Sustainabilty Demands Leadership, Not Posturing

Too bad that the communications department at PPR, the parent company of Puma and Gucci, doesn’t seem to be held to the same standards of original design and creativity that the product design departments are.  Their recent announcement about a new sustainability agenda focused on the social and environmental impacts of PPR’s business reads a lot like an off-the-rack knock-off of existing thinking, re-packaged as important business leadership. Tant pis; the world needs better.

That PPR aspires to be an active builder of Moral Capitalism is heartening. Way too few CEOs in this industry are even remotely serious about real sustainability.  In a world where government leadership on climate change is hot air rhetoric, period, private sector leaders have a unique opportunity to link solid, for-profit thinking/doing with sustainable business practices, creating real profit and social impact.

So, to les Pinaults, bienvenue, welcome — glad you are determined to be involved in the conversation.  But if you want to lead—the way a Gucci design leads—we need much more from you.

First, check the rhetoric about “groundbreaking” and “pioneering” and “world’s first” in the press materials.  For more than a decade, a group of competitors have been doing serious work to build sustainability into the fashion industry.  You are more than welcome to join the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco-Working Group, which has been laboring the past several years to create a standard measurement system for the environmental impact of products.  Or, do connect to the Apparel Coalition, which counts as founding members the likes of Nordstrom and Gap and Adidas and Patagonia, who are trying to build consistent standards into how the apparel industry approaches sustainability.  Sustainability in the fashion industry requires collaboration, period.  If Walmart, with all their scale and power, believes that the best path to industrial reform requires other brands to collaborate rather than “go it alone,” then respectfully — connect to the existing efforts underway.  Given your creativity, your brand building power, your star power — consider building on the existing coalition of the truly committed.

Second, if you are serious about sustainability, consider some understanding of existing best practices.  Given the hurdles of consumer confusion, and government inaction, there is no time for anyone to reinvent wheels that are already rolling in the pursuit of sustainability. So it is disappointing to see you embrace buying carbon offsets as a best practice, rather than dedicating your creative energy to pursuing real, concrete emissions reductions in your operations and value chain.   Four years ago our company publically set a measureable, concrete goal—to become carbon neutral by the end of 2010.  To achieve carbon neutrality, we committed to cutting our emissions associated with our facilities and employee air travel by 50%.  And with hard work we did exactly what you can do—we reduced our emissions—by 38%.  We did not meet our goal of 50%, but we did fundamentally reorient our business practice.  We began to transform ourselves into a sustainable business.  And so when we wrote the check offsetting the balance of the emissions we are accountable for, we wrote the check with the determination that with more innovation, more hard work, more commitment, the “check writing” part of our sustainability agenda can be for a very short time period.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t rework your value chain to eliminate emissions—if we can, you surely can.

No one in the fashion space has more vision and daring than you.  No one competes harder than you.  You lead in our industry—and so more is expected of you, once you leap onto the short list of fashion brands that know we can create profit for shareholders in a sustainable fashion.  Lights are down, influential eyes are all set in their chairs, the catwalk is empty, the curtain is opening….and because this is the PPR sustainability show, there are big expectations.  Lights, camera…. let’s see PPR’s leadership in action.

  • Project Dirt

    Thanks Jeff – really good to hear some pressure being put on the industry to “think” more before speaking, rather than always coming from (a small part of) the consumer base. Let’s hope they listen to you, and team up to share ideas.

    Jeff… I’m wondering what are your thoughts on the Green Xchange?

  • IBLF

    Great blog article, Jeff. Here at the International Business Leaders Forum (, we work with MNCs on their sustainability agenda, and we’ve found that it’s absolutely hands-down crucial for CEO engagement on the CSR mandate, versus relegating it to the company’s CSR department. To deliver a high-impact, responsible business framework, companies need to ensure this is set ‘from the top’- this also boost employee engagement and stakeholder buy-in. You are spot on about private sector leaders needing to take a lead role in sustainability. Take a look at our new blog on leadership and sustainability, would be great to know your views:

  • Kemp Edwards

    Ahhh… the sweet sound of leaders actually leading by example. Well stated Jeff. Now the consumers need to make their voices heard via their spending habits.

  • Michelle Bernhart

    Great post. You took the words right out of my mouth (except that I wouldn’t have been clever enough to include tant pis—une belle touche).

    You make excellent points: we need leadership and collaboration, posturing and empty rhetoric have no place, newcomers should leverage the hard and committed work of others who preceded them, peers should cooperate in addressing shared sustainability challenges. In fact, I agree with all your assertions—except one. Most of PPR’s sustainability faux pas (now I’m overusing the French references) appear to have taken place in the decision making and governance process(es), not in the communications department. As you note, the company hasn’t joined the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco-Working Group or the Apparel Coalition and they tout carbon offsets as best practice. These don’t represent communications oversights, though; they reveal a lack of awareness, commitment, and strategy at higher levels.

    Sure, some eager communications or marketing employee tapped into the inappropriate “first-ever” lexicon, but I suspect it’s because s/he doesn’t realize the company’s stance on anything falls far short of groundbreaking (not to mention that it’s hard to keep your communications job if your headlines read, “PPR a Latecomer to Sustainability: CEO Announces Bold Plans for Superficial Approach!”

    I recognize you weren’t pinning blame on any single person or group (and that dissing the communications department in the first line of your post simply allowed for effective contrast with the innovative work done by the company’s product designers), so let me say what you didn’t: the buck stops with senior leadership. If communication about PPR’s sustainability approach is as lightweight as an Yves Saint Laurent silk blouse, it’s because senior leadership seems to have adopted, so far at least, an uncharacteristically unsophisticated perspective.

