Posts within ‘Rantings of Responsible Bootmakers’
CEOs don’t get paid to watch the grass grow. So, staring out the window this morning, looking at the Victory Garden sprouting in its raised beds in our front yard here at Timberland is hardly serving my shareholders, which is my fiduciary responsibility.
But staring I am, as Yoda might say.
A few months ago, we announced that VF Corp, a powerful force in our industry would pay $43 a share to our shareholders, acquiring the company and the brand and the culture that my grandfather founded, my father built and I stewarded. Between Nathan and Sidney and Jeff, we have invested more than 100 years of our living in an idea and a dream and a passion. And so when we made the announcement, we did so with a wicked strange blend of bone rattling emotions.
How to think about this, as the last sturdy vegetables, flowers and herbs strain towards a September sky here in New Hampshire? We built this Victory Garden a few years ago, and I honestly get deep joy watching my colleagues invest some of their Path of Service volunteer hours to compost and mulch and sow and reap organic produce, which is sold in our headquarters, with the proceeds going to feed the working poor here in southern New Hampshire. When the idea of paid time to volunteer in the community was an idea, it burned in my gut. When victory gardens and codes of conducts for ensuring basic human rights went from an idea to a shared passion, things started to happen. And when shared passion bore fruit, sustainable change began to appear. One bed of vegetables in the New Hampshire corporate wilderness became a full scale garden, and has continued to spread across the blank, industrial face of our HQ building. Hardy fruit trees now surround the flagpole in front. Makes me smile. And honestly, this morning, generates some tears too.
For three generations, we’ve tried to create and master a weird new kind of modern dance—the one that blends the foxtrot of “fiduciary responsibility to shareholders” with the tango of “authentic brand building,” with the Alvin Ailey contortion of “sustainable for profit business practice.” Today, having sold the company, I am sitting in the corner office/dance studio of a for-profit business poised on the brink of becoming a truly sustainable enterprise, reflecting, wondering.
Recently, I listened to the acquirer’s CEO addressing Timberland employees, in an open air town hall meeting (we take the 10 minutes of New England summer time seriously here, and so when we can meet outdoors, we do). It tore my guts out, to sit in the community gathering as a listener, watching my colleagues watching the new boss, wondering what changes are in store for our brand, our business, our community.
I held my breath for much of the 90 minutes outdoors, listening to the new leader speak, watching my colleagues listen. And then, in best Timberland/New England fashion, the town hall went to work, with questions, respectful but engaged, authentic, old-fashioned civic democracy. Employees acting like citizens, raising fears, expressing concerns, asking for information.
Made me smile and shake my head. This is New Hampshire, which means some time too soon, a whole host of slick candidates will parade through our small towns, playing at democracy. Staged, phony, self-dealing, pandering politicians. Watching the new guy standing in front of the Timberland community was inspiring—reminded me that the right kind of for-profit business leaders are really accountable, personally and practically, in a way that should be a model for our so-called political leaders. Whatever this leader said or committed to, his employees will hold him to account. Not once every four years—every single day. Engaged democracy—not a fiction or an aspiration, rather a principle in practice, even in a stressful circumstance.
And right on queue, as I was appreciating democracy in actual practice, an environmental activist in our ranks rose, way in the back, to ask the new guy, the Boss to Be, about sustainability.
“Tell us, please, why sustainability is important to you.”
Wow. That is town hall democracy the way Rockwell painted it. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide—respectful, but a “no quarter granted” question.
And the man with whom I negotiated hard and long for the best possible deal for shareholders stood his ground, and answered, authentically and naturally. “The answer is simple—we believe that sustainability is good for the business and good for the world environmentally.”
He went on; the answer got more detailed and more concrete. But I had stopped listening.
For 30 years, we’ve been trying, fighting, struggling, to choreograph the intricate interaction between shareholder value, consumer demand, and social accountability. I have the scars, and the long list of failed efforts, incomplete outcomes, unrealized dreams and frustrated ambitions before my eyes all the time that reflect this passionate effort. And yet in this poignant moment of transition, from a business run by my family for three generations to a business to be run by relative strangers–here is the CEO of a 10B$ powerhouse, talking about sustainability simply and easily—good for business, good for the earth. And he means what he says. And it strikes me, hard, as I sit there—30 years later, a vitally important conversation has shifted. Maybe, there comes a time to say, “my job here is finished.”
