What Timberland's New 'Nutritional Label' Really Reveals

What Timberland's New 'Nutritional Label' Really Reveals

Timberland, the often-maverick maker of footwear and apparel, last week unveiled a self-described "nutritional label" it plans to put on all of its shoeboxes in the coming year. It's the first time a footwear or apparel company has sought to label its products with information on its environmental and community impacts. It's a step in the right direction -- though it raises more questions than it answers.

The label, modeled after the ubiquitous (and federally mandated) food labels, aims to give consumers information "about the product they are purchasing, including where it was manufactured, how it was produced, and its effect on the environment," according to the company's press release. Specifically, it offers data on two aspects of Timberland's environmental impact -- the energy used to produce the shoe and the company's purchases of renewable energy -- and three aspects of its community impact -- the number of hours served by Timberland employees in community service, the percentage of its factories "assessed against a code of conduct," and the child labor employed in making the shoe. It also tells where in the world the shoe was manufactured.

Why do this? "We thought the packaging we had was not a reflection of who we are as a brand -- that communicated the commerce and justice aspects of the brand," Tracy Stokes, Timberland's senior director of global brand management, explained to me last week. The label, she says, is an attempt to "bring those values to life in a very transparent and direct way to the consumer."

It's a laudable first effort -- in theory, at least. In real life, it's not very helpful. Simply put: there's less going on here than meets the eye.

First, the environmental front. It's interesting to know the amount of energy required to produce the pair of shoes in the box -- two kilowatt-hours, in the sample label provided by the company -- but what does it mean? Is it a little or a lot? How does 2 kWh compare with industry averages? And the renewable energy statistic reflects only the amount purchased for Timberland-owned facilities, not for its factories, which Timberland does not own. So, that metric is somewhat misleading -- the renewable energy was used to run offices and other company facilities, not the factory that made the shoes in the box.

And what about other aspects of the shoes' environmental footprint -- the nature of the materials, for example? What, if anything, is Timberland doing to reduce the use of chromium and other toxic chemicals in tanning leather? What percentage of the shoe contains hazardous solvents or glues? Do the shoes contain any organic, recycled, or biobased materials? And what about the shoe's probably largest environmental footprint: the climate emissions from shipping it from factories in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Turkey, or any of a dozen other countries (as well as shipping all of the shoes' component parts to the factory from around the world)? We don't know.

I'm fairly certain Timberland has some good stories to tell in this regard, but you'd never know from the label. (The label does direct you to the company's Corporate Social Responsibility Report, though it requires a hefty download and some digging to get all the facts, and they're not specific to any one product.)

Information is similarly sketchy on the community front. Timberland has long been a leader in encouraging employees to engage in community service -- I wrote about its groundbreaking partnership with City Year in my 1994 book, Beyond the Bottom Line -- so it's natural the company would promote this community-service metric. But the metric has to do with Timberland employees, who are not the folks who made the shoe in the labeled shoebox, so it's a tad misleading. The metrics on factory codes of conduct (100%) and child labor used (0%) are laudable indicators of Timberland's performance in making the actual shoes.

What about corporate philanthropy, employee ownership, diversity, and other aspects of "community impact"? All are important metrics against which companies are assessed these days.

I don't mean to dismiss what's going on here. I know that Timberland means well. They're a leader in social responsibility and are truly committed to its basic tenets. They have a long and enviable record of leadership in this arena.

And I love the fact that information about a company's social and environmental responsibility will be appearing on 30 million shoeboxes in the coming year (and presumably for years to come). Product packaging is a vastly underutilized vehicle for educating consumers about a company's environmental and social performance, a missed opportunity for most companies. Indeed, I view Timberland's label as a gauntlet thrown to other companies -- and not just those in the footwear and apparel sector -- to similarly disclose to consumers what they're doing to address their impacts.

But as a "nutritional" label, Timberland's leaves me -- well, hungry for more.

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This column has been reprinted with permission from Joel Makower's blog Two Steps Forward. It was first posted on Jan. 28, 2006.