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:
- All Timberland footwear will include at least one component that is recycled, organic or made from renewable materials.
- All cotton used in apparel will come from U.S.-origin, organically-grown or sourced by Better Cotton Initiative growers.
- All footwear and outerwear leather will come from tanneries certified as Gold or Silver by the Leather Working Group.
- All footwear will be free of PVCs.
In addition, Timberland promises to boost its volunteer program, which already has a reputation in the industry for being robust. On a broader environmental front, the company says it will plant 10 million trees, create and restore outdoor spaces in urban areas, and get 50 percent of its facilities’ energy either directly from clean-energy sources or the purchase of renewable energy certificates (RECs).
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.”
Revamping entire supply chains
It is typical for Timberland to not only take the lead, but also execute on its responsible-sourcing commitments. Even Greenpeace, which is notoriously skeptical of companies’ rhetoric on sustainability, has praised Timberland for taking action when it comes to leather, as the company enacted policies to ensure any of that material going into its boots, belts or jackets does not contribute to the deforestation of the Amazon.
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.
Targeting sustainable materials in all products
So, as is the case with like-minded companies, Timberland does not seek perfection, but it does covet the best possible outcome. Hence the company’s drive to ensure that at least one component in all of its shoes comes from a more responsible material within five years. And to answer my jaded question: No, we are not talking about shoelaces.
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.
Cotton in the supply chain: Challenges and solutions
In its 2015 sustainability report, which is tucked into the company’s revamped website, Timberland said the ratio of cotton used in its apparel dipped by 1 percentage point, down to 18 percent last year.
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.”
Making things better takes up a lot of sweat equity, but the quality of Timberland’s products — and its reputation — show that all that sweat, late nights and travels to remote factories to ensure everyone is on the same page with the company’s mission are well worth the effort.
Image credits: Timberland