Timberland Announces Bold Sustainability Goals for 2020

Timberland, supply chain, better cotton initiative, leather, Leon Kaye, apparel industry, fashion
For Timberland, boots have posted their share of sustainable design challenges

Timberland is a longstanding sustainability leader within the apparel industry. The New Hampshire-based company is a favorite of the outdoorsy crowd, and its shoes are popular not only for their reputation as being sturdy and rugged, but for their enduring status as a fashion statement as well. As the company learned that more of its stakeholders wanted these products to be manufactured sustainability, Timberland shifted its business practices in kind, and meanwhile started to issue audited sustainability reports well before they became the norm for large corporations.

The company sets long-term goals every five years, and it’s now announcing its agenda leading to 2020. Explained in greater detail on Timberland’s new corporate responsibility website, the company’s updated goals include:

  • All Timberland footwear will include at least one component that is recycled, organic or made from renewable materials.
  • All cotton used in apparel will come from U.S.-origin, organically-grown or sourced by Better Cotton Initiative growers.
  • All footwear and outerwear leather will come from tanneries certified as Gold or Silver by the Leather Working Group.
  • All footwear will be free of PVCs.

In addition, Timberland promises to boost its volunteer program, which already has a reputation in the industry for being robust. On a broader environmental front, the company says it will plant 10 million trees, create and restore outdoor spaces in urban areas, and get 50 percent of its facilities’ energy either directly from clean-energy sources or the purchase of renewable energy certificates (RECs).

To learn a little more about the company’s challenges and vision for the next several years, I spoke with Colleen Vien, Timberland’s director of sustainability, by telephone while she was at her office at Timberland’s headquarters.

Trying to make a supply chain more sustainable is far more difficult than it sounds, especially to us consumers who simply see a product on a shelf and think, ‘Come on, surely this can be made with organic or recycled materials.’ But as Vien explained, transforming a company’s supplier base is a massive challenge, especially when the farms and factories providing your materials are thousands of miles away. Nevertheless, Vien is bullish on what she thinks Timberland can achieve.

“We remain committed to what we can accomplish, and we’re reiterating these commitments and adding even more to show what we can do as company,” Colleen Vien, Timberland’s director of sustainability, told TriplePundit. “Take leather, where have expanded our focus from shoes to now, apparel.”

Timberland, supply chain, better cotton initiative, leather, Leon Kaye, apparel industry, fashion
Timberland aims to source all of its leather sustainably by 2020.

Revamping entire supply chains

It is typical for Timberland to not only take the lead, but also execute on its responsible-sourcing commitments. Even Greenpeace, which is notoriously skeptical of companies’ rhetoric on sustainability, has praised Timberland for taking action when it comes to leather, as the company enacted policies to ensure any of that material going into its boots, belts or jackets does not contribute to the deforestation of the Amazon.

But as is the case with many of its peer companies, Timberland is struggling to make its supply chain less dependent on chemicals. Take PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which is often used because of its strength, durability and flexibility. This component is found in many of the company’s popular work shoes, largely becaus designers have not been able to find an alternative material that can match the ruggedness of PVC. “How do we guarantee the performance that is needed in the way that the shoe’s upper is attached to the outsole? We don’t know; we haven’t been able to find a way to meet that strength test yet,” Vien told us.

In many ways, cleansing that supply chain is akin to a runner finishing the last segment of a marathon — the final steps are often the most difficult. The company says it is already mostly PVC-free, but because of those pesky uppers, for now Timberland describes its product lines as 98 percent free from PVCs. Vien hopes the company can reach the 100 percent mark by 2020.

Targeting sustainable materials in all products

So, as is the case with like-minded companies, Timberland does not seek perfection, but it does covet the best possible outcome. Hence the company’s drive to ensure that at least one component in all of its shoes comes from a more responsible material within five years. And to answer my jaded question: No, we are not talking about shoelaces.

Timberland is redesigning uppers, outsoles, midsoles and linings. Its shoes now contain anywhere from 34 percent to 42 percent recycled content; the company seeks an across-the-board ratio of 50 percent. That may be far from perfection for the sustainability purist, but considering how many components are in one shoe, Timberland has already reached some impressive metrics. Sure, a totally closed-loop system, or “cradle-to-cradle,” would be ideal; but on that front, the company hopes more consumers will consider Timberland-branded tires to make such a vision more of a reality.

Cotton in the supply chain: Challenges and solutions

In its 2015 sustainability report, which is tucked into the company’s revamped website, Timberland said the ratio of cotton used in its apparel dipped by 1 percentage point, down to 18 percent last year.

As Vien explained, organic cotton would be ideal, but as any department head would know, there is that question of stretching the budget. Organic cotton was simply too expensive to meet her department’s financial constraints. So, in the coming years, if the supply of organic cotton cannot meet demand, Timberland will turn to cotton of U.S. origin or producers aligned with the Better Cotton Initiative, Vien said.

“What it all comes down to,” she said as we wrapped up our conversation, “is to making things better in terms of our products.”

Making things better takes up a lot of sweat equity, but the quality of Timberland’s products — and its reputation — show that all that sweat, late nights and travels to remote factories to ensure everyone is on the same page with the company’s mission are well worth the effort.

Image credits: Timberland

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

3 responses

  1. It would be nice if they would at least address the pollution load of their supply chain and when they are going to make the actual data a focus of transparency.

  2. I applaud Timberlands efforts in sustainability… But can someone have a word with Ms Vien on her footwear manufacturing facts… Production methods and component fabrication? Her comments on PVC just don’t make sense!
    Surely a product person should have proof read this before going to print?

