Eric Liedtke

Join Pamela Bardhi, host of the Underdog Podcast, for a compelling conversation with sustainability leader Eric Liedtke. From his early days as a sports enthusiast in Pennsylvania to his influential role as President of Adidas, Eric shares his remarkable career journey. He discusses leading one of the largest brand turnarounds in history and how his passion for sports fueled his innovative approach to leadership and culture change. Now at the helm of Unless Collective, Eric focuses on pioneering plant-based fashion to combat the environmental crisis. His insights into leadership, culture change, and leveraging business for good offer valuable lessons for entrepreneurs and business leaders looking to drive positive change across industries. This episode is packed with practical advice and unique perspectives that resonate far beyond the corporate world.

Eric Liedtke is an American businessman and entrepreneur. From 2006 to 2019, Eric managed one of the most remarkable brand turnarounds in history, significantly boosting Adidas’ revenue and profitability. In 2019, he shifted his focus to sustainability, founding Unless Collective, the world’s first 100% plant-based apparel company dedicated to regenerative fashion. Eric’s mission is to eliminate plastic pollution by creating compostable clothing from natural materials. With a deep passion for using business as a force for good, inspired by his childhood love of sports and the environment, Eric has continually championed social and environmental causes, driving impactful change through innovative partnerships.

Key Takeaways:

  • Humble beginnings: Eric’s first role was as a “sweeper,” a job entailing various responsibilities across departments. His dedication and diverse experiences at Adidas led him to roles such as Product Line Manager, Head of Brand Marketing for the Americas, and Global Head of Brand Marketing. Ultimately, he became President of the Adidas brand for six years.
  • Navigating cultural differences: Eric faced challenges in bridging cultural gaps between Adidas’ American and German branches. He aimed to merge their strengths, combining German innovation and engineering with American storytelling and design. This approach aimed to redirect internal competition towards external markets, promoting collaboration. Eric consistently prioritized balancing these dynamics to propel the brand’s global success.
  • Purpose-driven: Eric highlights the personal and professional challenges of transitioning from a high-profile executive role to a startup, driven by a desire to significantly impact the environment. He reflects on the rewards and difficulties of this journey, emphasizing the fulfillment that comes from pursuing a purpose-driven mission.
  • Sustainable fashion: With his brand, Unless Collective, Eric discusses the challenges of creating sustainable fashion, emphasizing the need to move away from petroleum-based materials. He explains the complexities of sourcing plant-based materials and finding eco-friendly manufacturing processes, highlighting the difficulties of working as a startup with limited capital. 

Listen in to discover how the unwavering determination of a single individual is laying the foundation for a future that’s greener and more sustainable. Don’t overlook this captivating narrative of innovation and inspiration!

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Industry Disruptor Eric Liedtke: From Sports Fan to Adidas President to Leading Sustainability and Entrepreneurship for Lasting Change

Pamela Bardhi: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Underdog podcast. So excited to have this amazing chat with Eric today. How are you, my friend?

Eric Liedtke: Very good. Life is wonderful.

Pamela Bardhi: Oh, my goodness, I loved your energy. The minute you came on the screen, I was like, I want to know all the things about you, Eric. I do. It sounds amazing, I read about your journey, I mean, to where you are now. Like, it is just absolutely incredible, the things you have worked on are unbelievable. And the mission that you’re on now, I think, is even cooler. Bringing it all together. So I’m so excited to dive in.

Everything starts with an origin. So what I love to do is reel it all the way back

Eric Liedtke: All right, let’s go.

Pamela Bardhi: So what I love to do is reel it all the way back. Because there’s got to be an origination point at some point, right? We’re all born in this life with a mission and a passion and a purpose. You know, throughout life, we set out to discover what that is. And so, as a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Like, what was your dream?

Eric Liedtke: Well, I grew up in the seventies in Pennsylvania, so there’s a team called the Pittsburgh Steelers at that moment. I was fascinated with being the next starting middle linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. That was it, that was what I wanted to be. And, you know, you couldn’t talk me out of it. But, fortunately, or unfortunately, genetics had a different thing in mind for me. So my physical capabilities could not keep up with my mental aspirations and my dreams.

So I found myself, to sports, but I did not find myself on the playing field of sports. I worked for Adidas then, and you said you read the history. But I think you said, like, everything starts with an origin, I think you’re my love of sports. Doing sports or thinking about sports or having done sports makes me a happier, better person to be around. Quickly found my calling to be, in sports, with a sports brand called Adidas.

Pamela Bardhi: That is so cool. I can’t wait to get into that.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, who or what motivated you most

And growing up, as you grew up in Pennsylvania, who or what motivated you most? Who, what? Why? Where? Motivated you or served as a huge inspiration for you growing up?

Eric Liedtke: Well, it’s funny you asked that, cause I’ve just been thinking about that a lot. But, you know, besides the obvious mom and dad type of situation, I think in the Pittsburgh Steelers. My hero at the time was Jack Lambert. Who was the middle linebacker of the Steelers in the seventies, Rocky Balboa, the Rocky movie. I mean, I remember just being a ten year old and being mesmerized by Rocky when he came out. And I still, to this day, have the Bill Conti soundtrack. He did the soundtrack, bump bump bump bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum. It’s like when I need a little, like, last ditch. You know, pump up to finish, a run or to get some fired up.

