How Timberland Puts Its Greenest Foot Forward

In show business, the big challenge is a tough house. In retail, it's a tough sell. Jeff Swartz, CEO of the Timberland outdoor footwear and apparel company, contends with both: board members who hold him accountable for the firm's social and sustainability practices and consumers who have grown wary, if not weary, of companies making green claims.

Of the board members, Swartz said that at first he expected them to question him about performance in factories, carbon emissions and the like.

"But that wasn't the way the conversation went at all," Swartz told the audience at GreenBiz Group's State of Green Business Forum in Washington, D.C. "What they said was, 'If you can't find a way to make this consumer-relevant, then we're going to restrict your budget."State of Green Business

"And I said, 'What? Wait a minute, you're supposed to be sharpening the game up,' "Swartz recalled. "And they said, 'That's exactly right. If you don't make this consumer-relevant, how do you make the case that this isn't self-indulgent? How do you make the case that this is the business of business? Great speech, but now give me the facts.' "

Making headway with consumers on issues of corporate social responsibility and sustainability also can be daunting. Bombarded with messaging about environmental efforts from a range of firms, including some that are long on marketing but short on deliverables, consumers are skeptical of companies touting themselves as "good guys."

"I don't believe it, and I'm a relatively sophisticated consumer of that stuff," Swartz said. "So how are you going to have a conversation with consumers about values? They don't want to talk about it and they don't believe you at the starting point."

Swartz's comments were part of a candid, edgy and at times rollickingly funny interview with GreenBiz Senior Writer Marc Gunther at the forum, the third of three programs held in conjunction with the release of the annual State of Green Business Report. The presentations began in San Francisco earlier this month and traveled to Chicago last week before coming to Washington, D.C.

A video clip of the talk with Swartz, who took off his left shoe and displayed it to the audience to make a point, can be seen on the next page.

To engage consumers on green and CSR issues, "we decided that it wasn't about answers or assertions, it's about questions," said Swartz.

The company's approach is to use the iconography of its labels -- whether it's a little green mark on the sole of an Timberland Earthkeeper (the shoe Swartz wore to his interview) or the "nutrition label" the company devised for its goods -- to encourage the consumer to learn more about its products, the environmental aspects of its manufacture and the company's sustainability commitments.

"If you aren't interested, you look past it; if you are, you can ask a question; if you want to compare one brand to the next, here's the basis to begin to do that," said Swartz, whose company launched its nutrition label in 2006, its Green Index rating system in 2007 and last year embraced the Eco-Index, a product-footprinting tool aimed at retailers that was created by the outdoor products industry.

Not shy about talking about the up- or downside of efforts, Swartz said the labeling concept didn't exactly receive standing ovations in house or among consumers when it debuted, though it later won industry praise and recognition from green groups. "Internally, they thought it was loopy ... nobody else was doing it," he said. Externally, "we got an credible buzz, but not a lot of bang," he added.

Asked by Gunther to elaborate, Swartz said, "People said, 'Oh, that's a good idea. It would be good if Nike had a label like that. It would be good if Ralph Lauren had a label like that. But they don't and, therefore, all you have done is frustrate me. That's terrific, you got a label. I can't compare your performance (to others' performance), so you get credit for putting a label on it, but I can't do anything about it. The road to hell is paved with your good intentions, so thank you.' "

Here is a clip of other highlights from Swartz's interview with Gunther. The full video will be available at GreenBiz.com.

Photos by Goodwin Ogbuehi, http://flickr.com/photos/yoshikatsu.