Used to be, “what in the world does for-profit business have to do with social issues? That’s the purview of the government or the church.” And yet here, and now—I hear this powerful leader telling my colleagues, announcing to the whole damn world, that the question is not “if” corporations should be involved in questions of sustainability—not “if,” only “how.” Thirty years later–the corporate conversation turns from “if” to “how.”
Has been one heckuva journey, these nearly 30 years…
Watching the Victory Garden struggle up towards the heavens on this, my final morning at work in corporate America….
Why is it that the world’s coolest brand sees a choice between delivering new culture changing products and delivering them … sustainably? How does Apple get away with such a limited imagination in this day and age?
CEOs of publicly-traded companies in the fashion industry don’t get the “pass” that comes to the super cool Apple leaders and their uber cool company. Meaning, my shareholders and my consumers insist that we create profit, quarter by quarter, and that we do it … in a sustainable fashion, both in terms of environmental practice, and in terms of transparency and safe working conditions in the supply chain. Why does a boot maker get held to a higher standard than an iPad maker?
Is it because consumers of iPads and iPhones and iMacs don’t care about how their products are made, about how much energy was used, what chemicals were involved, what impact on the environment the manufacturing process wreaks, or whether the rapidly churned products will end up being recycled or in a landfill at the end of their usable life? I doubt it. The elite technology adopters who “wear” their Apple products like a badge of hipster coolness seem to me like the very center of the “moral capitalism” consumer universe—hanging at Davos, orating at TED, elbow rubbing at SXSW. As a wannabe cool guy, I sit here with my headphones on, listening to my iPod and working on my iPad, wanting to feel as cutting-edge as the technology at my command … but instead, I feel a little sick. Because a brand that’s seen as a world leader is, in this case, failing to lead.
Apple refuses to set targets for reducing its carbon emissions. Despite Chinese factory workers falling seriously ill after being exposed to a toxic chemical while manufacturing Apple products, the company remains tight-lipped about its supply chain – presumably prescribing to the belief that that supply chain secrecy is key to competitiveness. It’s an argument that sounds vaguely familiar: in the last decade, some in the fashion industry pleaded the same argument with activists. The outcome? These days everyone knows where Nike and Timberland and adidas manufacture —names, addresses—and the “competitive secret” argument is debunked. Period. Don’t tell me cool and sustainable aren’t compatible—there are too many examples in the marketplace, earning plaudits from consumers and activists for anyone to believe otherwise.
With success and leadership comes a heightened expectation of responsibility – and Apple is failing that test. And the worst part? The company’s “rebel without a corporate responsibility cause” attitude doesn’t seem to hurt it one bit with consumers or investors.
Many of us – myself included – are perpetuating a mind-blowing double standard, proudly browsing the organic produce section and flaunting our recycled grocery totes … but wave the “it” technology product of the month in front of us, and we forget all about business’s need to be transparent and accountable and responsible.
Why should consumers like me have to choose between transformational technology and moral consumption? To iPad, or not to iPad—why is that the question? Why shouldn’t Apple’s leadership instead have to raise its game, and make their cool products and their cool company more socially accountable? If Apple would replicate the speed-to-market rigor and innovation of their product development in their corporate responsibility agenda, consumers like me could have our cool and self respect.
Apple should keep exceeding my expectations for products, but not at the expense of my expectations for social and environmental responsibility. They can and must show leadership in sustainability, not just in technology. That would be Thinking Differently.
I believe that the current paradigm of problem solving in the civic square is inadequate; what results from the uncoordinated efforts of well intended “players” in the world around us stares us in the face and indicts us for our limited imaginations. As a small company with big dreams, we have known from the get go that only by collaborating—with NGOs, with activists, with critics, with governments, and even with competitors—only through an engaged stakeholder network will we leverage real and sustainable change. Building this paradigm, of awkward collaboration, is incredibly frustrating and potentially transformative.
