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How Decathlon aims to scale the mountain of sustainability

By Ole Spötter


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Quechua products that are already part of Ecodesign. Photo: FashionUnited

In 2022, 23 percent of the company's own products met at least one of the criteria and were given the Ecodesign label. The remaining product range needs to be redeveloped for it to carry the label. However, this is not always possible, which means that the developers have to create an alternative product.

A rocky road for alternative materials

Decathlon first addressed this issue for its own brand Quechua more than ten years ago with fleece jackets, one of its best-selling products. These can now be made from 100 percent recycled polyester with the same quality and properties.

To reach this goal, it took some time to create the understanding for recycling as an alternative, explains Emmanuelle François, who is active as product manager for womenswear in the nature hiking sector at Quechua. But a lack of know-how and the adaptation of machines also played a role.

The material of the more sustainable fleece jackets is about five percent more expensive than the one made of non-recycled plastic, but also causes five percent less CO2 emissions.

However, part of Decathlon's DNA is also to offer products at affordable prices. Therefore, more expensive materials should not increase the price of Ecodesign products, but that is not always possible. The company then tries to cut costs elsewhere. As an example, François cites a waterproof jacket model made almost entirely of recycled polyester. The team was concerned that the Ecodesign price would be too expensive, so it made new arrangements with suppliers in Morocco.

So while it was possible to create a jacket made from recycled PET bottles, the waterproof jacket itself is not yet 100 percent recyclable. This is due to details such as zippers and the water-repellent coating. By this year, all hiking jackets are to be Ecodesign. Depending on the model, there are also differences here in the proportion of recycled materials, which plays a role for the feel, among other things.

For t-shirts, using recycled cotton is a bit more difficult for François and her team as it has a shorter staple length compared to normal cotton, which reduces the quality. Therefore, they use a fibre blend with 30 percent recycled cotton. However, they are already working on using equal amounts of recycled and non-recycled cotton. In addition, in the sports sector in particular, they have also added a certain amount of polyester because of perspiration. Here, too, work is already underway on an alternative made from natural fibres.

The overall problem with blended fabrics, however, is that they are more difficult to recycle than textiles made from a single raw material, since the components - such as cotton and polyester in case of t-shirts - usually have to be separated from each other.

Dyeing and materials

Decathlon is also trying to use alternative dyeing processes for some products in various textile categories - these include clothing and tents - which are designed to save water and energy consumption. For this purpose, spun dyeing, in which the yarn is dyed directly, is used, as well as the Biton process, in which only every second yarn is dyed. Natural fibres are also used for some products, which do not need to be dyed separately. In addition, Decathlon also uses cold as well as dry dyeing.

When it comes to dyeing, it's also important to remember that different dyes have different impacts on the ecological footprint. For example, Quechua does not use neon colours for its tents, explains a project engineer while presenting the latest tent developments in the associated studio.

Development area for tents and sleeping bags at the Mountain Store. Photo: FashionUnited

In addition to energy and water consumption, the development teams also work to ensure that as little material as possible is wasted, but that the product still matches the design of the creatives. Of course, quality also plays a role, creating a balancing act between the designers and product developers who keep hitting the ball over the net until the finished product is optimised. In the field of outdoor equipment, this can take 18 months or even four years for complicated pieces such as a larger “two-second tent”.

The different experiences of individual development teams and private labels are also passed on within the group to the other teams so that they too can use them for their products.

Development area for tents and sleeping bags at the Mountain Store. Photo: FashionUnited

Longevity and repair

But Decathlon also wants its products to last longer and thus reduce consumption. Developers analyse products that are returned to the store and the sales staff at the service points will discuss the reasons for complaints in detail with customers so that they can be included in the statistics. Through various tests, problems with products need to be prevented before they go on sale. Backpacks are pulled apart by machines several times and with different strengths in order to put their stability to the test, and tents, among other things, stand on campsites of cooperation partners throughout the year in order to test them in all kinds of weather conditions.

For many items of equipment such as hiking backpacks, Decathlon now offers some spare parts such as buckles and belts, which customers can then replace on their own - with the help of a video. However, Decathlon will also carry out repairs if necessary.

Mountain Store. Photo: Decathlon

In the event of a return - whether in the store or online - Decathlon checks the returned products for functionality and condition. Depending on the result of the inspection, the product can then be returned to the shelf as merchandise or offered as a repaired second-hand product at a discounted price. Returned products have been introduced as ‘second use’ pieces in stores since 2019 and online since April 2022.

As a relatively new service, Decathlon also offers the 'Buy Back' programme, which allows customers to sell some specific products back to Decathlon. These, too, are sold as ‘second use’ items after thorough inspection. The company offers this service for bicycles in 80 stores, while it tests other products at individual locations.

However, the focus is on equipment, not on clothing. In the case of used sportswear, the company has found that there is less demand from customers, according to the German headquarters in Plochingen. However, customers can drop off their used clothing and shoes at four locations in Germany, which are then recycled or reused by the textile recycling company FWS, a subsidiary of the Boer Group.

Another relatively new service are product rentals that Decathlon offers in some French stores. Depending on the region and its local sports - which the product range caters to - the focus is on different products. In the Alps, cross-country skis and mountain sports equipment are among the products on offer, which are significantly cheaper than buying them, at least for a short rental period.

To ensure that employees actively communicate services - rental, repairs and buy-back - to customers, they are motivated with rewards. If sales staff meet a certain target linked to the proportion of sales accounted for by services in the respective locations, they receive rewards. Similar concepts also exist in the company in areas that are not in direct contact with customers.

More sustainable capsules - locally produced

All these aspects, which play an important role in Decathlon's strategy for more sustainable products, have been brought together in a special collection. In addition, the “Minimal Editions - Local” capsule still relies on nearshoring.

The men's collection from hiking brand Forclaz focuses on a parka, hoodie, pants and travel bag that are durable as well as functional. The pieces are made in the EU - in France, Belgium, Italy and Portugal - and cause less waste due to an optimised cutting pattern.

Optimised pattern for ‘Minimal Editions – Local’. Photo: FashionUnited

In addition, the capsule uses recycled materials and products are designed to allow easier repair. The pants, sweater and bag are undyed and retain the original colour of the recycled product.

In contrast to the otherwise large volume of products, these four are limited to a small number of pieces. So there are only 250 parkas, 800 sweat jackets, 1500 pants and 500 bags. However, the products are also only available in Germany, Switzerland and France.

Production of Decathlon’s ‘Minimal Editions – Local’ in Europe. Photos: FashionUnited

The project was launched in 2019 and the capsule has been available since October. The pieces cost between 89.99 euros for the pants and the sweater and 249.99 euros for the jacket. It is not the first attempt of such a ‘Minimal Editions’ capsule. There was already ‘Minimal Editions Undyed’ in spring 2022, which was a range of undyed trekking products.

Decathlon invited FashionUnited to Passy.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.de. Edited and translated by Simone Preuss.

Sustainable Fashion