My son’s now started playing flag football, so we listen to that on the way to flag football. So I love the intergenerational transition, but, you know, like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky one, Jack Lambert, middle linebacker. That was Philadelphia, Jack Lambert was in Pittsburgh. Grew up in Harrisburg, so it was kind of like a middle way between the two cities. And they kind of bookended my life at that time, in my early years. I have since evolved into less CRO magnum type m role models. But they were definitely my role models at the time when I was a youngster.

Pamela Bardhi: I absolutely love that. Those are such great examples. Oh, my goodness, I can just imagine just that. Like, now I’ve got that song stuck in my brain.

Eric Liedtke: Well, put it on a playlist and, you know, use it for motivation next time you’re caught in a workout. Towards the end, it helps, you know.

Pamela Bardhi: You know what it is for me, it’s lose yourself by Eminem.

Eric Liedtke: There you go again. I spent three years in Detroit, right around when Eminem was just coming up. It was fantastic, I mean, I can’t say that we hung out in the same circles. But that was really, I mean, I love Eminem, I love that, lose yourself. That’s another pump up song.

Pamela Bardhi: Yeah, it is, I crushed it in karaoke a few weeks ago when someone. That’s what I did. I love that. Oh, my goodness. Is there.

How did the whole adidas opportunity come up? Eric was motivated by sports

Walk me through the journey of how you got into the whole. So I know you were obviously very motivated by sports, but how did the whole adidas opportunity come up? Like, walk me through that, because that.

Eric Liedtke: Yeah, I think the long story and the short is I was living in Detroit, and I was pretty miserable. Again, we’ve already covered the fact that I love sports. And I was working for a florist, trans world delivery, or I was working for Cadillac for a little bit. I was in the advertising agency business. It was one of those times in my life where I’m right out of school, right out of university. Went to get my first job in an ad agency because I thought that was going to be glamorous and sexy. Ended up being everything. But that’s one of those jobs where on Sunday night you’d get a little nauseous thinking about how I have to go to work tomorrow. It’s like, oh, God, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this.

So I did some self reflection. There was actually a book my mom gave me called What color is your parachute? I think it’s still out there in print. It talks about your self journey of realization of doing things you love in life. And that was my first exposure to, hey, I got to do something I love. What do I love? Sports. Okay, so who do I know in the sports world? Then he started just going through all my contacts, and again, this is pre cell phone, pre email. This is like, you know, this is hardcore phone calls, the old snail mail and typing letters and things. A friend of mine was working at Adidas in Germany. He introduced me to some guys that were doing some interesting things.

Former Nike guys, if you’ve seen the movie shoe dog. Rob Strasser and Peter Moore had just left Phil Knight at Nike and started their own company. They ended up taking over Adidas. And I got a job with those two gentlemen when they were starting Adidas in Portland in 1994. But it took me a year of cold calling, of calling Rob Strasser at the time and writing him letters. Like, old fashioned, get the typewriter out, write a letter every week. I think I wrote a letter and I called twice a month. So I think it gets to the point where I knew his assistant, he knew it was me. First name basis. We would chat, and then as soon as the job came up a year later. After doing that, religiously, they offered me the first position it came up in. Started January 94.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s amazing. And the consistency is insane. I mean, because what you would call overseas, right, Eric?

Eric Liedtke: Well, no, these guys were in Portland, Oregon, so it was Detroit, and they were in Portland. Yeah, so they were taking over the United States subsidiary of Adidas at the time. So, yes, but Adidas was headquartered in Germany. Resilience and just the Midwest work ethic of like, oh, I’m not giving up on this. I was like a dog on a bone, I would not take no for an answer. And I remember the day when Rob Strasser finally called me back, and he’s like, Eric, this is Rob Strasser. It became such a it was a meme at the time for me I was like, get the fuck out of here. This is not Rob Strasser, one of my friends. Who is this? Like, who’s the, who’s the guy calling me back?

This is like six months after hard work, and he’s like, no, this is Rob Strasser. You’ve been writing to me, and I just thought I’d call you back because your friend Paul asked me to. And I like your pedigree, so we’re going to have you out for an interview. I was like, he likes my pedigree. He likes it, I never heard that description before in my life. When it comes to, you know, description of a person, I use it in dogs and horses and things. But anyway, it was the moment of my life.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s so awesome, I feel like you manifested that in. Because that level of consistency, calling twice a month, writing a letter, like, I mean, you were nonstop with it. That is amazing. So what was the first thing you did after you got that phone call?

Eric Liedtke: I celebrated a little bit, but then, I still didn’t get a job offer for another three or four months. But at least I was on the grid, right? At least I was on the path towards it, I had a return call, let’s put it that way. So at least I wasn’t just sending things into the void. I was excited, and long story short, I got hired about four months later, in January 94. And I started basically in a job that was right next to the mailroom doing all sorts of things. It was called sweeper, which is like a position that’s named after a soccer player that’s in the back. He kind of clicks, he keeps everything in front of him.

So you did everything from picking up the sales report when they printed out Sunday. Delivering them through the mail to all the different general managers of the discrete business units. Working with designers and briefing them, working with retailers, or, working with the sales guys who work with the retailers. Going on sales calls, you name it. We did, we wore about every hat we needed to. And it was a great foundational learning block for me to then take my career in all different places. Which I was able to do over 26 years at Adidas.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s so amazing. Oh, my goodness.

Eric Johnson went from sweeper to head of sports for Adidas

So after you started the sweeper position. Like, walk me through all of the different levels of Eric, because you got to do some really incredible things.