Case in point: last summer, as part of our on-going, quarterly stakeholder engagement process, we hosted a stakeholder discussion (The Need for Product Comparability) regarding the role of environmental labeling on products in the outdoor industry. We hosted critics, activists, thought leaders, and practitioners. I co-hosted the call with a passionate outdoor retailer, a sustainable leader in retailing — MEC CEO David Labistour. In the process of engaging stakeholders, we confronted real, vexing questions — as for instance, whether our industry should put an environmental label on all products starting yesterday, or whether we should focus more of our industry efforts on perfecting standards and measures and methodologies. And underlying the discussion were months, literally months, of head-breaking conversations and negotiations within the Outdoor Industry Association, all aimed at developing and implementing an industry-wide label and metrics—the OIA Eco Index. For an entrepreneur, for a person of principle—all this process, all this negotiating with stakeholders, all this consensus building is back breaking and worse—but as a small company with big dreams, we know that only through this paradigm of awkward collaboration are we going to make sustainable change. The OIA will get its Eco Index built and implemented—in part because un-natural collaborators (arch competitors like Timberland and Nike and Patagonia, or customer/suppliers like Timberland and MEC) are doing the awkward work of real collaboration.
Establishing meaningful dialogue in order to change the old problem-solving paradigm can be awkward in its own right. Out of a passionate blog post I wrote grew a real conversation with a principled competitor — Jochen Zeitz, the Chief Sustainability Officer of PPR. Credit to Mr. Zeitz for reaching out and establishing a conversation, which discovered a shared urgency around the need for deliberate collaboration in an industry that can be fiercely insular. In the last 10 years, we have spent time with our competitors and with our suppliers and with our customers—awkward collaborations, most of those– to share information, dig deep, and see what we can learn from each other. In every instance I’ve come away learning something, better for the process.
And now, I’m set to do it again. Thank you, Mr. Zeitz, for taking the time to call – I look forward to meeting in Germany, and beginning in earnest the awkward dance of collaboration that drives sustainable change.
Too bad that the communications department at PPR, the parent company of Puma and Gucci, doesn’t seem to be held to the same standards of original design and creativity that the product design departments are. Their recent announcement about a new sustainability agenda focused on the social and environmental impacts of PPR’s business reads a lot like an off-the-rack knock-off of existing thinking, re-packaged as important business leadership. Tant pis; the world needs better.
That PPR aspires to be an active builder of Moral Capitalism is heartening. Way too few CEOs in this industry are even remotely serious about real sustainability. In a world where government leadership on climate change is hot air rhetoric, period, private sector leaders have a unique opportunity to link solid, for-profit thinking/doing with sustainable business practices, creating real profit and social impact.
So, to les Pinaults, bienvenue, welcome — glad you are determined to be involved in the conversation. But if you want to lead—the way a Gucci design leads—we need much more from you.
First, check the rhetoric about “groundbreaking” and “pioneering” and “world’s first” in the press materials. For more than a decade, a group of competitors have been doing serious work to build sustainability into the fashion industry. You are more than welcome to join the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco-Working Group, which has been laboring the past several years to create a standard measurement system for the environmental impact of products. Or, do connect to the Apparel Coalition, which counts as founding members the likes of Nordstrom and Gap and Adidas and Patagonia, who are trying to build consistent standards into how the apparel industry approaches sustainability. Sustainability in the fashion industry requires collaboration, period. If Walmart, with all their scale and power, believes that the best path to industrial reform requires other brands to collaborate rather than “go it alone,” then respectfully — connect to the existing efforts underway. Given your creativity, your brand building power, your star power — consider building on the existing coalition of the truly committed.
Second, if you are serious about sustainability, consider some understanding of existing best practices. Given the hurdles of consumer confusion, and government inaction, there is no time for anyone to reinvent wheels that are already rolling in the pursuit of sustainability. So it is disappointing to see you embrace buying carbon offsets as a best practice, rather than dedicating your creative energy to pursuing real, concrete emissions reductions in your operations and value chain. Four years ago our company publically set a measureable, concrete goal—to become carbon neutral by the end of 2010. To achieve carbon neutrality, we committed to cutting our emissions associated with our facilities and employee air travel by 50%. And with hard work we did exactly what you can do—we reduced our emissions—by 38%. We did not meet our goal of 50%, but we did fundamentally reorient our business practice. We began to transform ourselves into a sustainable business. And so when we wrote the check offsetting the balance of the emissions we are accountable for, we wrote the check with the determination that with more innovation, more hard work, more commitment, the “check writing” part of our sustainability agenda can be for a very short time period. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t rework your value chain to eliminate emissions—if we can, you surely can.
No one in the fashion space has more vision and daring than you. No one competes harder than you. You lead in our industry—and so more is expected of you, once you leap onto the short list of fashion brands that know we can create profit for shareholders in a sustainable fashion. Lights are down, influential eyes are all set in their chairs, the catwalk is empty, the curtain is opening….and because this is the PPR sustainability show, there are big expectations. Lights, camera…. let’s see PPR’s leadership in action.
