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Fast 50 2008: Timberland

Is it possible to run a billion-dollar publicly traded company and save the world at the same time? When Fast Company posed such a question of Timberland's third-generation CEO Jeffrey Swartz two-and-a-half years ago, his response was to quote Rabbi Tarfon in the Jewish text Ethics of Our Fathers: "It's not required of you that you complete the task. Nor is it permitted of you that you lay down the task."

Stratham, New Hampshire—based Timberland may sell boots and clothes, but Swartz's real passion (and the company's biggest innovations) go well beyond that. Unfortunately, it's been a tough business year for Timberland, with revenues and profits down and restructuring claiming some stores. But the company's efforts to save the world—by greening its products, reducing its environmental impact, pushing its workers to volunteer—are still going strong. Timberland gives employees 40 hours paid leave a year to pursue community projects, and it runs an annual volunteer-fest that it calls Serv-a-palooza. Fittingly for an outdoors apparel-and-footwear firm, its biggest efforts are environmental.

In 2002, Timberland announced its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2010, which is not so easy given how much carbon dioxide is produced making leather for the company's hiking boots. Timberland's earliest efforts introduced renewable energy at its factory in the Dominican Republic, and at its distribution centers in Enschede, Holland, and Ontario, California. And it started building new retail stores using green-building methods, such as floors made of reclaimed pine boards and paints with low volatile organic content.

And then it got really serious. In 2006, Timberland began putting information about its envrionmental footprint on 30 million footwear boxes (recycled, thank you very much) in an effort to educate consumers about where and how the product was made and the impact of that manufacturing on the environment. In 2007, Timberland went one step further, introducing "green index" hangtags that provide product specific ratings on the materials and chemicals used (organic or recycled materials, solvents, PVCs, and other hazardous substances) and the climate cost. By putting all this information out there, it hoped to educate consumers—and also put its carbon-neutral promise to the test.

"More and more, today's consumers want to know what kind of environmental footprint is being left by the products they buy," Swartz says.