Eric Liedtke: Which I. Yeah, well, I think, you know, so I mean, just a shortcut. We could spend the next hour talking about my journey through Adidas and, like, you know. Basically sweeper to product line manager to us, marketing manager to, you know, basically in charge of a category. Like, at that point, training, cross training included. Where I got to work with, some legends in space, like Keisha Johnson and Tom Osborne at Nebraska. And just had some fun with people like that. Travel and visit my heroes. I remember going to training camps, NFL training camps, and going up to going into the steel one.

I got in, you know, inside the gates and everything, because now I was officially working in the industry. Was handing out t-shirts, and I remember them back in my head. I’m like, don’t ask for an autograph, you’re professional, don’t ask for an autograph. You know, 28 year old air, like, this is Rob Woodson standing in front of me. And I was like, no, I want to talk to you about your shoes, rod. Like, maybe we can make better shoes for you. It was interesting balancing your fandom with your professional needs to design and make better stuff. So from there, I started running departments.

I ran brand marketing for America, I ran footwear for America. Then I was invited to go over to Germany by just good relationships and everything. So I took the leap there to go over to Germany to work as head of brand marketing for the company. Global head brand marketing, which I then jumped into, from there, I went to head of sports for the brand. And then finally I was appointed to the executive board as president of the Adidas brand. Which I oversaw, you know, basically all creation strategy, for the brands, for six years.

Pamela Bardhi: That is the coolest thing ever. Oh, my goodness.

Eric Liedtke: Oh, my kid that loves sports and dreamed about sports, and haven’t doing sports. It was the best job in the world for me. I got to really, like, live out my sports fantasies. So you name the event that happens on an annual basis in sports. Luckily, I was able to go to them and have fun at them and enjoy the spectacle of unscripted drama that is sport.

Pamela Bardhi: I love that.

Eric Schulz took over as president of the brand after 13 years in Germany

And throughout this journey, Eric. What were some of the biggest challenges and the biggest lessons that you kind of learned throughout the process?

Eric Liedtke: I think that gets into more business. Sport is the backdrop, I think the business is really the cultural fit. Like, okay, so now you’re working in America and you’re being. Headquarters is in Germany. Well, we know one thing about us Americans is we don’t like to take direction from anybody. So wait a minute, the Germans are going to tell us what to do? No, we know better, we need to do everything ourselves, which means create everything ourselves. The Americans were always pulling for more creation, control. And the headquarters was always like, no. We have a global brand that we need to adhere to and deploy it into different markets.

There was that always push, pull, and almost like fist on fist, like us versus them. One of the first things you have to do is fix that culture and figure out how you’re going to work together. Since I had worked, when I took over the job, as president of the brand. I had worked in America for 13 years. I’d worked in Germany for, I think, seven years, so I was kind of like the good German in America. And the good American in Germany. So I could get everybody to listen to me at least. Then my efforts were, okay, how do I deploy our best talents against discrete opportunities? To me it was, okay. What do the Germans do really well, innovation, just manufacturing. Just think about automobiles, your favorite machines, and ingenuity.

Most of that’s coming from Germany, consistently throughout the years and m no more than today. What do the Americans, do really well? Storytelling, design, just capturing the essence of things, we quickly became what in my mind, used, co headquarters in America. We put basically a creative director that was american, head of digital, that was american. Head of pr, that was american, and head of communications that was american. Then we had that complemented with, the innovation and the engineering. And the know how of doing the best in class from Germany. It became m less of us versus them and us versus, you know, the marketplace.

And that was a fundamental pivot, and that’s something you do once and you’re never quite done with it. You’re always living and breathing that kind of cultural reset. To make sure that we weren’t picking us versus them battles inside. Because then you also have design versus marketing, sales versus marketing. It’s like, you always have these tension points within a company. Especially the bigger you get within a matrix where people pound their chest and want their own. That’s something you had to always coach and create. So that was more of the cultural side of things. I’ll pause there because I could go on and on, but I don’t want to bore your listeners.

Pamela Bardhi: No, it’s not boring.

One of the biggest things was organizational and cultural communication

I absolutely love that because here’s something you said, something really powerful, because that’s organizational communication and its finest. Right, understanding that there’s cultural boundaries. Studied communications in college, I was a double major. So one of the biggest things was organizational and cultural communication. Understanding what are the values that are important to a specific culture, and how does that translate in business? Then how do you take that, understand that, and respect that? Kind of make it coexist with whatever you’re doing? That’s exactly what you just explained. And I love that, because now you’re taking different pieces of the organization. Collecting the strength and strengths and weaknesses together so that they can coexist. Well, it’s not really weaknesses, it’s just different areas.

Eric Liedtke: Exactly. Picking people up where they are and giving everybody a role and a place to play. Versus them feeling like they always have to fight for their space. But, you know, aligning the company to that, what I call the upper right hand corner of the whiteboard. Like, where are we going? What’s the general direction we’re going now? It’s not going to be a linear path to get there. You’re going to have ups and downs and zigzags to get there. You’ve got to make sure we always keep that destination in mind, and then we all have a role to play. Whether you’re a designer, whether you’re a marketer, whether you’re a salesperson, whether you’re american based or whether you’re german based.

You all have to understand how your role fits into that destination and what winning looks like, to get there. That requires not just a clear, concisely communicated destination in mind. Repeating that day in and day out in every form whatsoever. But then living and role modelling what collaborative behavior looks like from a culture and talking about how those different pieces come together. And what my role was as a leader. What my executive leadership team’s role was to lead that kind of change as well. It is a fascinating discovery for me also, it’s not like I had experience doing that. It’s just that when I had the opportunity, I had experience on what wasn’t working. So it’s like, okay, that’s not working.

