Archive for August, 2010

Reducing Emissions – Not Boycotting Fuel

Editor’s note: The following was written in response to public confusion over the last few days about Timberland and an alleged boycott of fuel derived from oil sands.

When you fuel up your car, do you have any idea where – actually, physically, where — the fuel comes from? We don’t either.  As our company doesn’t ship our products ourselves — we hire carrier companies to do it – we don’t have direct visibility to or authority over the choices our carriers make about the fuel they use to keep their trucks moving.

We do measure the greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning fuel to ship Timberland products.  And like most people, we pay attention to our fuel consumption for cost and climate reasons. We have a dedicated team that spends a lot of time and effort calculating the most efficient transportation routes from Point A to Point B in order to reduce shipping time and save fuel, which helps us cut costs and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Other ways in which we’re working to reduce our transportation emissions include making modal shifts (e.g. moving products by barge instead of truck),  and participating in a group called Clean Cargo that convenes brands and the carrier industry to measure and identify ways to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with shipping consumer products. We also have one-on-one conversations with our carriers and potential carriers during our contracting process to understand what steps they’re taking to reduce their carbon footprint. This information informs our decision about whether to hire or keep carriers.

We also partner with organizations that can help us better understand environmental issues and how we might contribute to positive, sustainable solutions.  For more than a year now, Forest Ethics has been teaching us more about the carbon intensity associated not with shipping, but with the feedstock that makes the fuel that goes into our carriers’ trucks.  What we’ve learned is that some fuels require more energy to extract and refine than others. This information has helped us to realize that we need to look at the emissions associated with shipping our product the same way we look at the emissions associated with producing our product – from the original source (such as the well, in the case of fuel or the cow, in the case of leather) right through to the finished product.

Easier said then done, since we don’t own any of the trucks that ship our products or employ the people that fuel them up. We’re a very small fish in the very large ocean of brands that ship products all over the world – but what we can do is facilitate conversations with our partners that lead to holistic solutions that improve social and environmental impact. Currently, we ask our carriers to tell us what they’re doing to measure and reduce their greenhouse gas footprint from well head through to fleet efficiency and route optimization. We do not boycott fuels because as mentioned above, we don’t have enough visibility into the fuel sources our carriers use to do so intelligently … and also because we don’t believe boycotts are the best path toward collaborative problem solving or positive sustainable outcomes.  We do stand committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and to continuing to push the boundaries on what is considered part of our carbon footprint through measurement, productive conversation, and holistic action – not boycotts.

Betsy Blaisdell
Senior Manager of Environmental Stewardship, Timberland

Community Gardening in China

Last fall, discouraged by the plot of abandoned wasteland in front of her apartment in China’s Guangdong Province, Xiao Qing decided to do something about it.  Qing, an employee at Dongguan Zerong Bag Co. Ltd. (a factory Timberland contracts with), cleaned up the plot of land and planted white radish.  While her initial planting didn’t yield great green results, the experience was rewarding and inspirational enough that Qing reclaimed another abandoned lot, and then another.  Over time her “garden” grew to include spinach, lettuce and celery … and her efforts attracted other community members interested in sharing in her land transformation.

What started as a simple, one-plot patch of white radish is now a lush, green community garden enjoyed and maintained by numerous community “farmers” who have fostered a friendship in and around a flourishing vegetable garden.  These farmers watch over each other’s crops, share seeds, and help each other with sowing, weeding, watering and harvesting.

Growing community and veggies at the same time … that’s good Earthkeeping.

Xiao Qing’s community garden

Room for Improvement in Green Reports and Rankings

As interest in and demand for eco-products increases steadily, so too does the number of lists, awards and entities attempting to qualify such products on their environmental attributes.  The intent of these lists is usually to help inform consumers on which products and brands are leading the pack in environmental responsibility and which are not – something we at Timberland agree is critical in an increasingly crowded marketplace with limited third-party standards for product sustainability. Unfortunately, the crowded marketplace of unverified environmental claims is not alone; the field of lists, awards and entities creating “green rankings” has also produced a bevy of information, each relying on different definitions and criteria to determine which brands and products deserve to earn their highest green honor.

Case in point: earlier this summer, Timberland was included in an “Outdoor Gear Special Report,” published by Ethical Consumer, a group in the UK who defines itself as the “leading alternative consumer organization.”  Their gear report reviews and rates more than 60 outdoor companies on their environmental and supply chain policies and provides readers with “best buy” advice based on their research.

