May 22, 2020
This article is part of BoF’s special edition, Can Fashion Clean Up Its Act? Click here to learn more.
LONDON, United Kingdom — Jochen Zeitz has spent his career advocating, and sometimes agitating, for change to more responsible business practices.
While many see fashion as an excessive and flamboyant part of the problem when it comes to addressing global environmental and social ills, Zeitz has made a virtue of the industry’s clout.
“Iconic brands have a tremendous opportunity to contribute to a change in consumer behaviour as a whole,” Zeitz told BoF Editor-in-Chief Imran Amed, mounting a defence of consumer culture when managed responsibly. “Growing while reducing has to be the parameter of the future. We can grow, but we have to reduce our footprint over-proportionately to the impact we are having through our growth.”
As Chief Executive of Puma, Zeitz brought the company back from the brink of bankruptcy, transforming it into one of the top three sporting goods brands in the world and driving a strong focus on positive social and environmental impact along the way.
He developed the environmental profit and loss account, which set a monetary value on the company’s environmental footprint, allowing executives to effectively monitor and set strategy around reducing the company’s impact. By this point, Puma was part of luxury conglomerate Kering, which adopted the accounting tool and still uses it to this day.
“Iconic brands have a tremendous opportunity to contribute to a change in consumer behaviour as a whole.”
A self-described “change agent,” Zeitz went on to co-found The B Team with Richard Branson, a non-profit focused on sustainable business practices. As Zeitz takes on a new challenge as Chief Executive of motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson, such issues seem more relevant than ever.
The coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the globe has thrown into sharp relief the negative impact of irresponsible business practices. The mass job loss resulting from global lockdowns, and the health risks key workers continue to take, have brought concerns about workers rights to the fore. Meanwhile, a sharp, if temporary, decline in global emissions have served as a powerful reminder of a significant potential source of the next major global crisis. A growing number of investors, consumers and regulators believe businesses that operate more responsibly will be more resilient in the long term.
“Now you can make the business case for the planet and you can say what we’re experiencing now with the virus is just a fast way of experiencing climate change that will happen over decades,” Zeitz said. “This virus is testament for a needed fast change in order to deal with a much bigger crisis that will be affecting all our lives around the world in 20, 30 years to come.”
“There’s still a lot of greenwashing out there and a lot of lip service.”
It’s an issue that has particular resonance for the fashion industry, which, for the most part, continues to operate under an archaic and extractive business model. Clothes are made using processes that belch emissions into the atmosphere, spew out toxic chemicals and generate huge volumes of waste every year. Throughout the supply chain, workers face exploitation in unsafe conditions at minimal pay. The system is inefficient, wasteful and disproportionately benefits a small group of powerful players that sit at the top of the industry.
Efforts to change need to go deeper than they currently do. “There’s still a lot of greenwashing out there and a lot of lip service,” said Zeitz. “Really embedding it into the core of all of your products that’s what needs to happen.”
Already the crisis caused by Covid-19 has sparked vocal calls for change. Among other initiatives, a group of more than 60 designers and executives have published a proposal facilitated by BoF to reset the fashion week calendar. The International Labour Organisation has convened a working group to push forward efforts to protect garment workers from the crisis and establish more robust social protection systems for the long term. Outside of the industry, the UN has urged governments to use stimulus packages intended to restart economies reeling from coronavirus lockdowns to invest in green transitions and sustainable growth.
“I look at every crisis as an opportunity… to look at your business and how you operate and say what can we really essentially change to adjust ourselves to the new normal,” Zeitz said. “If businesses don’t ask themselves that question, you will be part of history, rather than the future.”