Let’s take a look at what these other cultures are doing that I respect. So I went on a little bit of a roadshow to Silicon Valley. With Google and Facebook and some of these other ones back in the early aughts that were doing it really well. You know, seeing how they communicate, seeing how they culturally approach things. Seeing how they lowered hierarchy levels so people can move fast and be more empowered. And, you know, is hiring better people for a role and then letting them go. Like I remember, I think Steve Jobs said, I have 20 direct reports. But I don’t spend much time with any of them because I hire great people and I let them go. That’s how I kind of said, okay, how do I reduce my authority and give it away a little bit?

How do I lower escalation levels? Empower people to win the consumer at the end of the day, and role model this better cultural way? There’s an operating model that fits into the culture of empowering and enabling. Then really making sure they’re clear on what winning looks like. And how we play together and operating model and culture go. So hand in hand, I think a lot of people miss that. The third piece would be the strategy, the annual biannual. Three year, five year strategy that you’re trying to achieve these goals, right? It all kind of has to swim in the same pool and meld together. Those are my challenges, but those are also my joys of figuring that out and having some success with it.

Pamela Bardhi: I absolutely love that. That’s such a cool insight at the top level, too. Just the integration of all of this is absolutely fabulous, Eric. I’m like, oh, my gosh, I mean that as entrepreneurs, I think that’s one of the hardest things to do, is the delegation. Because there’s a lot of entrepreneurs listening, a lot of business leaders listening. It’s like empowering your people at the end of the day is really the core of it. All right? And that’s the only way you really build an incredible brand, because, you know, especially a global, huge brand. That is amazing.

Eric Liedtke: I mean, to build on that, I don’t think there’s any other answer. No matter how big or small your company is. I’m working with a very small company now. It’s like, what’s the most important thing? Get your team around you, figure out how you can get world class people around you. So you become the dumbest person in the room, if you will. The worst thing you can have is always walking and being the smartest person in the room. And so, by hook or crook, I’ve always tried to surround myself with people that are better than me. Then they lift you up. I’ll be the first one to say, like, I may be pretty good at picking out a direction. But I think the people that I’ve always worked with have been the ones that have figured out how to get there.

Pamela Bardhi: Absolutely. And I know that now you’re working on your own collective, which is so exciting.

Talk about, unless, I mean, before we dive into that topic, number one business lesson

Talk about, unless, I mean, before we dive into that throughout your career. Number one business lesson that you have learned, what would you say it would be?

Eric Liedtke: I hate to bang on the same drum, but I have two things, two statements. First one is the advice I was given when I was hired for the position. The CEO of Adidas at the time’s name was Herbert Hiner, name is Herbert Hiner. But anyway, he was the CEO, he is still presently with us, but a great man, a mentor of mine. I was very young for the job, I think I got the job at 46. And I was promoted over somebody that was actually the head of Adidas at the time. There was a big transition, the company was very much in trouble. So I was the first American appointed to this position. He said to me, he said, Eric, you need to reset the brand.

He said, I got another piece of advice for you, don’t ask me, don’t ask for my permission. Ask for my advice. And I think that was fundamentally the way I tried to live each and every day with my hires as well. It’s like, you have to be there for advice. You have to be there for guidance, but you cannot be there as the permission authoritarian stakeholder. I think that’s where people get it wrong, I think some people do it really well. It is just a matter of time before that kind of explodes, that’s my fundamental belief. Now, there’s always exceptions to that rule, but I think for the most part, you’ll find that being very consistent. I’ve studied a lot of companies, and I’m a ferocious reader of the business books and things.

I think everyone speaks the same things from the same hymnbook on that for the most part. The second advice I would give is more practical. It’s an engineering term that we kind of turned on its head. But it’s like, don’t let perfect get in the way better. You’ve got to get better each and every day, and I think too many people strive for, no, it’s not perfect. Or they can wag their finger and find the hair in the soup, if you will. But ultimately, you know, we gotta take steps, sooner or later get you across the room. And I think that’s a fundamental belief for everybody.

It’s like, you know, you’ve gotta not let perfect get in the way, better. The amount of times I’ve repeated that in meetings, both at Adidas and in, alas, I can’t even count. I mean, it’s like, it must probably, three, four, or five times a day. And so that people would quote it for me before I got to say it. But they would see it in themselves that they were letting perfect get in the way better, too often. So those are two pieces of advice I’d give to your listeners.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s amazing, I love that. Well, I find myself in that same trap, right? That whole perfectionism thing, and you’re like, it has to be perfect. It’s like, well, first off, if you don’t release it ever, then it’s just not going to happen ever. So, like, there’s no good time to do anything. Everyone’s like, I’ll wait until there is. No, you got to just go out and do it. I absolutely love that, Eric. Those are such great pieces of advice. And I can’t wait to hear about how you got into your own space now and essentially what you’re working on, your mission.

Adidas partnered with Parley for the oceans to fight plastic pollution

So tell me about how did this. How did unless come about? Like, yeah, so that’s all, the things.

