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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Image credits: Timberland
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.
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