Therein lies the problem – as it is with many of these kinds of guides and reports – the research.  The Ethical Consumer report includes several inaccuracies and incomplete or outdated information … not to mention ratings based on the opinions and judgments of editorial staff, rather than validated third parties.  Among the deficiencies in the Ethical Consumer report:

  • Companies (Timberland included) were repeatedly chastised for not responding to Ethical Consumer information requests.  Timberland has asked Ethical Consumer to let us know who their inquiry was directed to several times — so we can figure out where the communication breakdown occurred — but we haven’t yet received any response.
  • Timberland received poor ratings in several categories because, lacking complete information, the Ethical Consumer team assumed the worst.  For example – they called us out for selling merino wool socks.  It is true that some merino wool comes from Australia, where mulesing is a serious animal rights issue.  And since the Ethical Consumer team didn’t see anything on our website stating that Timberland does not contribute to the issue of mulesing, they assumed that we do.  As a transparency and reporting expert, I’ll be the first to admit that we should make our merino wool policy (which requires non-mulesed certification from our suppliers using any Australian wool fiber in our products) prominently available on our website – a fix we’re in the process of making.  However, assuming the worst leads the report writers to make judgments without real information – a practice the report in itself is trying to discourage.
  • Timberland and howies, a Timberland brand based in the UK, were both included in the report … and treated as one entity, sharing one supply chain, when in fact the two are entirely separate.  In some instances the Ethical Consumer team used Timberland information to “rate” howies, which was both confusing and incorrect. This leads me to wonder what else they may not have had clear or complete understanding of. As a related error, in several instances the report references Timberland’s 2006 social and environmental performance … but we publish quarterly CSR updates and our most recent (longer) report of CSR data and performance was released in 2009.

Lest this feel like sour grapes from a company that received bad marks, Timberland was not alone in being criticized in the report … nor in criticizing the report.  Other articles and blog posts have discussed the Ethical Consumer report and its shortcomings, including The Adventure Life, Treehugger, and Herald Scotland.

The Ethical Consumer report does have pockets of factual, useful information that consumers could learn from and companies could use to improve their sourcing and manufacturing operations. However, due to many inaccuracies and assumptions it’s nearly impossible to weed out what’s true from what is based on opinion. And Ethical Consumer’s gear guide is not the lone report that has inaccuracies or creates a list of recommendations or rankings that can’t be validated. A recent blog post by Marc Gunther makes a similar argument about another popular report (the 100 Best Companies list published by CRO Magazine). Opinions matter, but they shouldn’t be regarded as facts … and good intentions don’t necessarily make for fair and balanced reporting.

Without third-party standards to truly measure products sustainability, there will continue to be an abundance of rankings, lists and reports that raise awareness in general (which is a good thing), but don’t give consumers real tools to make responsible purchasing decisions (which is the detail we all lack for translating ideas into real change). To the folks at Ethical Consumer – whose tagline reads, “challenging corporate power since 1989” — I invite you to consider that there is often a missed opportunity for rankings organizations to verify information with the brands being scored. As someone who has worked for several advocacy and non-profit organizations, I don’t think such information sharing would skew factual evaluation, but instead could lead to accurate analysis of disclosure rather than judgment (or methodology)-created-in-a-vacuum.

As an example of how outdoor brands and editors with consumers’ best interest at heart can work in concert, I invite readers to visit www.ecoindexbeta.org. Here, stakeholders can review the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco Index – a standardized tool (developed by more than 200 brands, including Timberland, and with input from external groups) to evaluate outdoor products’ sustainability performance. Is it the holy grail of transparency and product comparability? We’ll see what the beta test shows… hopefully the next Gear Guide will be better informed as a result.

Beth Holzman
CSR Strategy & Reporting Manager, Timberland

Take Back the Tap!

In honor of  the first anniversary of Timberland’s ban on bottled water (give or take a month), we give you the Story of Bottled Water by  Annie Leonard.  Annie is the same woman whose Story of Stuff inspired us to take a critical review of our spending and consumption habits, and she’s done it again with this thought-provoking video on the bottled water industry.  Her explanation of “manufactured demand” (a phenomenon not limited to the bottled water industry, by the way) is reason enough to take 8 viewing minutes out of your day.

A Special Kind of Summer Camp

According to data from the China Women’s Federation, there are some 50 million children regularly left at home when their parents have to work as migrant workers in other parts of the country. These children lack supervision, attention and care from their parents for extended periods of time.

In July and August, Hong Kong NGO Wave5 and Pou Yuen footwear company organize a summer camp for nearly 700 of these “left behind” children, and Timberland employees in China volunteer for the project.  Below, photos and first-hand accounts from Timberland volunteers who are spending their summer making a critical difference for these children … and creating impact for themselves in the process.

“I admired the volunteers from Hong Kong tremendously. They were full of love, used their own vacation time, paid their own fee to come and take care of these ‘left behind’ children. Although many of them could not speak Mandarin very fluently, they used their hearts to convey knowledge, happiness and love to the children, the future of our mother land.”

“(At dinner one night) one of the girls carried her plates to the dining table, crying. The food almost fell. I hurried to help and by the time I reached the table, five or six of other little girls were crying as well. I asked them why they cried. From their broken sentences, I realized this was the last meal and their volunteer teachers had to leave. These girls didn’t want to say goodbye to their teachers.  They made cards with red hearts for us, saying they would remember us and would love us forever. I saw them working on those hearts and folding paper the day before during my class … it was only now I realized they were making gifts for us.”

“In the past week, I didn’t think I taught them anything, but they taught me to be pure, honest, simple … to trust and love. In the name of volunteering, I gained tremendous amount of love and blessings.”