Timberland Eco-labels Go Beyond Green Info

In 2007, Timberland pioneered eco-labels on their apparel, modeling them after USDA nutrition labels. The imitation was deliberate, said VP of Corporate Social Responsibility, Mark Newton. With the wealth of green information that is currently tracked, measured, analyzed and debated, the intent was to capture the essence of several large categories on a very small parcel of garment real estate. The absence of numbers keeps consumers from getting bogged down by a figure that would need a detailed explanation and wouldn’t be consistent with measurements on other ecolabels.

This way, consumers can scan the label for the metric that means most to them – whether it is climate impact, resource consumption or eco-conscious materials – much the same way that consumers scan food labels to discern fat content, calories or sodium.

Newton, who joined Timberland less than a year ago, admires Timberland’s try-it-and-see-if-it-works business approach, combined with the company’s openness about its goals and shortcomings, and, most of all, its commitment to both the planet and to its customers. Since their introduction, Timberland has been working to improve the labels (and the products they describe) based on customer feedback. Newton explained that the intent of the labels has always been to spark conversation with consumers and build relationships.

“We’re not trying to put this stuff on there to show off green attributes. There is more than just green involved. We use it to draw attention to the face that we care about these things and bring the customer into the conversation. These measures also guide further innovation in our products.”

In her book, The New Rules of Green Marketing, Jacquelyn Ottman praises Timberland’s effort as a “watershed mark in transparency,” but subsequently commented that she wished that the labels contained more product information. “If our eco-labels only boast of ‘planet-saving’ attributes, their allure will be short-lived and their impact will be limited. In a marketplace proliferated by vague, repetitive green claims, it is no longer enough to merely explain benefits to the planet.”

Timberland was thinking along the same lines. Its online tech guide goes beyond the physical eco-label and explains the apparel company’s additional icon language. In addition to eco-conscious information, it delves into what makes Timberland products warm, cool, dry and comfortable, among other attributes. Newton explained that it “shows not just what we’re doing, but where we’re going.”

Timberland’s 2011 Climate Strategy report caused a stir when it revealed that the company fell short of the 5-year/50 percent emissions reduction goal it set in 2006, a shortfall that it frankly and openly acknowledged. However, the report also showed that the company’s transportation, footwear factories and raw material footprint was a much larger concern. Emily Alati, Senior Manager of Materials Development, said,

“Materials account for at least 70 percent of our product footprint. By increasing the recycled content of our materials, we can directly impact our overall environmental footprint. Materials such as Green Rubber (42 percent recycled rubber) and Bionic Canvas (32 percent recycled PET) are examples of material developments where we’ve been able to increase the recycled content significantly while maintaining the material properties and aesthetics. Good looking, good performing materials at a lower impact.”

The detailed tech guide highlights the materials and supply chain processes Timberland is implementing in order to shrink their materials impact. Newton wants consumers to not only see the high performance aspects of the products, but the technology behind them. Eco-products shouldn’t be lower quality or less rugged. In fact, he contends that boots made with Green Rubber are actually better than the ones made with the previous material. Products that now require fewer materials are lighter than previous models with no loss of quality as a result of “very intentional design.”

The material changes and impact gains are not swift or large, but Newton is confident that Timberland is on the right path toward sustainable, long-term goals. “It’s important to be transparent and humble about your progress toward those goals. You want continuous progress, but sustainable progress.”

Timberland’s eco-labels and tech guide further this agenda, while fulfilling Ottman’s prediction for the next generation of labels. “Ensuring consumer-useful eco-data will take a de-siloing of sustainability and marketing responsibilities. Only when consumer, environmental and technical advocates roll up their sleeves at one table will relevant communications be developed.”

More than just dispensing green data, Timberland’s eco-labels and tech guide successfully merge exactly the consumer, environmental and technical information Ottman wished for. Newton says that the intent has always been to “put the CSR conversation in the same conversation as the mainstream attributes of a product. The Timberland value proposition is all about being authentic, being comfortable, being durable and being responsible. Let’s make that conversation, one conversation.”

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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