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Timberland invests in regenerative leather ranches

The company plans to launch a product line using leather sourced from operations that use practices to improve soil health, biodiversity and natural ecosystems.

Cattle on a Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed ranch

Cattle on a Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed ranch, Courtesy of Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed

Regenerative agriculture practices have received a lot of attention in recent years, and much of the focus has been on food production. But more companies outside of the food space are figuring out how they can invest in or use regenerative practices in the supply chain for their products. 

One of those companies is Timberland, which in late May announced a new partnership with the Savory Institute, a nonprofit focused on the large-scale regeneration of the world’s grasslands. The move comes on the heels of Timberland's announcing a collaboration with Other Half Processing, which sources hides from Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed regenerative ranches, to build a more responsible leather supply chain.

The new partnership with the Savory Institute is two-pronged. One of those prongs is Timberland’s move to co-fund the Savory Institute’s ecological outcome verification (EOV) programs on all ranches within the Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed network, made up of early adopter regenerative ranches across the United States. The investment is part of a larger sustainability strategy at Timberland that is focused on three pillars — better products, stronger communities and a greener world. 

This offers an opportunity to actually source in a way that can help restore the environments that we sourced from, and actually have a net positive effect of giving back more than we take.

"What's so exciting about the regenerative agriculture opportunity is basically that it's a way that we can hit on all three of those pillars with one project," said Zack Angelini, environmental stewardship manager at Timberland, the outdoor apparel and footwear manufacturing company, which uses leather for much of its outdoor wear. "This offers an opportunity to actually source in a way that can help restore the environments that we sourced from, and actually have a net positive effect of giving back more than we take."

The funding, which Timberland shares with Thousand Hills, will help the EOV program collect data about the ranches with helping them continually improve their regenerative practices and outcomes. The program collects information about soil health, biodiversity and ecosystem function, which is related to water cycle, mineral cycle, energy flow and community dynamics.

Additionally, the funds will support network ranchers with resource development and getting more trainers trained, as well as covering typical administrative and marketing costs to help explain the message of what regenerative is and why it matters.

The second prong of the partnership is the opportunity for Timberland to test and learn and build a new supply chain from the ground up. This fall, Timberland plans to introduce a collection of boots using regenerative leather sourced from Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed ranches. Angelini said this effort will serve as a proof of concept that can show what can be done. 

"But definitely our long-term vision is to really get to the wide-scale adoption of these materials, both in our own supply chain, but also getting it to be industry-wide," he said.

Scaling up and reaching critical mass

Chris Kerston, chief commercial officer for the land-to-market program at the Savory Institute, said that around the time the institute was reaching critical mass in its food work — where consumers are able to access options that were produced regeneratively at similar price points and with similar quality as conventional options — it decided to start working with apparel companies.

For the apparel industry, critical mass would look like mass adoption of using natural materials and natural fibers. "So much of what we wear, if we think about it, is really just repurposed oil," Kerston said. "And I think that the next generation, the millennials and [Gen Z] are saying, ‘Is that really what we want?’"

"We think we have a big opportunity in front of us to ... bring this to the mainstream and help drive towards that tipping point," Angelini added, noting that this work has been in the pipeline for Timberland for over a decade.

So much of what we wear, if we think about it, is really just repurposed oil.

"It actually dates back all the way to 2005 [when] Timberland co-founded a group called the Leather Working Group (LWG), which basically was formed to address the impacts of the tanning stage of leather production," Angelini said.

Through the working group, Timberland was able to revolutionize the sustainability of the tanning of its leather by going down to that stage in the supply chain. LWG also helped to bring other players in the industry along. Now a not-for-profit membership organization that has developed audit protocols to certify leather manufacturers on their environmental compliance and performance capabilities, LWG counts other apparel brands such as Adidas, Eileen Fisher and VF, Timberland’s parent company, as members. 

Now, Timberland hopes to move the industry forward even further.

"We're kind of excited about this next opportunity to basically help change the industry again, but this time, I'm going a step even further down the supply chain to the farms [where] the leather actually comes from," Angelini said.

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