Update From the Amazon

So when 65,000 new friends introduce themselves to your e-mailbox in a week, endlessly resending a form letter written by Greenpeace accusing your company of being part of the deforestation of the precious ecosystem called the Amazon rainforest, what would you do?

To understand Greenpeace’s assertion that our business practice directly leads to deforestation in the Amazon, you’ve first got to know that it is cattle ranching that is causing the deforestation — ranchers cutting down the forest in order to allow livestock to graze. That livestock is raised primarily for tailgate hotdogs or your mom’s meatloaf recipe — not for leather.  Leather is a co-product of beef which accounts for less than 10% of what a farmer gets paid for his cow.  The hides that result from raising cattle for food become the raw materials which Timberland’s suppliers turn into leather for our footwear.  Further facts — we source about 7% of the leather for our products from Brazil — obviously, a small percentage of our overall need.  And finally, in our industry, best practice for diligent brands that focus on the social/civic aspects of their value chain audit and manage processes and materials back to the tannery — but not all the way back to the cattle production process.  To accurately assess our role in the issue requires working backward up the supply chain, through the tannery who is our supplier, to another company, the beef processor in Brazil, in order to know where the cows grazed.

Given that we don’t have “trace-ability” in the value chain back to the cow grazing in the field, it would have been infinitely easier, when Greenpeace first brought the issue to our mailbox, to simply stop doing business with our Brazilian supplier.  No more leather from Brazil, no more issues with tracing hides which may have come from cows grazing in deforested areas of the Amazon rainforest.  We’re only talking about 7% of our production — so cut and run, right?

Tempting, but not the right thing to do. Disengaging would have solved OUR problem — no more headaches or emails from angry activists — but would do nothing to solve the problem of deforestation.  Even as we fumed at the way Greenpeace had approached this issue we asked ourselves, what is the responsible thing to do?  Do we walk away and let the beef processors sort this out with Greenpeace, or do we risk further ire, by staying in the conversation and engaging the leather tanner and the beef processor to solve the real environmental challenge?  What would you choose to do?

We decided to stay engaged.  We pressed our Brazilian leather supplier, Bertin, for a plan that would answer the challenge posed — demonstrate that the cattle grazing in the field were not contributing to deforestation.  Find a way to ensure trace-ability back into the value chain — now.  For a brand with only the leverage of our small percentage of overall Brazilian leather purchases, we tried.  And to Bertin’s credit — they have engaged with us to the same end.

Three months later, real progress to report. Bertin has made great strides in its commitment to supporting the deforestation moratorium, including meeting face-to-face with both Timberland and Greenpeace to better understand the problem and discuss proposed improvements.  Last month Bertin publicly announced their official Amazon cattle moratorium (meaning they will no longer source cattle from protected areas of the Amazon) and is working aggressively to meet traceability targets to ensure the origin of all the cattle they source is acceptable and not contributing to Amazon deforestation.

Prodded by Greenpeace, and encouraged by Bertin’s willingness to make real change, we have bent our efforts to address the issue of Amazon deforestation on an industry level, working with other members of the Leather Working Group (LWG) – a multi-stakeholder group which seeks to promote sustainable environmental business practices within the footwear leather industry.  The LWG recently proposed creating an HWG (Hide Working Group) [I’m not making these acronyms up!]  to create an assessment process specific to hide traceability – similar to the process the LWG uses to work with tanneries on environmental issues within the tanneries themselves.  Bertin has indicated that they will engage in the HWG, as will other tanneries and many brands, including some of our arch competitors like Nike and Adidas.

It’s easy to provide a neat summary of progress against a complex issue in a few short paragraphs; the work behind the words has been much more challenging, demanding tons of time, effort and resources — from the CEO and a whole group of activists within the company. For its part, Greenpeace has done an outstanding job gathering data, creating a complete and compelling case for the issue, and mobilizing its tens of thousands of supporters to call for action from brands like ours on an issue they care about.  Their effort has driven change into the system.  We applaud their activism, even as we wish next time—and there will be a next time, in the complex global value chain — they would seek to engage brands like ours before they pull the “let’s confront ‘em” lever.

