Imagine the food industry without nutrition labels: how could you shop without some sense of the nutrition or chemicals or ingredients in your macaroni and cheese?
Having access to specific information about the food we buy is a given. We all know what a nutrition label looks like, what calories are, how to decipher a list of ingredients. The labels are standardized and regulated by governments, and serve consumers seeking to make thoughtful choices about their consumption.
Why doesn't the same thinking apply to fashion purchases? Watching the organic food business grow up from earnest activism to broad consumerism, we asked ourselves—what would happen if nutrition labeling came to our industry?
We did some informal research, and the answer came back sharp and clear: consumers want brands to be transparent, to tell the truth about where the product is made, and how it's made, and what goes into making the product that's for sale. Cool—an insight to act on. Easy enough, we thought. We'll just take a page (or a label) from the food industry, since they've already got it figured out, and give our consumers the same kind of information.
Convinced that someone had to "go first," we decided we'd start putting nutrition labels on our shoes. Our general counsel almost had me committed. Labeling is usually a regulated, managed business, involving agencies and reviews and government stuff. But because we couldn't get the government interested, we just went for it. We figured the industry would follow, and that the details would get figured out along the way. In the absence of any government standards, we got creative—we made up our own "green label," and started reporting CO2 emissions, chemicals used and percentage of renewable materials used in making the specific model of shoe.
Five years later, insight still relevant, hard work expended, and only some progress, constrained by two huge bottle necks.
On the level of the labels themselves, we've been making only some progress on getting access to environmental data from our suppliers—many don't track emissions associated with their sourcing, or can't accurately verify data, or simply don't share it. That makes it tough for us to communicate with certainty to consumers how big a footprint is actually made by the boot they're buying. We face similar issues in calculating the amount of renewable materials a product contains—what counts as "renewable," anyway? Is renewable more important than recycled? What if a material is only partially renewable—do you get full credit? It's hard to be transparent when the industry is not organized around a common approach to data. Imagine if one food package had calories, and another had some other measurement standard. Which cookie to eat?
But the bigger problem remains the molasses pace at which our industry is working through the questions that keep us from adopting an industry-wide standard and implementing labeling on all shoes and clothes. The electronics industry pulled this off; the fashion industry hasn't, at least yet. And so with a lonely label on our products, how are consumers supposed to make an informed, comparative choice between two T-shirts at retail?
Sooner or later, our industry is going to get there. Labels will be on all products, and consumers will be able to consume more thoughtfully. And then, responsible profit will be the standard.
Worth fighting for, don't you think?
Read more of Jeff Swartz's blog For the Greener Good
Jeff Swartz is the third generation of the Swartz family to lead Timberland. His grandfather Nathan started the predecessor company to Timberland in 1952. Jeff's father Sidney and his uncle Herman launched the Timberland brand in the early 1970s. Jeff was promoted to President and CEO in 1998, after working in virtually every functional area of the company since 1986. Under Jeff's leadership, Timberland has grown rapidly.
Timberland today competes in countries around the world, designing, manufacturing and marketing footwear, apparel and accessories for men, women and children. Timberland has been listed on Business Ethics magazine's list of 100 Best Corporate Citizens and in 2002, Timberland received the Ron Brown Award, a Presidential award recognizing outstanding corporate leadership in social responsibility.