Eric Liedtke: That’s a bit of a journey, so, like, bear with me, and, you know, give me. Ultimately, I think, Pam, it was. So when we were doing a turnaround, this goes into the strategic piece I didn’t talk about. You know, one of the things we had was. We had an upper right hand corner, that said, through sport, we have the power to change lives. And we wrote that very specifically for Adidas to say, we have the power to change lives. How are we going to do that? Well, ah, we can help people kick stronger, run faster, jump higher. That is what a sports company does, great, and we do that very naturally, and that’s what people say. But we recognize that the culture of sport doesn’t change. It, doesn’t stop when you leave the pitch or when you leave the court.

It goes with you into the streets and the hallways and the music venues. And so we started to unlock that culture of sport, if you will. That was a very rich territory from a commercial standpoint, also tapping into, creative energy standpoint. But if you’re looking at a holistic view of your consumer, you have to consider their game, their life, but also their world. The world piece was the fact that all of us are scrolling 24/7, it gets pretty dark. Pretty fast because the algorithms support the darker the better. Because they want you to be more stressed, and that brings you, coming back. So our consumers were clearly telling us they cared about the world. Cared about black Lives Matter, they cared about climate change. They cared about me, too, they cared about LGBTQ rights, they care about those things.

Ultimately, how could they make a change? And so they felt, whether you’re going out and protesting with a sign. That’s one way of doing it, but that’s about it. Because our consumers were typically the time Gen Z or even X. So we started to get to work on a few of those. But the one that was really the most impactful was we picked a fight with plastic. We did that by partnering up with this company called Parley for the oceans. Which was a fantastic kind of ocean advocacy group that really was bringing attention to the plight of the oceans. They walked in my office one time in 2014, and I’m six months on the job. I’m trying to do the new operating model, I’m trying to reorgan, I’m trying to build a culture and write a strategy. Would you like to save the oceans?

Yes, of course I would, but I’ve got a few things going on. Can we, can this wait for my private hours? They’re like, no, you don’t understand. The plight of the oceans are directly related to the stuff you’re making. And I was like, huh, and they were like, yeah, do you know that 70% of what you’re making is made of plastic? I was like, I hadn’t really thought of it that way. Okay, plastic comes from oil, okay? That’s not great, and plastic, when it’s made, is a forever material. Oh, shit. So what does that mean? Which means it breaks down in nanoplastics. It breaks down in microplastics, It breaks down in these, toxic little things that are actually killing the krill in the ocean. Krill are the backbone of the entire food chain, if you will, they’re responsible for every second breath we take.

I’m like, holy shit, like, Jesus, I’m trying to fix the operating model. And I just got to sit down, took a minute, and said, okay, I guess we got to do something about this. So we leaned into that. Today, Adidas continues to lead in that forefront of, fighting plastic use and committing to recycled polyester. Doing things with ocean plastic and parley in particular to clean up their footprint. But once I got that in my head, then you start going down that rabbit hole. You’re like, okay, even though we’re making stuff out of recycled. Even though Adidas is a big platform to change things, like getting rid of plastic bags and things like that. It still is making stuff out of plastic, and even though it’s recycled, it’s still not there.

Once you hear these things and see these things, you can’t really unhear them or unsee them. So me being a very purpose driven person, as you know, I went from sport to sport. Say, now I got, this envisioned this purpose in my head. I’m like, okay, I’m going to do what I can, here. And I did everything I can, and by 2019, I realized I’d done what I could. I wanted to commit, really 100% of my time focused on this problem of waste and basically fashion waste. It’s a, 3 trillion fashion, is a 3 trillion industry, it’s 70% made of plastic. Just like I found out myself, its basically a slow killing machine. Now they’re finding nanoplastics entering our bodies at unprecedented rates. Like up to a credit card a week in your body through the air we breathe.

Through the water we drink, or through the food we eat, it’s not doing anything good inside of us. Because, again, it’s a forever material, it’s not organic, so it has sharp edges. So now it’s entering into your bloodstream, it’s entering into our brains. These nanoplastics, with chemicals on top of them with sharp edges. They’re basically free radicals that are banging against stuff. We’re soft tissues, so we don’t like stuff banging against us as humans. And so it causes clotting in our arteries. That becomes more extreme. It causes early onset dementia because it’s clogging things in our brains and not allowing our neurons to function. It’s causing early hormonal disruptions. Endocrine, disruptions, it’s cutting down our sperm counts, it’s making us much more infertile. The research coming out is like, everyday there’s a new, oh, my God.

Long story short, that was my impetus. That was a few of my co-founders’ impetus to say, okay, let’s, if not us, who? If not now, when we have all these years of experience. Let’s take our big company muscle memory of how to operate at a high level. And let’s bring it to a startup mentality and try to make stuff just out of plants and that’s unless, collective. We are the first 100% plant based fashion brand and we model out. We’re pioneering what we’re calling regenerative fashion, which is stuff that’s made from the elements. To go out into the elements, to safely return to the elements, because it’s only made of plants and minerals. So if you make it out of good stuff, it goes back to being good stuff, and that’s our thesis.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s ah, incredible, Eric.

Eric: It was a major inflection point in my life

Oh my gosh, what a wake up call it would have been in that office to hear that. Holy crap. Yeah, as you were speaking, I’m like, I don’t know what I would have done with myself. I would have said shit.

Eric Liedtke: It was a, I mean you can call it a wake up call, I like to call it a major inflection point in my life. Because at that point I was going through a divorce, I had met a new girl. We were going to have children, I was going to be an older dad. So I already had a daughter from my first marriage. Now I have two new beautiful children in my second marriage. I’m starting to think about this piece of work behind me that represents this beautiful place I live. And the tribes that were here. It’s just like, what do they always do, what did the indigenous cultures always talk about? They talked about seven generations.

