Behind the Label: PUMA’s Vision and Clever Little Bag

Does PUMA’s sustainability efforts cancel out its shaky sweatshop record?

In 2010, global athletics brand PUMA wowed the sustainable design world when it unveiled the Clever Little Bag, its eco-effective reinvention of the classic shoebox. The product of a nearly two-year collaboration with Yves Béhar’s fuseproject, the Clever Little Bag consists of 65 percent less paper, reduces PUMA’s carbon emissions by 10,000 tons per year and requires significantly less water, energy and diesel in the manufacturing process. Plus, it’s reusable.

The project falls under the company’s “PUMAVision” for a world that is “safer, more peaceful and more creative than the world we know today.” But while PUMA is making strides in the world of sustainable design and packaging, the same can’t be said for its commitment to ethical manufacturing. For decades, PUMA has repeatedly come under fire for human rights violations in its developing world factories. The contradiction begs the question: can commitment to ethics and the environment necessarily be separated?

The Good

The 4Keys is the tool we have developed to help us stay true to PUMAVision, and we use it by constantly asking ourselves if we are being Fair, Honest, Positive, and Creative in everything we do. We believe that by staying true to our values, inspiring the passion and talent of our people, working in sustainable, innovative ways, and doing our best to be Fair, Honest, Positive, and Creative, we will keep on making the products our customers love, and at the same time bring that vision of a better world a little closer every day.

PUMA works to implement this PUMAVision through three programs: (addressing social and environmental issues), puma.peace (working for world peace) and puma.creative (promoting creativity).

The development of the Clever Little Bag fell under the program. When PUMA approached fuseproject to collaborate, their needs were simple, said fuseproject’s Bart Haney at a recent presentation for the Pratt Institute’s Sustainability Crash Course. PUMA wanted to completely redesign their shoebox, polybag and hangtag to be more sustainable, while also cutting costs.

The project began with a comprehensive lifecycle analysis, the findings of which were released to the public in a 50-page PDF document. In short, it was found that the Clever Little Bag would result in savings on the production side because of reduced carbon emissions; savings during transport because of the innovative shape and reduced weight; and influence on customer behavior, since the shoe bag would encourage reuse and eliminate the need for an additional polymer shopping bag.

Next, it was on to the design phase. After going through more than 2,000 designs and testing out more than 40 prototypes, the Clever Little Bag design was chosen. Made from non-woven polyethylene with a corrugated “bone” structure to separate shoes and provide stability, the design requires little assembly and considers transport, storage and retail display efficiency.

The PUMA hangtag also got a makeover, shrinking to save paper and incorporating icons from the PUMA Eco-Table to save space. As for the polybag, the solution was almost laughably simple, Haney said. By folding the shirt in half just one more time, designers were able to halve the amount of plastic needed.

The Bad

The positive press surrounding the Clever Little Bag launch couldn’t overshadow the human rights violations reported at PUMA factories in recent years. Though PUMA is a member of the Fair Labor Association and claims that it conducts regular independent audits, it is regularly called out by anti-sweatshop organizations for conditions at its 350 outsourced production facilities. For instance:

  • In January 2011, PUMA’s El Salvadoran producer Ocean Sky came under fire when sweatshop conditions and 60 hour-plus shifts were exposed by the American National Labor Committee.
  • In April 2011, 101 Cambodian garment workers fainted at the Huey Chuen factory in Phnom Penh due to long working hours and poor health and safety. And just a few months ago, a woman was shot during a labor protest in Phnom Penh calling for better working conditions and higher pay.
  • In March of this year, an independent study by the War On Want exposed working conditions in Bangladeshi factories producing Olympic apparel for PUMA, Nike, and Adidas. The report found that most workers make well under a living wage and have to illegally work over the 60-hour maximum in order to make enough to survive.

One report can be dismissed as an isolated incident. But frequent reports from factories around the world point to larger issues of neglect.

The Questionable

With its emphasis on sustainable innovation, PUMA is capable of creating industry-wide environmental change. The Clever Little Bag is proof that reimagining things like a shoebox can not only improve eco-efficiency but also cut down on costs – a fact that is already pushing PUMA’s peers to analyze their own packaging.

But if PUMA is serious about having a positive social impact, it must also take meaningful steps to improve working conditions along its supply chain. According to the PUMAVision statement, the company is constantly questioning its pursuit of fairness. Insisting on living wages and decent labor conditions in its overseas factories seems like a logical next step.


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Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.