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At Timberland, Candor Moves the Dial

This outdoor apparel and shoemaker gets people on its side of environmental change by telling it like it is.

 

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Outdoor apparel and shoemaker Timberland loves to tell stories. Not the fanciful sort. And certainly not the case study variety found in corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports. The stories that Timberland tells are personal and motivating – the kind that inspire people to want to pull on their boots and help make a difference. 

 

Reference Mark and Nick, two emerging Generation Y change agents who started a London grassroots effort called Project Dirt . Project dirt is an interactive “ecommunity” that serves as a catalyst for Londoners wanting to volunteer in local neighborhood projects, but not knowing where to start. As part of Timberland’s ongoing campaign, the “Earthkeeper Hero” series, the company recently provided Mark and Nick with a forum to show the world that there’s plenty to be optimistic about in the environmental change arena:  

 

Project Dirt – Green Reasons to Be Happy [YouTube Video]

 

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According to Timberland, Mark and Nick are just one small piece of a widespread recruiting effort. The company is currently “calling all people who do small things for the environment, like recycling, biking instead of driving and using energy-efficient light bulbs.”  Through an international campaign called “Earthkeepers” – which is cleverly targeted towards environmentalists, consumers (Timberland has 30 million of them), employees, suppliers and even competing businesses around the world – the company intends to recruit over one million people through the ‘revolution’, as Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz calls it, of social networking, including Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, as well a strategic partnership with Changents.com and a website, www.earthkeeper.com

 

The point of the Earthkeepers campaign is to inspire passionate stakeholders to become their own agents of change in their communities, using Timberland as the primary mechanism. That places Timberland in a unique position, one where the participating community relies on the company’s unique values and strengths, and where the company depends on social networking tools more than ever before.

 

“At the heart of the Earthkeepers campaign is the idea of becoming a sustainable brand and creating collaborative and value-creating relationships,” Swartz told stakeholders on a Tuesday conference call, facilitated through the JustMeans.com online network. “Earthkeeping demands networking on a level we have never imagined before. If we’re going to transform Timberland from a company that does green to a company that is sustainable, we need to assemble a wider network of citizens, consumers, suppliers, partners, NGOs, even other businesses. We don’t see how any one business, no matter how principled or passionate, can become an Earthkeeping business and brand on its own.” 

 

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Swartz defines “Earthkeeping” businesses as those that care about their impact on the environment, and that openly and honestly communicate their efforts in order to better manage that impact. These business, he says, are becoming forces for change in the new social media world order. Through its Earthkeepers campaign, Timberland hopes to not only to interact with a new generation of accomplished environmental heroes, but to also encourage other businesses to become more open, candid and engaged with stakeholders – particularly when it comes to environmental issues. However, Swartz acknowledges that this latter goal is perhaps an overshot.

 

“I think there are too many CEOs that aren’t going to get this,” says Swartz. “I don’t mean that disrespectfully. It’s just that this conversation of ‘should we or shouldn’t we be transparent?’ is a moot point because in today’s social media climate, every success is getting shared as quickly as every failure. We can pretend like we have a choice about transparency, or we can recognize the fact that almost everything that is being done is being exposed.”

 

With respect to what Timberland itself has to expose, the company has made significant progress of late. As of 2009, nearly eighty percent of the company’s footwear styles feature recycled content. The Earthkeepers™ product line, which debuted in 2008, contains fully organic and renewable material content, as well as solvent-free adhesives and is designed for reduced climate impact. In the crowded world of consumer retail, Timberland is one of the few businesses that sticks to the guiding principle that what you sell is every bit as important as what you say. After all, how many other pairs of shoes come in a box with a ‘nutritional type label’ about their construction?

 

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Jeff Swartz is a visionary yet grounded CEO leading a family business that has grown into a highly successful global brand since its inception the 1950’s. His pragmatism, accessibility and personal openness are obvious to most who meet him. These traits were evident during last week’s stakeholder call, as well as during the social media interactions facilitated through Timberland’s Earthkeeper campaigns. In both cases, the dialog is kept authentic. Swartz and his team tend to speak off script. If they don’t know the answer to a question, they will say. If they miss something, they will apologize. There’s no rhetoric, no spin. This straightforward attitude melds into corporate philosophy – encouraging the business to face its challenges head-on. You can see this reflected across many of the company’s current initiatives. 

 

For instance, Timberland’s response to the recent Greenpeace campaign to protect the Amazon from deforestation caused by cattle farming (i.e. the leather industry) wasn’t to deny culpability or ignore the problem and walk away. On the contrary, following in Nike’s footsteps in mitigating a potential media disaster, Swartz decided to admit that he didn’t fully appreciate the extent to which Timberland was having a material impact on the Amazon through its supply chain, as suitable ‘traceabilty’ mechanisms in the leather industry were not in place yet. Currently the company is working in collaboration with Greenpeace to settle this issue, and to help improve industry standards. Timberland’s willingness to work in conjunction with Greenpeace demonstrates how candor can help to diffuse difficult situations, and establish leadership positions for the companies involved.

 

Dozens of similar examples abound. Swartz is presently working on a quest to rid the company of bottled water, and despite backlash from the all-mighty bottled water industry, he presses on. He is also having the roof of Timberland headquarters painted white instead of black, cutting energy costs by an estimated 20 percent. And through Timberland’s Path of Service program, the company is offering its employees paid time off to volunteer on environmental projects across the country.

 

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“These are concrete things that we’re working on, but we can’t simply cobble them together,” says Swartz. “We’ve got to make them a vibrant and integrated network of engaged consumers and stakeholders. We’ve got to get to this goal of becoming a sustainable for-profit business.” 

 

Call us crazy, but it seems like Timberland might be further along than Swartz himself acknowledges.

 

This article was co-authored with David Connor, a corporate responsibility and sustainability consultant based in Liverpool. E-mail David at david.connor@coethica.com 

 

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Like what you just read? Get your daily dose of corporate insights. Follow Christine Arena and David Connor on Twitter: @christinearena @davidcoethica

 

About the author

Christine Arena is an award-winning author, brand strategist and trend forecaster. She is co-founder and CEO at GENEROUS, a creative marketing agency for visionary startups.

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