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  The Ethical Consumer report includes several inaccuracies and incomplete or outdated information … not to mention ratings based on the opinions and judgments of editorial staff, rather than validated third parties.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 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

  • Timberland responds to assessment by Ethical Consumer « green & sustainable outdoor gear

    [...] You can find Timberland’s response, plus find links to the original report here. [...]

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