I’m not Irish, but I’m sure feeling it today. St. Patrick’s Day in Boston is an unparalleled experience.
No, I’m not downing Guinness at the Black Rose … I’m celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by opening the new Timberland store on Boston’s famed Newbury Street. What’s so green about a shoe store? In a word, everything. From the tabletops reclaimed from old athletic bleachers to the recycled stoneware floor tiles to LED lighting and low VOC paints, we’ve designed this store – and the ones like it that will open later this spring in New York and San Francisco – to serve as a real-life example of how we’re working to reduce our environmental footprint and operate our business more responsibly and sustainably.
Despite the St. Paddy’s Day launch and the opportunity it gives us to cleverly (or not) play up the “green” aspects of our store, our commitment to environmental sustainability isn’t a marketing tactic … it’s as much a part of our heritage as Boston itself. My grandfather started this business as the Abington Shoe Company on Camden Street, just blocks from where our new store is opening today.
I can remember my grandfather stopping to pick up sewing bobbins off the factory floor when I was a kid … as he would pick them up, he’d say, “there’s a penny … there’s a penny …” it wasn’t called recycling in his day, it was called frugality. Make the best use that you can, for as long as you can, out of what you have – not in order to save the environment, but in order to save a buck. Three generations later, here we are staring at reclaimed wood countertops and marveling at the shiny new LED light fixtures. Same value, different outcomes.
Some might argue that it would be cheaper and less complicated to design our new stores with less emphasis on the environmental and more focus on, I dunno, the actual products we’re trying to sell … but then they would be missing the point that businesses today should be doing both. We don’t have to make a choice between creating beautiful, durable products that perform and operating our business in a way that’s mindful of the environment or our impact on it. To the contrary — as an brand and a business that makes boots, shoes and gear for the outdoors, it’s in our best interest to help preserve it … and reduce our impact on it, any and every way we can. Just as every new store puts us more boldly on the map, every step we take to put our environmental values into action – from Earthkeepers products to stores designed with environmental consciousness and consideration – lends credence to the notion that businesses can and should be a force for environmental good.
In the spirit of environmental responsibility, I can do without the Dirty Water (yech) … but otherwise, the Standells had it right. Boston, you’re my home … and there’s no place I’d rather be celebrating heritage and values and all things green today.
With the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti upon us, I’ve seen a fair amount of predictable media coverage that recounts the devastating events of January 12, 2010, and an equal amount of coverage that focuses on the continuing plight of the Haitian people one year later.
I’m pretty ambivalent about the media coverage. It’s not that I don’t think the situation in Haiti is worth remembering – I remember it all the time. I was there 2 weeks after the earthquake struck last January and the sights and smells and sounds of the scared and the mourning, the sick and the dead, the endless, massive piles of rubble – those are things that stick in my mind. I do remember. My wish is that there could be a greater purpose to all the “anniversary” coverage of Haiti’s demise … that we could realize more than just remembrance and renewed sympathy, do more than shake our heads sadly and turn the page, or change the channel.
Sympathy has its place – compassion can be an incredibly powerful driving force. But compassion in this case hasn’t proven effective. For all the good that’s been done over the past year – longer, even, since we’re talking about a country that was plagued by economic and environmental hardships long before last year’s earthquake — for all the support that’s come in to Haiti in the way of supplies and volunteers and money, it’s not enough. Much of the aid, it’s been reported, isn’t even getting where it needs to be. And even if every tent, every dollar, every box of food to date had been successfully directed and applied – relying on the good will and offerings of the rest of the world simply isn’t sustainable.
No, Haiti doesn’t need another telethon or more donations. The best philanthropy efforts in the world haven’t and won’t solve for the more than 3,000 deaths to date due to cholera, or a more than 80% unemployment rate, or the fact that 1 million+ Haitians are living in makeshift shelters and unsafe, unsanitary tent cities. As Nicholas Kristof aptly pointed out in his New York Times op-ed last week, Haiti’s people don’t need food and clothing, they need to be able to care for themselves and support their families. They don’t need a handout, they need a ladder to climb.
