From Counting Carbs to Counting Carbon


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.

Nutrition LabelConvinced 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

JBS-casual-hatJeff 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.

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  • Jason Sperling

    Putting this data out is great. I would love to see the day when I can comparison shop between products and brands based on their carbon footprint.

    Question: On Timberland's website I read that every Timberland shoe now carries a nutritional label but I didn't see these product labels as part of product descriptions online. Also I read that greenhouse gas emissions are calculated for each style of shoe being analyzed but don't see any note about the emissions on the label. Are you planning to make this information available online or am I just looking in the wrong place?

  • Manjit Syven Birk

    Are you sure that the food industry are still selling food? The advent of nutrition labels created the birth of food scientists. The best approach is what Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia does - run his business with as much guided intelligence that purposeful long term thinking and entrepreneurial humanity can muster. Then it is upto the rest of us to figure out why even today he is still an exception to the rule, in a world where technology isn't close to being common sense on steroids, for it is more of a steroid for information proliferation. There are kids who are still under the age of 10, born in the 21st Century, these the kids who will grow up and wonder about these dark ages that maybe we are fond of and which we deem to think that we are pioneering or at the cutting edge of. I can certainly wait for these kids to grow up but I don't want to see a world created around labels that add even more of them, for we have to cut through the labels whether the labels are nutritional or stereotypical. That is why I think it is just better for me to patiently wait for these kids to grow up to finally teach us that old maxim "don't believe everything you read". In 2020 there won't be these exceptions to the rule we see in abundance today, for there will be these exceptional human beings entering the world that we can only imagine today in our collective heads. It is these 21st Century kids, that I for one do have great confidence in and in whom I place my entire trust; but the scientists who are today being employed to be creative about nutritional labelling - if that is the people that we deem to want in the grand name of labelling, then that is exactly the kind of people we are going to get. As for me, I should have been born in the 21st Century but I wasn't, and that is just the way life is, the only thing I want to draw from this article at a personal level is a personal contention that I must make the most of what I do have and share it with the people I already have engaged - unless of course the gates open fully on 20th Century minded habit of proliferation, whether it is information, consumption or population and I too get caught up in modernity's speed, crush and rush . . . M.

  • Brian Shunk

    This type of labeling will make it all too convienient for the goverment to rate products for global carbon taxes. There already is a coding system for recycling products. Do we really need to go beyond that? Labeling products based on a carbon "footprint" will do nothing to curb consumption. I think we should think twice before assuming that a climate change is directly affected by our carbon emissions. America has been emitting carbon since at least the beginning of the industrial revolution. Why didn't our climate change 100 years ago?

  • Tom Geiser

    This is a great idea. Fabulous job Mr. Swartz. This transparency has already led me to look into timberland products. Hopefully someday this kind of label will be required on all products.

  • Erica Salamida

    I agree that this type of labeling should be standardized, otherwise reporting just the good isn't giving consumers a fair picture of what they're buying. Nutrition labels offer (at least to some extent) the good, the bad and the ugly, if you so choose to acknowledge it!

  • Erica Salamida

    I agree that this type of labeling should be standardized, otherwise reporting just the good isn't giving consumers a fair picture of what they're buying. Nutrition labels offer (at least to some extent) the good, the bad and the ugly, if you so choose to acknowledge it!

  • Erica Salamida

    I agree that this type of labeling should be standardized, otherwise reporting just the good isn't giving consumers a fair picture of what they're buying. Nutrition labels offer (at least to some extent) the good, the bad and the ugly, if you so choose to acknowledge it!