As for our supplier, Bertin – now one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of animal products – to implement concrete changes in its own policies and processes in such short order is nothing less than impressive.  We’re proud to partner with an organization that views environmental responsibility as critically and urgently as we do.

Business can be a force for positive environmental change … collaboration yields more powerful outcomes than the effort of one … learnings reinforced by our experience to date on the Amazon deforestation issue.  We’re not closing the book on this topic yet – we’ll continue to monitor progress through regular reports from Bertin and through our work with the LWG and HWG, and we’ll continue to share milestones and challenges with you here on Earthkeepers.

CEO thanks Greenpeace for full frontal email assault?  Next thing you know, world leaders will actually come up with a meaningful global agreement at Copenhagen…

Jeff Swartz
President & CEO, Timberland

  • http://www.strategic-imperatives.com Diana Rivenburgh

    Timberland is a responsible company that demonstrates it’s commitment to sustainable business practices in many ways. It speaks well of the company and it’s leaders that they are willing to stay in this situation and influence positive change rather than take the easy way out and stop using this supplier. I also agree that Greenpeace should have contacted Timberland and other responsible companies up front to engage them rather than take the confrontational route. Diana Rivenburgh, Strategic Imperatives, Inc. www. strategic-imperatives.com

  • Stonewall Jackson

    SAVING THE ENVIRONMENT–I didn’t know where else to send this, so please bear with me for a moment. Among the 5 pairs of Timberlands I currently own, are a pair I purchased in December of 1999. I have put HEAVY miles of these boots over the years-first date with my wife, 12 hour work days, night school, college, grad school, camping, hiking, fishing, and even work-the point is, I wore them today. Yes, they’re that good! The soles are wearing down, a bootstrap is missing and the inside needs to be replaced. All the time I read about the amazing things your company has done with leather, plastic and even rubber recycling. Go Timberland! Now, the question: Is it feasable that these boots can be restored or even made into a new pair of boots using your advanced technology. It would make a heck of a story, and would make the almost 20 year Timberland vet happy. So, are you up to it? — Jackson of Sumter, South Carolina

  • Anonymous

    Jackson, what a great story about your 1999 Timberlands! As for restoring and refurbishing old, well-loved boots — it’s something we’re actively working on, and will share more information about here on the blog soon. Thanks for thinking of it and stay tuned!

  • Jnichols35

    Thank you so much for your response. It’s great to know that it’s even something Timberland is actively working on. Now that’s innovation! When the process is honed and ready to go, I’ll be first in line! Thanks again for your response.

  • Stonewall Jackson

    Excellent way to handle things Jeff, Timberland and Bertin. I think I would have told Greenpeace to “hike bare-footed” if I had been approached in such a manner! While Amazonian rain-forests are certainly important, I think we should keep in mind our country was doing the same thing less than 100 years ago: depleting our own natural resources and contributing to major deforestation. Heck, we still are. That’s why Teddy Roosevelt started our National Park system. But there are parts of the Amazon that are about 100 years behind the U.S. socioeconomically. They are not all evil people bent on destroying what we consider an earthly treasure. Many of these people live in dire poverty and raise cattle and such things just to feed their families. They don’t exactly vacation in the Amazon! I live in a area full of swampland. Is it beautiful? Absolutely. Are they worth saving? Sure. Does anyone want to hang out there with countless mosquitoes, gators, snakes and wild pigs? Uh, no! Anyhow, I think it’s great to see a corporation that I have a vested interest in showing the world that companies can be responsible. This is the first company I have ever dealt with that actually listens and takes suggestions from its customers. I’m proud to be a part of Timberland. Keep up the excellent work!

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