclon, as an example, the consumer not only has to get used to a new way of paying for shoes (a monthly subscription); they also have to be incentivised to bring the product back at the end of its lifecycle.
Generally speaking, educating consumers has been made even harder in recent years by the number of brands that are ‘green-washing’ with vague marketing messages. ‘Every brand nowadays, basically, is sustainable, green conscious, bio-based – you name it,’ says Viviane. ‘For the consumer, it’s super confusing to understand what is actually true. What is bio-based? Is it good? What does it actually mean?’
At least on this last point, Viviane is confident the tide is turning in the right direction. For her, the world is rapidly approaching a crossroads and soon businesses taking little action but still offering ‘fluffy marketing’ will be found out. She offers a warning to brands that feel they can get away with this indefinitely: ‘You better get ready today, try to figure out certain things now and be on that journey, because at some point it will be too late.’
Looking into the future, there are plenty more reasons for optimism, according to Viviane, from the fact that investors are now increasingly asking business leaders pointed questions about sustainability to the fact that there is ever more transparency between brands regarding how they’re approaching sustainable solutions. Then, too, there is the new generation of leaders, including plenty of young women, entering the industry and giving things a much-needed shake-up from the inside.
As for her own future role in it all, Viviane has a perhaps slightly surprising perspective. ‘I hope I won’t be here anymore,’ she says, with a knowing smile. ‘In the sense of you don’t need this position anymore.’ Rather than having a Head of Sustainability in a discrete department, she would prefer to see sustainable practices and approaches so ingrained in the rest of the business that such a structure is entirely unnecessary. ‘I think that would be my dream,’ she muses. ‘Making myself obsolete.’