Mr. Swartz Goes to Washington
Categories: Making Our Difference: TBL CSR, Rantings of Responsible Bootmakers
Yesterday afternoon, I found myself in an unusual place for a Thursday afternoon–at the White House, in a suit. Not sure I shouldn’t have dressed in Timberland jeans and boots; would have been a whole lot more comfortable. The setting was a small group of CEOs–principally, utility and power company execs, big hitters all of them, a total of 7 “business leaders” meeting with heavyweights in the Administration, at their request, to discuss ways to advance climate and clean energy legislation. No, not joking–power company execs and the Administration, talking cap and trade. Despite the fact I was wearing a suit, you could tell the difference between the big boys and the bootmakers; their DC lobbying staffs seemed as big as our sales force is–nationally. But a certain amount of “gee whiz, what are we doing in the room with these big guys” aside, I was proud to be at the table. For 20 years, we’ve been working at building a business model that says we can earn real profit for shareholders, while living a passion for preserving the place where we and our consumers love to recreate. Sustainability is the current language–we called it, “running a responsible business that serves the outdoors.” Call it what you will–it was good to be at the table. While the numerous and serious utilities represented around the table might have money to lose in this environmental battle, what we have at stake is our entire livelihood.
It was an impressive group and an important opportunity … and served as an interesting case study of the chaos of democracy. We spent too much time on discussion about The Bill before the House, and how to get it passed, and then how to get it through the Senate. A fascinating civics lesson, a wild opportunity to see how government really works–I listened to one power exec explain that while they were sure glad to be working to get this bill passed, they wanted to make dead sure the Administration knew that what they wanted in return was the government’s support for new nuclear plants. Hmn. Horse trading in a fancy room at the White House. For what it is worth, while they talked “deal,” and I listened intently, I also spent some time staring at the fancy chandelier. Full of incandescent light bulbs. At the White House. Do we need nuclear plants? Maybe, maybe not–I’m a bootmaker, not a policy maker–but I know with certainty, if the White House would change the light bulbs, and install low flush urinals in the men’s rooms (I visited–antique plumbing, and paper towels to dry your hand!), they would model a more real world kind of leadership. The very best solution to energy policy is…use less. Conserve more. Change the darned light bulbs in the chandelier. If everyone would do what they can do, then–maybe less horse-trading legislative support for a complicated law that may or may not work, in return for nuclear plants that may or may not be good for the world…
I made no friends with the powerful power folks when I got to speak for a moment; when the political leaders asked what we thought of the legislation, I told the truth–that the law got watered down big time by horse trading, to a 17% reduction in carbon emissions, and now involves giving away a ton of “get out of jail free cards” to the worst polluters. I pointed out the inconvenient truth–that over the last 2 years, compelled not by policy but by common sense, led not by theory but by a desire to run a more profitable and sustainable business, Timberland has cut our carbon emissions by 27%. Hmn. They keep talking, and we keep cutting, saving money, building more sustainable products. Our approach wasn’t mandated or designed by committee, it was the result of a sound business model coupled with passion for the outdoors and desire to preserve our business. It’s not nuclear power plant science, it’s just good bootmaking business.
In the end, I went home optimistic sort of, and resolute for sure. The good news is, the imperfect process of democracy is the greatest form of vibrant political discourse known. And it works. We are going to get climate change legislation, which is imperfect as heck but hey–we know that perfect is the enemy of the good, and we also know, you have to be in the game if you want to compete. So–this law is better than nothing. And the law is really just a clarion call to say–time to get to work. We have to make backroom legislative deal-making Washington-born policy consumer relevant.
Consumers /citizens want to do the right thing. They count on their elected representatives to make good policy, and they expect brands and businesses to play fair and do right. And then they can live the lives we all want. And when it comes to climate change, that is what they want–simple and clear ways to buy the goods and services they desire, in a fashion that won’t destroy their planet. Legislation putting the real price of carbon into the economy is a step in that direction. But only a step. Now, brands have to get into the game–to help consumers make the easy and good choices they want and expect.
Bootmaker goes to Washington, learns a lot, leaves with the optimistic sense that the government is trying to do its bit, leaves also with a renewed and reinforced understanding that government is necessary, but not sufficient.
Calling all CEOs. You can reduce your costs, increase your profits, delight your consumers and your shareholders. And, help preserve our environment.
President & CEO, Timberland