5 Questions for Puma’s Sustainability Chief

Puma wants to close the loop on its product life cycle.

To help reach that goal, the brand launched the fully recyclable or biodegradable InCycle collection of shoes, T-shirts, jackets and bags — its first full line of Cradle to Cradle-certified products — for spring ’13.

Puma’s roots in sustainability, however, run deep: The label formally began its quest for environmental awareness in 1999 under then-CEO Jochen Zeitz and last year put a value on its ecological impact with its Environmental Profit & Loss statement, a measure that took the same approach as reporting revenues. In 2008, Puma even spelled out those intentions in its mission statement (“to become the most desirable and sustainable sports-lifestyle company” in the world).

Justin DeKoszmovszky, global sustainability strategy and Puma Vision program manager, said developing the InCycle line taught the Herzogenaurach, Germany-based brand a lot about the sustainability of its operations. “It forced us to look at the macro level, asking do we have the infrastructure and a system [in stores and in production] that can actually close the loop?” he said. “And then we also [examined the micro] level: How do we print and pigment and dye?”

The company’s findings show up both in the shoes and in stores. To meet biodegradability standards and ensure that the shoes will break down into nontoxic and natural humus, the brand used undyed organic cottons and linens, stitched eyelets and a biodegradable plastic sole by partner company Apinat. The recyclable jackets, shirts and bags were reformulated into single-material constructions, and collection sites were set up in Puma stores.

The brand’s environmental P&L statement estimated that Puma’s InCycle Basket footwear style impacts the environment 31 percent less across categories than the conventionally produced version, with roughly 2.5 times less waste generated, starting from production through to the end of its lifespan.

Here, DeKoszmovszky talks big-picture goals and the challenges of making consumers care about sustainability.

Why did you focus on end-of-product life issues with the InCycle collection?
We know that the end of life is not the only thing we need to be working on, but closing the loop is an important theme for us going forward. When you look at the Environmental P&L statement, which came out a year ago, it identified raw materials use as [the area] where the majority of our impact is happening. The pinnacle [goal] would be to use a Puma T-shirt to make a new Puma T-shirt, or use the materials that are already in a Puma shoe to go right back into a new one so you don’t have that raw material coming in. But that’s the very long-term objective.

The Puma Basket is biodegradable instead of recyclable, like the T-shirt, jacket and bag. At this stage in the game, is biodegradability more attainable for footwear than recyclability?
That’s fair. It wasn’t without challenges itself, but we identified [biodegradability] as the way to go. Recyclability of footwear is possible, but you’re probably looking at [having to create] separations or else do a fully plastic shoe. But there are tons of innovations from material companies coming that will make things like that more possible.

Where are you with increasing consumer interest in Puma’s green story?
We have been driving more sustainability into our products, processes and supply chain, but we need the consumer to understand and value the work we’ve been doing. That’s not necessarily at 100 percent today. Engaging the consumers, educating them and making sure they’re aware of these critical issues is absolutely part of what we’re focused on. We work with documentary films — and obviously PR and marketing — to try to get awareness up. You’re talking about our charter consumer who is very young, on-trend and price-conscious — it’s not the typical “deep green” consumer of organic foods.

The InCycle Collection was purely lifestyle. Will the line eventually encompass performance as well?
InCycle itself is lifestyle focused, but the work we’re doing on sustainable materials and creating more sustainable products goes across both lifestyle and performance. While it’s not necessarily an overt sustainability story, when you make a lighter-weight running shoe, like Mobium, it’s going to take less carbon to ship it and it’s going to take less material to start with. In the performance sphere, we focus on making the highest-performing product we can while driving sustainability as much as we can, whereas with lifestyle there’s a bit more leeway there to drive what I call a pinnacle sustainability approach.

What’s the biggest issue facing Puma and other brands when it comes to sustainability in the marketplace?
If you look at consumer research, consumers are trusting brands and companies less. When you look at sustainability, they trust third-party certifications and they trust word-of-mouth more. [That’s why], at the industry level, the work of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is very strong, and our ability as an industry to create common ways of measuring and communicating what we’re doing on sustainability is going to be critical.

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