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Why Puma’s youngest-ever CEO says it’s up to business owners, not consumers, to drive sustainability

Myriam Robin /

Plenty of businesses have found a niche selling environmentally sustainable products to consumers who care about such things.

But sustainability should not be a niche, says leading sustainability advocate Jochen Zeitz. It shouldn’t even be consumer-driven.

Zeitz became CEO and chairman of sportswear company Puma in 1993 when he was just 30, making him the company’s youngest ever CEO.

During his tenure at Puma, its share price rose 4000% over 13 years as he revamped the company’s operations and packaging as part of a sustainability agenda.

He’s since stepped down from Puma to focus on The B Team, a sustainability advocacy group he co-founded with entrepreneur Richard Branson, as well as his role as a director at Kering, which designs and manufactures apparel and accessories for the world’s leading luxury and lifestyle brands.

On his first visit to Australia as part of the Australian Sustainability Conference, he told SmartCompany that businesses have more control over the level of sustainable production in society than they think.

“When you sell a product, you’re selling its function on one side, but also its appeal. And you control its appeal. Most products are commodities, so we buy things because we like them. Sustainability needs to be packaged and made sexy, so consumers actually switch over from traditional products.

“The design of a product, and hence its sustainability, play a very critical role. We need to turn sustainability into something that’s desirable for the consumer.”

Zeitz says small businesses, being “the large companies of the future”, have a responsibility and an opportunity to take sustainability head on.

“Big corporations have a lot of baggage,” he says. “Small businesses are able to quickly take on sustainability and make it desirable.”

Plenty of small businesses are already doing this. Zeitz nominates the local food movement, which tries to limit the amount of distance between food being grown and food being eaten, as one example.

“That movement, which is growing tremendously, is driven by small businesses, from farmers to restaurants to supermarkets.”

The easiest thing small businesses can do to boost their sustainable credentials is to take a close look at their efficiency from a resource point of view, Zeitz says.

This requires measurement. At Puma, Zeitz pioneered a system of measuring all resources used in the company’s products, making sustainability a quantifiable goal across the organisation.

“Metrics are important in business, not just from a financial, but also from a managerial point of view,” he says. “We need to make sustainability part of day-to-day business. And proper metrics to that are important.”

Metrics and efficiency won’t be enough. Ultimately, Zeitz says, we need innovation in how we manufacture and ship products. But knowing what’s going wrong is an important start.

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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