They talked about thinking out seven generations and what do we leave for our 7th generation? So when you start to get all these things in your head. Like what are you leaving behind besides just wealth, right? You know, everyone, I’m leaving my wealth, I’ve accumulated wealth. Well, like at a certain point, what’s enough? Now it’s about, you know, maybe giving them a chance at a decent environment. Maybe giving them a chance at a better place, that we, and then we, than what we found. And otherwise, what are we leaving them? We’re leaving them a polluted bag. Pretty bud. I think we all owe it to the future generations to create the change that we all can do for them.

Pamela Bardhi: Absolutely, Eric. I love that.

You went from high profile executive position at Adidas to launching a startup

Oh my gosh, so many things I want to unpack back with what you just said. Now we’re going to such a high profile executive position into a startup. Because I guarantee you there’s someone listening right now that’s probably in that same position. That you were at a very pivotal point when you had heard all of this. Now, how did you make that transition, like, into your purpose? Right, because I think a lot of people are. They know what they have to do. But like you said, something super important, if not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Eric Liedtke: Yeah, I think there’s. It’s not easy, and it did not happen overnight, it’s like. So, I was exposed to this pivotal conversation in 2014, I left Adidas at the end of 2019. There was a five and a half year gap between hearing this news. Then I got to work doing stuff. It was kind of cool to see the company embrace this battle with plastic, right, which was fantastic. But me being a passionate person, I really have always leaned towards the environment. I like to do sports outside, I’ve always been a sportsman when it comes to the water. Whether it be surfing or swimming or scuba diving or kayaking, you name it, I like to do it in the water. A lot of this was personal for me.

Once the snowflake fell on the mountain and started rolling downhill, I just started picking up steam, okay. Finding out all this new stuff. Ultimately, I took Adidas where I thought I could. And it became a rallying cry for the employees, but also a point of difference for the consumers. But ultimately, I knew there were too many different deliverables the company needed to do. You had a fiduciary responsibility to create growth and bottom line growth, you had a fiduciary responsibility to continue. To grow different parts of the business. Whether it be just to keep it easy, soccer and Messi or Kanye in originals. Or material innovation, a, b, or c, you just have a lot of mouths to feed. So you only get to spend about maybe, maximum 10% of my time on this problem that was really plaguing me at night.

And I wanted to put more time into that, I really wanted to fix that. Realized I couldn’t do this at Adidas because of all the different mouths, that were already that needed to be fed and the fish responsibility. You almost needed to go outside to disrupt and come back inside. So that was the. After a lot of hand wringing and conversations with my wife and sleepless nights. It’s like, okay, now’s the time to jump, and like I said, we had a lot of success at Adidas. We grew the business through that strategy, reset 8 billion in six years. The bottom line quadrupled, the share price went from 50 to 320. I think when I left, it was very much the greatest turnaround in the company’s history, if not the industries.

So I felt very good about that, but I wanted to challenge myself. Could I do the same thing for the industry? Okay, let’s be really big hairy ass goals. What can I do for the industry? And I can get the industry off of plastic. I can get the whole industry to follow us on this plant polymer revolution. With that in mind, I went out and started to put together, like a ten page slide deck. Started talking to people if they would be willing to come on this journey with me. Asking strangers for money is never easy, especially for me. But it’s like, could you maybe possibly, you know, commit and enjoy this journey too with me? You know, slowly but surely we got that done and we launched in 2021.

But you know, it was a big departure, it was one that was well thought. Out from the change of being in corporate to startup. And I wouldn’t recommend it for the faint of heart. You know, life in the penthouse is easier than life in the outhouse, but I would say that I would never look back. I mean I think corporate life is great. It’s safe and it’s secure, but it comes with a lot of trade offs of your time, and your obligation culture that you have. To me, being the master of my own startup life is irreplaceable, I thoroughly, as a person, enjoy it. It comes with lots of challenges. Comes with lots of concerns about whether you’re going to make it or not, but it still is yours. There’s something special about that.

Pamela Bardhi: Absolutely. I echo that a thousand percent. You know, and it’s interesting because I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life, since I was about ten. And so I always tell people it’s a blessing and a curse when you have never worked for anyone in your life. Like, you know, you just don’t know structure, which is good, right? There’s no limits, of like. Yes, your creativity is through the wall and it’s super fun and all that. But at the same token you don’t know the structure, right? So that’s fascinating and with, unless like where’s everything at right now?

Eric Liedtke: Like listen, working with 100% plants and no plastic is challenging, right? There’s big things you have to solve, for just even like this, this hood, this crew neck I have on, it’s beautiful. Most of the materials you can find are readily available, but you know how you stitch the product together. What you dye the product with, how you do the neck car. All those things are typically nylon, spandex, some sort of polyester petroleum, byproduct. Not for us, we have to go out and figure out how to do these things without it. We have to find factories to work with us as a startup with minimum order quantities. That is higher than you want to make because you don’t have that much money to buy that much inventory. Everything doesn’t just need to be right for the earth.

You then need to layer on all the complexity of a startup where you’re under capitalized at all times. You’re always trying to make two and two equal ten, it’s a challenge to do those things. So, good news is we’re about four years into this journey. Three and a half years into this journey, we’ve modelled out what I’m very proud of. Which is a complete range of fashion apparel and footwear and we just launched socks. Socks or what took us two years to develop a sock because of its stretch. And whenever you feel stretched, all you listeners that wear activewear, whether it be stretch. That’s all, it’s all basically just melted plastic and the chemicals that go into that. Everything else is pretty heinous for you and the people you’re around. But that’s another day.