    By the way, I fully recognize you live and breathe “the buck stops here” every day, putting yourself front and center in ongoing stakeholder dialogues about Timberland’s sustainability, insisting on unflinching looks at your company’s supply chain, and seeking answers to the hard questions, time and again.

    And, I confess to being protective of my fellow communication professionals. After more years in this field than I can count, I’ve seen too many excellent communicators held responsible when products fail to sell, markets aren’t cornered, customers bail, earnings drop, or investors scatter. I’d love to think we have that much direct control, but we don’t; still, we absorb a lot of the blame.

    Regardless, I hope PPR leadership will step back, critically assess their position on and appetite for the true sustainability journey, and decide to put some real substance and resources behind their statements. Among many other steps, this will involve engaging communications professionals as integral advisors, partners, consciences, and transparent ambassadors of the organization. Until that’s done, I’m afraid we’re looking forward to a PPR sustainability approach that’s not nearly as pioneering as its fashion, yet every bit as fleeting.

    - Michelle Bernhart

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  • Cary Krosinsky

    I expect better from Jeff than this misleading piece – Puma is doing some interesting work on environmental P&L – the majority of the footprint we face a a global society comes from coal, oil & gas, followed by food & chemicals on the overall impacts scale – the rest is in the margins of error – we need to do something about the overall footprint – the rest is noise

  • Margaret Morey-Reuner

    @Project Dirt – We’re big fans of any effort that seeks to share resources and increase transparency around sustainability – present company included. Thanks for reading and, more importantly, engaging.

  • Jochen Zeitz

    I appreciate Mr. Swartz’s blog on our new sustainability initiative and appreciate critical feedback. We hope to continue receiving constructive criticism from the industry as we move into our full stride. At PPR HOME we recognize that the Luxury sector must not focus on ‘the end justifying the means’ but rather the ‘means justifying the end’. Indeed, we strive for the consumer to associate luxury with high standards of quality, equitable sourcing as well as products.

    As part of our process, in order not to reinvent the wheel and also to build on best practices as well as seek novel approaches, we sought the involvement of over 130 experts and academics in the realms of sustainability, conservation, humanity and culture, prior to launching PPR HOME. All which we believe will enable our Group to develop more sustainable business solutions. The Group’s Sportlifestyle brand PUMA, where I have also been the CEO for the last 18 years, has made significant progress in sustainability :
    • Rated sustainability leader within the DJSI Tex Clothing Accessories and Footwear sector in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI)
    • Received the German Sustainability Award for “Most Sustainable Strategy 2010”
    • A target of reducing carbon, energy, water, and waste by 25%, and developing 50% of international product collections in footwear, apparel and accessories according to PUMA’s S-Index by 2015

    PUMA and PPR HOME will soon be sharing the results of the first stage of PUMA’s Environmental Profit & Loss Account. We also don’t believe in rhetoric but we do believe that PUMA’s EP&L approach is a ‘worlds first’ and ‘groundbreaking’ for an international company. I would welcome being told differently so that we might learn from the experience of another. By quantifying the extent of our impact we hope to enable ourselves and our industry to better manage identified impacts along the supply chain and this is where real awareness and change in business operations can impact our future for the better – by integrating the values of nature into corporate sustainability strategy, planning and decision-making. I believe in collaboration and would welcome sharing and discussing our outcomes about an E P&L in a companies business plan. At PUMA, we have been collaborating with the European Outdoor Group as well as being members of AFIRM, WFSGI, FESI, Textile Exchange, UN Global Compact and the FLA and our luxury brands are members of organizations such as the Sustainable Luxury working group (set up by the Business for Social Responsibility) and the RJC (Responsible Jewellery Council). Collaborative impact on impact approaches and building and learning from others good work are helping move our sustainability agenda forward and once PPR HOME is past its initial phase we want to expand and collaborate with many more.

    Regarding our purchase of carbon credits: I totally agree that emission reduction is the ultimate goal for us all. Aside from PUMA’s goals outlined above, the Group has been effectively reducing CO2 emissions from transport and has committed to reducing CO2 emissions related to infrastructure having had, as an example, a wide-scale distribution of The Green Toolbox best practices guide produced by PPR and its Subsidiaries. PPR has published precise and measurable targets in sustainability for each of its branches and part of the variable compensation of CEOs is linked to the achievement of these targets. At PPR HOME, our goal is to work to reduce and mitigate our environmental impacts but also to develop initiatives and businesses that will have a positive impact environmentally and socially. For now, what cannot be reduced must be offset – an option we all hope to reduce our reliance on over time. However, in arranging for our 2010 offsets we chose to partner with the world’s first Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) validated and verified REDD program in Kenya; an initiative that tangibly benefits the needs of the local communities and the conservation of biodiversity.

    I hope to remind Mr. Swartz and other industry colleagues that this was an announcement of our commitment to a journey ahead not a report of our results. This will come in due time. We welcome comment and encouragement on our progress and appreciate learning from others.

    Jochen Zeitz
    Chief Sustainability Officer, PPR

  • Jeff Swartz

    I give real respect to PPR for picking up the gauntlet, and taking on directly the challenge of sustainable leadership in practice. I believe that changing the culture of industry requires a different kind of industry collaborative discipline than is the norm and will require far more than conversation. PPR has made real efforts, and asserts to make more. The power of PPR to add innovative energy to the challenge of defining and operating sustainable for profit businesses is real, and the possibilities exciting. Mr. Zeitz, very glad to have your powerful voice added to the sustainability movement within our industry. If ever you want to leverage the thinking and learning of your colleagues in this industry… Don’t hesitate to call.

  • Robm

    fabulous – what a splendid topic to swing handbags over

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  • David

    STOCK #78517…………..PLEASE, PLEASE PLEASE!!!!

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