There are pockets of progress to report on this front … Kristof cites Fonkoze, an organization which provides rural Haitians with economic support in the form of loans, education and training. And Konbit, a program established by a team of MIT students, matches unemployed Haitians who might not otherwise have access to information about prospective job opportunities by way of an automated phone system. Positive, meaningful programs like these do exist and are making a difference in Haiti … but a handful of organizations aren’t going to raise the country out of the mud and make it whole again. It’s progress, but it’s still philanthropic progress. I do truly and deeply appreciate philanthropy – but we can’t expect humanitarian giving to replace a sound and sustainable business model – which is what Haiti needs most of all.
Think about it: what if Haiti could present a compelling ROI to potential “investors” and demonstrate a meaningful return for their contribution there? It would be a stretch — we’re talking about a country with a crippled infrastructure, corrupt government, widespread disease … and that’s just the headline. Think about the challenges of doing business in Haiti when everything from their sanitation system to their roadways to their power supply is unreliable or in some places, nonexistent. But changing the way we think about Haiti – regarding it not as the focus of philanthropy but as the source of potential opportunity – is the most compelling and promising way I can see to break the vicious cycle that’s got the country in dismal paralysis. Haiti needs the resources and opportunities businesses could bring to bear in order to start solving for its widespread instability … but that instability is precisely what’s keeping many businesses from going there.
Note that I said “many businesses,” and not “all.” There are many brands that have had manufacturing operations in Haiti for years, successfully … although like the nonprofit sector, it’s going to take more than the current roster to create any sort of discernible impact. And starting this year, there will be one more name on the roster: we’re in the process of establishing a Timberland manufacturing facility there. The factory is being built in a trade zone located in Oanaminthe, a town that sits on the eastern border of Haiti adjacent to the Dominican Republic. Oanaminthe is about 200 miles from Port au Prince, where the earthquake struck last January — but like Port au Prince, and most every other region of the country, it is an area of critical, persistent need. The unemployment rate there mirrors the rest of the country, the living conditions are dismal and the local community is desperate for a ladder to climb. With any luck, our factory will be open and operating by early summer … and while we’re starting small – 30 or 40 jobs to start – we’re hoping to grow to a point where we’ll need a workforce of 300 – 400 employees in the next few years.
Importantly, opening a factory in Haiti has some clear advantages for Timberland. It will help us build our manufacturing capacity in a region that’s closer to our major markets; the abundant, motivated workforce is pretty attractive, too. If the goal is to expand our manufacturing capacity in a manner and a location that makes economic and logistical sense, Haiti looks pretty good.
And as a company that’s committed to creating positive social and environmental impact at the same time we’re earning a buck, Haiti makes sense, too. For nearly 2 years now, we’ve had a program in Haiti called Yele Vert which is all about reforestation and sustainable agriculture. A little over a year ago we broke ground on the first Yele Vert nursery, with a vision of training local farmers to grow and cultivate trees, which would be sold (an economic boost for farmers and their community) or used to reforest the local hillsides. While the earthquake took us (along with much of the rest of the world) temporarily off-track, it never took us off course. A year later there are 6 Yele Vert community nurseries up and running at full capacity, with nearly 300,000 nursery-grown trees already planted by local farmers, and more than 100,000 slated to be planted in the next few months.
Since we’re already making social and environmental investments in Haiti, it makes sense – and is in our own best interest, if we want to see the Yele Vert vision become a blossoming reality – to invest our business there, too. And with the establishment of a Timberland factory in Haiti, we’re completing the equation and living up to our own business model, which prescribes that commerce and justice should coexist and be mutually supportive. I believe in our model of commerce and justice completely … and I’m as anxious as anyone to see it succeed in a country that is sorely lacking both.
Haiti probably doesn’t present as many compelling opportunities for other businesses as it does for Timberland, and I get that. It’s a unique combination of right-place-right-time factors that have convinced us to make the leap and give it a try. But the mentality that brought us to this point – regarding Haiti not as a repository for charitable giving and donations, but as a country that might in fact have something to offer us in the way of bottom-line business benefit – that’s the kind of shift in thinking I believe could be more valuable than check-writing and more profitable than a fundraiser.
Is going into business in Haiti a smart business decision? That remains to be seen. It certainly isn’t without substantial risks … but life, and business, is full of risks. I for one choose not to dwell on “what if” and focus instead on what might be … more trees, more jobs, more stability for Haiti; a stronger, healthier relationship between an historically downtrodden country and the businesses and organizations that engage with it.
Crazy CEO fantasy? Could be. But as long as the fantasy is better than realty, I’ll be working toward it.