Again, I don’t want to be a downer but figuring out how to do stretches. With mechanical stretch and figuring out how to use natural rubber latex as the ingredient that can help you stretch. It’s like all these little things are little research projects for us and that’s what we’ve been really fundamentally building. Now that we’ve done all that, we’re super excited. We have all that product for sale on our website. Happy to give your listeners a discount in the show notes if you want. Pam, we can follow up on that later. But I think ultimately now we’re saying we’ve created this regenerative creation model where we know the materials. We know how to put them together, we know where to put them together, we know how to print them.

How to dye them in a sustainable way, we know how to distribute them. Collect them and get them back in the ground quickly. So we have partnerships with industrial compost, but also, if you just want to take our stuff. And you’ve worn it to death and you don’t really want to do it. You can plant it in your rose bed, you can plant it in your tomato garden. It will harmlessly go away at its own pace in your environment in Boston, Massachusetts, or here at the Oregon coast. It’s one of those remarkable things that you can feel good about wearing because you’re not breathing toxins. You’re not, you know, exfoliating toxins into the world, if you will.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s so amazing, Eric. Oh, my goodness. I absolutely love that. Absolutely love it, I can’t wait to check those out. I’ve seen the website a little bit, but I’m like, I need to order one.

Eric Liedtke: Or two. Help us prove the case.

We’re looking for other visionary brands that want to be part of this

But now, to answer your question, like, now we’re starting to partner with some brands. We’re looking for other visionary brands that want to be part of this. Just like when I was at Adidas and I partnered with Parley. For the oceans to fix this ocean plastic issue that we have. And that’s scaled to hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, which is remarkable. Now we’re saying, hey, we’re open to partner with those. Whether it be Uniqlo, whether it be Zara, H and M, Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, New Balance, you name it. Well, partner with the bigs, because I think that’s the only way we scale with the urgency we have.

Our model has been like, let’s build it and prove that we can. Let’s build a regenerative creation model that we can plug into for partnerships and let’s go find some partners. So that’s kind of what we’re doing. Look for a lesson to show up, not just as a brand that you can buy into. But as a collaborating partner or material inside of other partners as we scale this into the industry. Because, again, our goal is to systematically change fashion from petroleum to plants.

Pamela Bardhi: I love that Eric, I love that. And I know you’re going to do it. That’s the thing. You guys are already doing it, and I think that having this huge goal and partnering with other companies. Is just going to allow you to scale even higher and be able to kind of, like, change it. Because that’s, I think, what happens at a top level. They’re like, okay, well, we want to see someone privately try to figure this out first. Then maybe we’ll pick it up, right?

Eric Liedtke: Yep.

Pamela Bardhi: They’re like, we’re not. We don’t, they’re very risk averse. Right? Like, we know what works.

Eric Liedtke: They’re saying, just like they did in Adidas. Does the consumer really care? So it’s like when I was the brand president. Had to go into the boardroom and be like, I’d argue, okay, guys, hey, you know, CFO, Chief Sales Officer, CEO. Hey, guys, this isn’t, I mean, listen, we posted the first ever, ocean plastic shoe. I was able to present, the United Nations General assembly, and we then posted. That went as viral as anything we ever did with Kanye or with Messi. And like, ha ha, guys, this is not philanthropy. This is good business. If you do things right, the consumer will lean in and buy it.

So can we stop talking about this being something that sits in the corner over there? Purpose driven companies are going to lead the change we want to see in the world. You just need to know how to storytell and give them the opportunity to buy into it. And so many companies miss that. They make sustainability so frickin hard. It’s like the simplest story is always the best. Our story is what happens if it becomes plant and worm food. When you’re done, it just goes harmlessly away. Show that, show me a visual of my stuff becoming worm food. I promise you, I can sell it to consumers today, and that’s what’s happening.

Pamela Bardhi: That’s so amazing.

Eric, you mentioned this purpose driven and then also the sustainability piece

Eric, you mentioned this purpose driven and then also the sustainability piece. That’s literally what my whole brand is all about, I literally have a shipping container company. It’s called revolution. So it’s r e v e l ution. I can’t even spell my own, right along. But if the book of Revelations crossed with revolution. And it’s all about revolutionizing real estate in America, repurposing and using containers as homes and all these things. Again we’re on, sustainability piece as well, so huge what you’re saying. Like, we want to change the industry on the real estate front.

And it’s exactly the same thing. It’s like, you know, and people really do care about that. They really do care, like, about zero carbon footprint and all these things. Because what’s going to happen, like you said, seven generations from now, look, what’s the deal? We don’t know. But we want to try to create a better world where we are. Those purpose driven companies are going to be the ones to do that, and it’s amazing. I don’t want to go to wool on this, but it is the age of the aquarium. The Aquarius age, if they call it right. So anything that any system that was prior that is not in alignment with mama Earth is now going to fail.

Eric Liedtke: You got a little hippie in you. I love that.

Eric Goldman: Conscious business is all about doing conscious business

All right. I wasn’t expecting that today, but that made my Friday.

