Supply Chain Case Study: Timberland

What can the shoe manufacturer teach companies about about sustainability


Sustainability is no longer just a punchline for major global companies, it’s a central focus in all aspects of their operations - from production to delivery. Those that lack a strategy for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions risk backlash from regulators, the general public, and indeed their own employees and shareholders. Companies are now expected to prove that they are doing all they can to reduce their carbon footprint. However, while this is all well and good, you cannot in good conscience claim to be a sustainable company if your supply chain partners are spewing toxic gases into the atmosphere. Ultimately, you are only as sustainable as your supply chain.

One company that has long understood this is clothing and shoe brand Timberland. Their attempt to ensure that all their products are produced in an environmentally friendly manner has been widely acclaimed, and they are often held up as the benchmark companies should aspire to. Even Greenpeace - notoriously skeptical of companies’ commitment to sustainability - has praised Timberland’s approach to sourcing leather, a real focus for the company.

Timberland explained why sustainable leather was so important and what it was doing about it on its ‘Earthkeepers’ blog, noting that deforestation is a ‘particular concern to Timberland, as the deforesting is by farms that may ultimately provide cattle and hides to our leather supply chain. We are working closely with our suppliers in Brazil, including Bertin, to ensure they have an action plan in place that addresses their commitment to an immediate moratorium on deforestation in the Amazon Biome, and of course refraining from sourcing products from indigenous or protected lands or entities that engage in slave labor.’

It is through this kind of collaboration with its partners that Timberland has been so successful in its efforts. It is also vital to set targets. Leather is not the only area Timberland is looking at, and they have unveiled a wide-reaching list of environmental goals they want to achieve by 2020. These include a commitment to source 50% of energy used in its facilities from renewable sources, ensuring that 100% of footwear products include some recycled, organic or renewable material, and that they use 100% organic material in all clothing.

They are already a way along the road to meeting these targets. Their 2015 sustainability report revealed that 84% of their footwear included at least one material containing recycled, organic or renewable content, up from 72% in 2014. It also said that one million pounds of recycled PET was incorporated into Timberland footwear in 2015 alone, they used 834,000 pounds of recycled rubber in their shoes, and 98% of Timberland® footwear was PVC-free in 2015. In total, 63% of Timberland production in 2015 occurred in factories meeting or exceeding Social Accountability International’s (SAI’s) Social Fingerprint level three.

One area that Timberland is still lagging behind is in the way it sources cotton, with just 18% of its cotton coming from organic sources last year. However, it is working to correct this, implementing new sourcing strategies to ensure it hits its 2020 target of 100%, turning to cotton of US origin or producers aligned with the Better Cotton Initiative.

Colleen Vien, Timberland’s director of sustainability, said: ‘At Timberland, we hold ourselves accountable for what goes into our products as well as how they’re made, and we’re constantly seeking innovative solutions to reduce their environmental impact. But it doesn’t stop with products. As an outdoor brand, we’ve always been willing to put a stake in the ground and push ourselves to protect and preserve the outdoors. We owe it to ourselves, to our consumers and to our planet.’

In a global supply chain, it’s incredibly difficult to keep track of the goings on at all supply chain partners, with the farms and factories providing your materials often thousands of miles away. Employing a director of sustainability, as Timberland has done, is an exceptionally good way of doing it, as is setting strong, yet achievable goals. Timberland is not trying to achieve perfection, just the best possible outcome.

By implementing these kinds of initiatives and really focusing on sustainability, companies are likely to see cost reductions, improved risk management, and boost the value of their brand. According to Accenture, nearly 40% of members of the UK-based Carbon Disclosure Project supply chain program have reported that they realized financial savings from their emissions reduction activities, and ‘more than a third have benefited from new revenue streams or, indeed, from savings gained as a result of their suppliers’ carbon reduction activities.’ To miss out on these benefits while simultaneously destroying the planet is wantonly irresponsible, to stakeholders of both your organization and the planet.


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