Why “The Schmidheiny Story: The Sustainable Truth?”

Stephan Schmidheiny is an entrepreneur and philanthropist whose visionary ideas contributed to the world’s agenda for sustainable development since 1976 when, at 29, he assumed leadership of his family’s company, Swiss Eternit.

A group of organizations, some linked to Stephan Schmidheiny as well as others created by him throughout his career, felt that it was time to create “The Schmidheiny Story: The Sustainable Truth” for those who are interested in his work, as well as to make available information about the trial he is involved in.

The purpose of this public narrative is to put into context the business and philanthropic life of the pioneer in the elimination of use of asbestos in manufacturing, a precursor of risk investment, an innovator in philanthropy and impact investment, and the motivation behind our organizations.

In his youth, he was a pioneer in eliminating the use of asbestos in manufacturing…

…when, months after assuming the leadership of Eternit, he met with management to encourage them to take measures that would reduce the risks of handling and transporting the mineral; he invested millions of dollars in adapting the company’s plants to make them safer; he developed programs on how to protect the environment; and, since 1981, financed the research that allowed them to discover a substitute for asbestos in the production of cement fiber plates.

In 1984, when governments, as well as the industry itself, had not yet adopted safety measures with regard to asbestos, Eternit, headed by Schmidheiny, replaced a significant percentage of asbestos in their production process. Schmidheiny tried to convince the heads of other companies in the same field to do likewise, but was not successful. The investments that were required to instate these new processes made some of his plants unviable and were consequently shut down. In 1989, Schmidheiny decided to sell his shares in Eternit and retired from the industry.

During the 1980s he was a precursor of hedge funding. He diversified his businesses, motivated by the challenge of buying companies that would require significant restructuring in order to continue operating, or investing in sectors that were in crisis in Switzerland, such as the watchmaking industry—at that time it was greatly threatened by Japanese watchmakers. Thus, Schmidheiny restructured his assets by transforming companies and industries in crisis that, judging by traditional investment standards, should have gone bankrupt or disappeared.


In his later life, since the 1990s through the beginning of the 21st century, he became an example of sustainable growth throughout the world. He helped plan the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and initiated the establishment of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). He chose Latin America as the place to develop a new innovative strategy for impact investment by establishing Fundación Avina—he did so in order to promote the inclusion of social and business leadership in sustainability. Through FUNDES, he strengthened the capabilities of small and medium businesses, which are important factors in developing and generating jobs.

He created the VIVA Trust, formed by investments and shares in profitable Latin American businesses, so that his work would endure after his retirement. Most of the revenue generated by the Trust goes toward philanthropic activities and is used to finance initiatives and organizations that continue to create transformations that transcend his personal contributions.

Stephan Schmidheiny is an individual who faced a problem and leaves several solutions as his legacy.”

Due to his characteristic sense of discretion, Schmidheiny has maintained a low personal profile, which is why we know very little about his personal life or the extent of his business and philanthropic career path. Since neither his work nor the impact it has generated have been adequately measured, certain accounts—especially those linked to the trial in Italy regarding asbestos—have sought to distort his career and the importance of his contributions to society in order to damage his public image in a way that is not fair to him nor his work.

Through “The Schmidheiny Story: The Sustainable Truth,” the organizations that promote this site hope to provide relevant information so that Schmidheiny’s work and career can achieve the widespread exposure and scope they deserve, as well as provide a place where discussions generated by asbestos issues can be held rationally and generate constructive proposals.