Pamela Bardhi: Yeah, it made my Friday too well, because it’s all about doing conscious business, right? And I’m literally, I kid you not, Eric. The timing of this is crazy because as you were speaking, I’m like, I’m literally. Because I’m a co-founder, in this group called Conscious Business league. It’s all about doing conscious business, right? Different industries all like literally everything you’re talking about is in full alignment with everything that I’m working on. You know, coming from a development and real estate background. So it’s, you know, I’ve seen the inefficiencies and the craziness that goes on in it.

And so hearing you talk about this in the fashion industry is huge because again, that’s also, people don’t realize. What you’re wearing is being, it literally goes into your body. So like, there is nothing more important, like you said, the second breath of oxygen, are you kidding me? Like there’s nothing more critical than oxygen.

Eric Liedtke: This is everything the universe whispers in mysterious ways. So I’m glad we were able to come together today. But I would say, yeah, people don’t realize what goes into your body through your skin. Your skin is very absorbent and it’s the biggest organ we have, and I think we’re still learning that. A lot of people are doing, there’s a huge movement in beauty care and sunscreen and I applied all of it. The more research comes out, but better be careful which ones you’re using. And same goes with the clothing you put on. We should be very sensitive to putting on, you know, spandex. I’m sorry to say, but all of the activewear brands, aloes, the lulus, the skims, everything that’s against your body. Be very careful about what they’re made of.

Right now there’s nobody doing activewear very well because it’s hard, Stretch is very hard to solve. Like I told you, two years on a sock is unknown, is unprecedented. So I would just caution your listeners to really look hard. There are some beautiful material innovators coming up that are going to solve for this, but it’s hard. But every industry needs to go through these hard steps. And I think I’ve taken the challenge with a lot of others to do this in apparel and fashion. You’re doing it in real estate and building. What about beauty care, what about toys, what about, even looking at your house? I renovated my house recently and had to redecorate a few things and buy some stuff.

But trying to buy plastic free, carpeting or linens or things you put on your window, closures. It’s cushions in your couch, in your bed. It is like, oh, you lose your mind thinking about all the different areas it seeps into our environment. So my point being, there’s so much room for innovation. There’s so much room for people that are purpose driven and conscious, want to build conscious companies. I’ve never seen a bigger white space based upon where the world is. Where the consumers are headed, and where, and the opportunities that present themselves.

Pamela Bardhi: Eric, I love that. It’s like, mic drop on your end.

What would your older self tell your younger self based on what you know now

And I have one last question that I love so much, and I can’t wait to hear what you say. It could be business or personal or whatever. But what would your older self tell your younger self based on what you know now? What advice would you give?

Eric Liedtke: You know, I beat myself up for it, my parents were very accomplished individuals. My dad was a chief of cardiology at university Wisconsin, my mom was literally a rocket scientist. Out of school. She worked for Nassau, and this is back in the sixties, right? So she was, you know, so I, of course, took the back door. I was like, I’m not living up to any of that shit, I was a bit of a rebellious person. Difficult, I would say, especially in my teen and high school and college years. And I wish I would have been a better, more respectful person. Maybe somebody that didn’t rely on partying so much.

I wish I would have stopped some of those activities earlier on in my life. And maybe I could have been somebody better, but, it is what it is. They all accumulate into being who you are. But I often think, I wish I would have just tapped the brakes a little bit more and been more appreciative. Gotten to know my grandparents better, been less of an asshole in my teenage years.

Pamela Bardhi: I think you’re doing quite amazing, though, where you’re at now. You’re changing the world and changing industries, my friend, you’re impacting so many lives, right?

Eric Liedtke: I hope so. Knock on wood. From your mouth to God’s ears, right?

Pamela Bardhi: Amen. Oh, my gosh, Eric, you are amazing, I love the mission that you’re on. I loved hearing your journey and all the incredible advice and just everything. You are amazing. Now, for everyone who’s listening, that’s like, how do I get in touch with Eric? How can I check out? Unless, I know we’re going to have a link in the. In the show notes for sure. But is there a great place to reach you? Website social?

Eric Liedtke: I mean, listen, you can, Unless collective.com is basically the place you can really communicate with the brand. I’m happy to communicate with you as well. On LinkedIn or on instagram? Both. Just my name. So, yeah, it’s like, listen, the more the merrier. We call ourselves the unless collective, because the collective is what we’re trying to build. It’s like everyone can join. Don’t care if you’re an engineer, a designer, an artist, an advocate, an activist. It really doesn’t matter, we all need to create the change we want to see in the world. And that’s what we’re about, so come join.

Pamela Bardhi: Amen. Eric, thank you so much, man. This was amazing.

Eric Liedtke: Thank you very much, Pam. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to meet you and join your show.

Pamela Bardhi: You are incredible. It’s been an honor and a pleasure. On my end, learn so much. You’re just amazing, Eric, thank you. So that’s it for today’s episode of Underdog. Catch us next week. Always dropping on Thursdays. And remember, if you’re interested in real estate or want to learn how to create more money and magic in your life. Check out meetwithpamela.com and let’s chat. Sending you so, so much love.

 

Tune in to the episode to hear the rest of my incredible interview with Eric Liedtke. If you found this story worth your time and made changes in your life, we’d love to hear from you! Subscribe and leave a review. The Underdog Podcast host is none other than Pamela Bardhi. She’s rocking the Real Estate Realm and has dedicated her life as a Life Coach. She is also Forbes Real Estate Council. To know more about Pam, check out the following:

If you’re interested in elevating your life 10x, and owning your power, Pamela invites you to join her for a 15-minute call to set your goals straight and get clarity. Start building your game plan now: meetwithpamela.com