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A Common Thread: Timberland on Its Company-Wide Culture of Sustainability

Image Credit: Timberland

News Deeply, in partnership with Sustainable Brands, has produced a series of profiles looking at how brands are tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges. The goal is to examine trends and gather insights from a new wave of corporate citizenship – in an era when the private sector is increasingly expected to play a positive role in improving our lives and societies. This is the 11th article in the series.

Planting 10 million trees, giving employees paid time off to perform community service, designing new products made from recycled or organic materials – Timberland has many extensive and far-reaching sustainability initiatives.

According to Timberland’s sustainability director, Colleen Vien, the success of such programs is rooted in a culture of empowerment and responsibility that spreads “layer through layer” and impacts the company in small, creative ways, in addition to the large-scale projects.

“It will never work if you just have the CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] team with their metrics and they’re accountable for it,” Vien said. “It definitely has to go further within the organization than that.”

“When we started cascading it down from the top, everybody thought: ‘What’s my role?’ Then we started to see people thinking creatively across the entire organization, and ideas coming from all over for what the next product innovation would be, or how could we further reduce our waste at our headquarters.”

She cited a recent example of the workers in Timberland’s resource center who noticed a trend of unused office supplies being discarded, then came up with an initiative to ensure fewer resources were squandered.

“They recognized that there are so many office administrators ordering things from Staples, constantly. Things are being put in the dumpster, because somebody doesn’t like the way that binder worked or this pen worked,” she said. “They took it upon themselves to create an office supply repository. Now, before you order something from Staples, you can go down and see what they have because somebody else’s trash might be your treasure, so to speak.

“That’s a simple example of how, when employees understand that they actually have a part in sustainability, the entire company is thinking about it.”

News Deeply recently talked with Vien to learn more about Timberland’s commitment to sustainability and its ongoing efforts around the world.

ND: Could you give us an overview of Timberland’s sustainability program?

Colleen Vien: Timberland’s CSR efforts have always been framed around one basic, simple principle: “How do we make things better?” Over the years, we’ve grown to create ourselves and think of ourselves as Earth keepers in that way. Around products, there are two ways we go about that – in terms of what we put into our products, where they’re made, and making sure that the factory supply partners we work with share our values.

With respect to the outdoors, we’ve had large-scale tree-planting initiatives in China; the Dominican Republic, where we have a manufacturing facility; and in Haiti.

We’ve always had strategies around our Path of Service – the name for our employee benefit program. For 25 years, we’ve had this program where employees are afforded up to 40 hours of paid time off every year to give back to their community. We also think about how we can make it better for our communities by making sure that the community needs are being met as well.

ND: What are some of your current sustainability objectives?

CV: We have several metrics and targets for 2020, which are listed on our website. One example is, we want to see 100 percent of the cotton that we source for our apparel to come from what we’ve defined as sustainable sources, so that could be organic, United States origin, or BCI [Better Cotton Initiative]. Another example is, by 2020 we want 100 percent of our footwear that we manufacture to have at least one component of recycled, organic or renewable material.

With the outdoors, in terms of tree planting, we have now planted more than 9 million trees. Our goal for 2020 is 10 million, so we’re well on track for that one.

With respect to urban greening, we made a public commitment last year to double our footprint in our five major markets in the U.S. In the Bronx, in New York City, we looked at what was our retail square footage there, and then found opportunities to equal or be greater in terms of giving abandoned property some new green life. We did that in the South Bronx this year.

In terms of service, we hit 1 million hours of community service a few years back so we’re looking for another 500,000 in the next five years.

ND: That’s a very ambitious program. What are the challenges of implementing it and how have you overcome them?

CV: There are some challenges with product in terms of ensuring that we increase the use of good materials and decrease the use of bad. For good materials, it really comes down to the price points and the availability to have good, sustainable materials commercialized at scale. But there have been challenges in the past in terms of recycled rubber and finding a consistent supply of the kind of rubber that we would be able to use and repurpose into our outsoles.

We started out using recycled tires, then that became an inconsistent supply, so we switched over to recycled latex. We never gave up on that idea of the tires; we wanted to find a way to go back. Organic cotton is another challenge that we continue to struggle with.

How is this work affecting the bottom line? Is it proving to be positive, overall?

CV: We have many examples of sustainability being truly a driver of the bottom line. Most recently launched – our Thread collection of canvas goods, both footwear and accessories, made from canvas that is coming from recycled plastic bottles from Haiti. That is another example of how Timberland thinks about going about sustainability.

It’s not just about the environmental impact, but we want to find ways to tie that into a social impact, as well. [Timberland’s projects] are operating in Haiti and Honduras and they’re providing economic opportunities to people by way of giving them a job collecting plastic bottles, and then turning those plastic [bottles] into beautiful canvas fabric that we’ve incorporated.

What advice do you have for other companies looking to create a virtuous cycle between product and purpose?

CV: One thing is to believe it can be done. In 2007, we were consistently told that you cannot create sustainable products at a price point and a performance level that would meet consumer expectations. We took that challenge to heart and created what we could at the time: the most stylish boot with the most sustainable materials and at a price point that our consumers were accustomed to. It performed on par with our other waterproof boots. It’s the Earthkeeper boot.

Now, all of our products that are being designed have responsible materials being incorporated into them, and irresponsible materials being eliminated. It took us a while to get to that point, but that one boot helped us drive this internal process of design and thinking and sourcing that now transcends across all of our products, all of our categories.

We’re very pleased with that. And it’s because of those environmental product standards that we have across all of the product categories that we’re able to have these lofty goals for 2020.


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