Posts Tagged ‘Rantings of Responsible Bootmakers’

Looking Back

2011 marked the end of 3 generations of Timberland leadership by the Swartz family.  Our founder Nathan built the footwear business that was our beginning, his son Sidney created the boot and the brand (both called Timberland) for which we would become globally recognized, and his grandson Jeff instilled in our company the belief that we could do more than make boots – we could make positive, sustainable impact in our communities and for our environment.

Before we look ahead to 2012, it seems only fitting to look back, with Sidney, and remember where we came from.

From Awkward Collaboration, Transformative Change

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.

Sustainabilty Demands Leadership, Not Posturing

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.

“Not a Lot of Bang, But a Lot of Buzz”

Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz was in Washington last week as part of the GreenBiz State of Green Business Forum.  In an interview with journalist Marc Gunther, Jeff shared his thoughts about the challenge of engaging on environmental issues with consumers who simply want to buy a pair of good-looking shoes!

“Nobody’s coming in saying, ‘Could I please save the planet?’ … I think people come in saying, ‘I need a shoe.’”

Jeff Swartz, Matthew Bishop Talk Sustainable Business

Our own Jeff Swartz had the opportunity to sit down with the Economist‘s US Business Editor Matthew Bishop at the Corporate Citizenship conference last month.  Their conversation ran the gamut from Jeff’s choice of footwear to competitive collaboration to the business imperative for a sustainability strategy.  We think it’s an exchange worth watching … if for no other reason than to see a NH bootmaker wearing a suit jacket (not an every day occurrence):

Timberland Perspectives: The Truth About Transparency

A Responsibility Revolution Extra Guest Post from Jeffrey Hollender & Bill Breen

During the two years they spent writing The Responsibility Revolution, authors Jeffrey Hollender and Bill Breen conducted an intensive series of interviews at key companies on the leading edge of the corporate responsibility movement. In this bonus excerpt from Bill’s conversations with Timberland CEO Jeffrey Swartz and Timberland CSR Strategy Manager Beth Holzman, they share some of the additional insights and perspectives these encounters provided:

No company can claim to be authentically responsible if it doesn’t dare to get a little naked. Radical transparency—revealing your good, bad, and ugly impacts on society and the environment—is the first step toward turning critics into collaborators and collectively inventing aggressive ways to operate sustainably. As we show in The Responsibility Revolution, few publicly traded enterprises have done as much as Timberland to innovate around transparency.

Along with Nike and Gap, Timberland was among the first big brands to reveal the locations of its suppliers’ factories and open them up to outside scrutiny. More recently, Timberland developed its Green Index tag, modeled on a nutrition label, which rates many of the company’s hiking boots and shoes on their environmental impact. There’s also the quarterly phone dialogs with CEO Jeffrey Swartz, in which callers query him about hot-button issues like eco-labeling and sustainable sourcing, and many more strategies for building a glass house.

When Bill Breen and I reviewed his interviews with Swartz, Beth Holzman, and other corporate-responsibility execs, we found that they’d dug into five essential truths about transparency. Each comes through hard-won experience.

Transparency is often irritating, difficult, and scary.

Swartz: Our efforts to be more transparent around our good and bad impacts on society and the environment started with the disingenuous discourse between activists and brands about where our factories are located. It was kind of a silly argument. It’s not hard to figure out where 300 million shoes are manufactured in China. Ten minutes with a phone book would give you the addresses. I didn’t want to have that conversation. And the best way to not have the conversation was to simply reveal the damn locations.

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Inside the World of Sustainable Business

Timberland’s President and CEO Jeff Swartz was recently interviewed for the LifeTips radio program about Timberland’s connection with and commitment to the environment. In the interview, Jeff discusses the challenges of operating a sustainable business – from making environmental consciousness a relevant and powerful proposition for consumers to marrying the brand’s vision (in Timberland’s case, becoming carbon neutral by 2010) with business realities (the fact that our boots aren’t currently biodegradable, for example).

Hear more about Timberland’s approach to practical problem solving and why Jeff believes the best is yet to come us by clicking below. Our thanks to the LifeTips radio team for sharing with us.