How Timberland uses 'the four pillars' to sow sustainability

MIT Sloan Management Review

How Timberland uses 'the four pillars' to sow sustainability

Betsy Blaisdell has spent her Timberland career working in sustainability issues, helping to usher the company to a powerhouse role in corporate social responsibility circles. She speaks to Nina Kruschwitz at MIT Sloan Management Review how Timberland integrates sustainability reporting and activities into all levels of the organization.

Q: In your time with Timberland, the concept of sustainability has really become part of the persona of the company. It seems like it’s integrated so deeply in so many parts of the business.

Betsy Blaisdell: When we talk about sustainability, it’s not just from the environmental sense but also from the social and financial aspects as well. We think about it as the triple bottom line. And we’re focused on social and environmental responsibility in what we call the four pillars.

The first is focused on our corporate footprint and specifically mitigating our climate impact. The second is focused around our product footprint and, within that, developing cradle-to-cradle products. The third area is focused around community service and greening the communities where we live and work -- specifically with tree planting. And then our fourth area is focused around our factories, building sustainable living environments at our factories.

Our CSR activities are organized into those four areas and we have leads on our corporate social responsibility team for each of those four pillars.

We are in a distinct business unit within Timberland that reports directly to the president of Timberland. But we’ve worked over almost the last decade to really integrate CSR metrics into our business unit dashboards and to seed projects and people that own those CSR-related projects in different business units. So my colleagues and I have had staff over the years, but now all the staff I’ve hired actually reports into other business units.

So when you ask about level of integration, I’d say we measure that by where our initiatives show up on business unit dashboards and how those initiatives are essentially owned by individuals within those business units. I have no plans to hire a staff person to be on my team. A person would come on board if I had a project that a business unit was really interested in trying and testing before owning.

Image of Timberland boots provided by Dough4872 via Wikimedia Commons

Q: That sounds like such a smart way of organizing, with your team members trying out different initiatives and then moving directly into a business unit to keep running it. Can you give us an example?

Blaisdell: Well, when we started the Green Index, we brought in an intern to look at how we could use lifecycle analysis to make more objective environmental decisions. That became an important internal tool and program and now is owned by a person in our materials development team. His full-time job is to use these tools to analyze the environmental performance of our products, label our products with that information and use that information to develop new materials and inform our product teams on what are the best materials to use, what are the best ways to manufacture our products.

My role is to make help support and evolve these programs so they are useful and relevant to the business and that they represent environmental best practices in the industry. I do think this model is how you get the true integration.

Q: How do decisions get made about what you get involved in, how much business sense they have to make? So many of the things that many companies say are important are very difficult to measure.

Blaisdell: I think we’re constantly trying to figure out how to better integrate financial and environmental metrics. Now that we have industry standards around how to measure things, we are better able to tie them to dollars or things that affect our bottom line.

Here’s a simple example. I use Green Index data to compare Green Index scores of our products to margin. So the question might be, “Are shoes with a higher environmental impact better for margin or worse for margin? Do they cost more?” Maybe it costs more to produce that product, but maybe we get better margin.

We’re coming up with a new list of KPIs [key performance indicators] now that are more integrated into the financials, so I’ll have more on that soon. But it’s something we’re constantly trying to figure out.

This article is adapted from “New Ways to Engage Employees, Suppliers and Competitors in CSR”  by Nina Kruschwitz, which was published November 14, 2012 by MIT Sloan Management Review. The complete article is available here and is reprinted with permission.