  3. So let me say from the outset that I applaud Timberland. They have always been a leader on susty issues and continue to be in many regards. The following notes are more of a “friendly critique” – which is a general comment to business, but is relevant to Timberland since they ARE a leader and people look to them to set the path for peers. With that caveat…

    …I would challenge the rationale and basis for these targets. In essence “why these”? Logically I would assume the framing of sustainability goals should come from one of a few places: (A) Corporate materiality (i.e., risk & opportunity), (B) Consumer interests, or (C) global alignment. In Timberland’s case, I can’t see clearly where it is coming from nor how the targets are being set.

    1) Corporate Materiality
    Having goals around key product materials (cotton, PVCs, organic, VOCs, PFC, leather), outdoors? (trees, energy, waste), and community engagement (employees & events) is generally logical, but begs a lot of questions for me. Materiality should be the basis for susty goal setting – ultimately it needs to be rooted in long-term shareholder value (which means both short term bottom line, as well as the longer term, “ethical” susty issues which, as we’re seeing in the coal/O&G sector, could constitute a financial liability). There’s little question that many brands face significant scrutiny from customers and NGOs concerned about social and environmental impacts of Tier 1, 2, 3 suppliers (especially for things like leather), and more health concerns (e.g., VOCs). It would be relatively easy to argue for why these are material risks (and as such, stated in their/VF’s SEC filings: http://ir.vfc.com/ar/content/0001193125-16-489832/0001193125-16-489832.pdf). P. 17 of this report does note that they could be affected by “Disruptions at manufacturing or distribution facilities caused by natural and man-made disasters;” (i.e., have supply chain interruptions), I find it odd to call the chronic, ongoing pollution from tanneries a “man-made disaster” and lump it in with earthquakes and nuclear reactor meltdowns. They go on to also flag regulatory environmental compliance risks, weather (but from a consumer spending angle, not production), and in general, “brand image” risks. Long story short, VF is not reporting to its investors any form of risk related to water, climate change, energy, carbon (pricing), ecosystem impacts, or commodity production (aside from, on page 43, noting that it historically hasn’t hedged to protect against commodity risks aside from long-term procurement agreements). Long story short, they are missing a whole bunch of risk areas (most notably water) in both their SEC filings, as well as their susty goals and I would suggest that their goals are more an exercise in protecting the brand, than an exercise at thinking through material social & environmental issues for investors.

    That said, it “could” be that their leather goals are linked to the realization that leather and cotton are likely the sources of their greatest environmental footprint (and linked to this, environmental externality, or in business-speak, potential liability). As Kering realized, http://www.trucost.com/published-research/79/puma-environmental-profit-and-loss-account leather, cotton and rubber are typically the big baddies when it comes to ecosystem service impacts. IF Timberland were to make the linkage here, saying “We are targeting our largest environmental impact areas (as determined via an LCA, ecosystem services analysis, etc.) as they pose the greatest brand risk” then ok. But even there, one should dig into things – is it water for cotton, pesticides for cotton, or what? If it’s water risks, then the Better Cotton Initiative alone won’t be enough to mitigate risks (see: http://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?247219/Agricultural-standards-can-do-more-to-mitigate-risk-in-commodity-production).

    Long story short, linking environmental impacts to risks and financial statements (as we did with IFC here: http://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?251253/undervaluing-water-reduces-shareholder-value-and-harms-ecosystems) is increasingly important.

    Consumer Interests
    It’s possible, as alluded to above, that these are linked to consumer polling and interests (per materiality issues linked to brand image). If so, fair enough, but suggest transparency around that. I would also suggest it’s not great business strategy to set your goals on what others want as the general population doesn’t really appreciate the nuances of production processes but rather responds to major incidents/failures and scandals resulting in reactive vs. proactive risk mitigation (hardly ideal for businesses).

    Global Frameworks
    Lastly, there is the possible pathway of global reporting structures. Again, no questioning that Timberland are endeavouring to plug into key initiatives and again, should be commended, but if we’re really “lauding” them, then I would expect greater alignment with various elements. Timberland’s 2015 report (https://images.timberland.com/is/content/TimberlandBrand/Responsibility/downloads/2015-Q4-FINAL.pdf) is not tied to GRI, CDP, SDGs, etc. Now, in all fairness the SDGs were only released in Q4 2015, so that’s perhaps harsh. And I do love that they publish their suppliers – which is excellent. Moreover, as their parent company, VF is actually much more aligned on this front in their susty report: http://sustainability.vfc.com/about-this-report/materiality-assessment/ Indeed, I find it odd that VF (a ‘brand’ that few people know) is more progressive in its sustainability framing than Timberland (a ‘brand’ that many people know and is more ‘known’ for its sustinability).

    Indeed, I would give a fair amount of credit on VF’s stated approach – which DOES use a much stronger approach, with greater transparency. I would critique VF in that this does not cross over to their SEC filing, but at least there is a solid basis for their sustainability goals. I’d love to have a deeper understanding of the guts of VF’s materiality assessment, but that’s for another day. Still, even VF is still not tying into the SDGs – which should form the rallying point for both business and the public sector if we are to seek to actually hit the stated goals & targets.

    WWF, WRI, TNC, CDP and the CEO Water Mandate (UN Global Compact) are undertaking a piece of work over the coming months to explore setting meaningful water targets. While this is a subset of the broader sustainability agenda, it will speak to global alignment with the SDGs, considering materiality and risk, and establishing goals that are meaningful to the context.

    So kudos to Timberland and kudos to VF. Without a doubt they are “both” moving in the right direction. But if we’re really talking about being “bold” and pushing the envelope of what sustainability leadership is all about, we need to be transparent about how we are setting our targets, how it links to investor materiality, and how we’re working together with peers and the global community to meet the Sustainability Development Goals.

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