Timberland Is Drastically Reducing Its Emissions – Is It Enough?

On April 8, The Timberland Company announced it had reduced its greenhouse (GHG) gas emissions by 36% in 2009 over its 2006 baseline figures.  Claiming it is not content with this decrease, Timberland, led by its CEO Jeff Swartz, stated that the outdoor footwear and apparel company will reach a 50% reduction by the end of this year.

Most of Timberland’s decrease in total GHG emissions comes from improving the operations of its facilities and stores, with a reduction of employee business travel contributing, as well.  Timberland is arguably the first retail chain to achieve LEED Retail certification for its new mall-based stores, and has installed LED lights at most of its retail outlets in North America.  The company’s Ontario, Calif., distribution center uses mostly solar power, while its European regional headquarters in the Netherlands derives 100% of its energy needs from wind.

Meanwhile, Timberland encourages its employees to use Web and video conferencing whenever possible.  The documentation Timberland offers on its site and third-party web sites is impressive; but like many companies with a complex supply chain, the company has a long road to ameliorating the carbon footprint of its suppliers–a tall task because Timberland has little control over its suppliers’ operations.

One tactic Timberland has adopted in cajoling its suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint is through its Green Index program.  Using software systems like the carbon-calculating GaBi program, suppliers–and customers–can get an idea of how much carbon is produced during the stages of their shoes’ production.  Timberland is also phasing out PVCs (polyvinyl chloride) from its shoes, and is working on eliminating toxic solvents from its manufacturing, too.  The more PVCs and solvents are used in a shoe, the more points get added to an item’s score.  Finally, the company evaluates the amount of recycled, organic, and renewable materials used in making a product.

Timberland then crunches the scores of a product’s carbon footprint, amount of chemicals, and the sustainability of the materials going into this item.  The goal is to have as low of a score as possible on a scale of 10.  Vendors are encouraged to find ways to “green” their manufacturing, while consumers can view a “nutrition label” on a product that shows them the climate, chemical, and resource impacts of their newly purchased shoes or apparel.To its credit, Timberland articulates its efforts at corporate social responsibility (CSR) in great detail.  Many companies are very vague about what they do in trying to become more “sustainable.”  Too often companies talk about what they are going to do, rather than demonstrating what they have done–or are working on right now.  For the most part, Timberland’s message matches that of its branding, which identifies with the celebration of the love of the outdoors.

Unfortunately, the numbers do not add up.  The company has a Code of Conduct team that includes 11 full-time, 2 part-time, and 2 contractors.  This team of 15 is responsible for covering 38 countries, 300 factories, and 247,000 workers.  That is simply a lot of ground to cover for a very small crew–a task I doubt can be done by video-conferencing or Webcasts.The fault, however, is not that of Timberland’s.  I would place it on consumers in wealthy countries including North America and Europe.  We have become accustomed to demanding the highest quality at the cheapest price.  If Timberland truly had the capacity to employ a team that could ensure their suppliers treated their workers with dignity, the cotton in its clothing didn’t come from farms using chemicals banned decades ago, or were cheating by using cheaper, toxic solvents, the cost would be one at which customers would balk.

So given the challenge Timberland faces, its efforts to educate its consumers while instilling a sense of sustainability within its work culture are impressive.  Just being able to make a huge dent in its energy consumption (and not by buying renewable energy credits, or, “cheating”) pulls me a little closer to buying a Timberland product the next time I need a new pair of hiking shoes.

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. I’m thrilled to see that Leon has taken an interest in Timberland's Code of Conduct team. We are a small team, but we do punch above our weight. From our collaborative approach to engaging our suppliers to collaborations with other brands in shared factories, we have been able to cover more ground in more ways with meaningful results. In fact, with our small team we are going beyond just finished goods manufacturers to deeper layers within our value chain – something that many other brands are not. Even with our expanded scope, our assessors are only assigned roughly 20-25 factories as our overall supplier count is controlled to 280-300. Quarterly progress against key performance metrics for our work can be found at http://earthkeeper.com/CSR/Our-Impact. From there you will see multiple ways to learn more about our program, our impacts, and how you can join the conversation. Thank you for taking interest in our work and the workers behind our products.

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