Industrial Manufacturing

Leadership: How Timberland is setting a new standard for corporate transparency

Work boots

Could any of these principles be applied at your company?

This story first appeared on Business Insider.

According to a 2013 report by the United Nations Global Compact, 65 percent of companies are developing sustainability policies at the CEO level, but only 35 percent are taking action.

Timberland is using its website to share data about corporate sustainability and to invite people into the conversation.

That seems surprising, but it really shouldn't be. After all, how would anyone know? When consumers aren't empowered to hold companies accountable for their sustainability efforts, it's no wonder there's such a gap between intention and action.

Some companies, though, are trying to be more open with consumers – using their websites to share data about corporate sustainability and inviting people into the conversation. One company that's leading that trend is Timberland.

Creating awareness through data

"Transparency is what it's all about," says Mark Newton, vice president of corporate social responsibility for the footwear manufacturer. "It's about making sure you practice what you preach."

Newton compares making sustainability data available to including nutrition labels on food. Rather than leaving it up to companies to make claims of how green or responsible they are, the data allow people to see what a business is made of and draw their own conclusions. Besides, he adds, if the company is generating the information anyway for its own use, why wouldn't it be shared?

"In order to manage something you have to measure it," Newton says. "We feel it's in the best interest of the company to share how we're doing at those things."

Opening the factory doors

And share, they do. The Timberland Responsibility site is a wealth of information about what Newton describes as a holistic approach to responsibility, including environmental efforts, community engagement, and employee conditions and treatment. The site features information on Timberland's responsibility strategy, reports, factory information, product facts and environmental actions.

Under the "Factories" tab, for example, site visitors can view a map of factory impacts, an explanation of their sustainability measurements and more. A chart detailing factory conditions reports the results of an audit, and illustrates the percentage of factories that receive varying degrees of acceptability. Accompanying text explains how the Timberland Supplier Sustainability Team works with the factories to address issues, understand root causes, and help them move into compliance.

"We're very detailed," Newton says. "We've made a decision to present more information than most companies would, but we don't want to overwhelm [consumers] either."

While all the data are helpful and telling, Newton says another section of the site, where stories are told, helps customers connect with Timberland's sustainability efforts. A story archive, a blog and even podcasts of stakeholder engagement calls allow Timberland to paint a multidimensional picture of its responsibility and sustainability efforts.

"We're trying to lead with stories," says Newton, "things that can really grab somebody in terms of being real or authentic issues."

Having the hard conversations

Where things get really interesting is Timberland's Voices of Challenge forum, in which people from other organizations are invited to discuss tough issues of sustainability, and the public gets to weigh in.

"If you can do something like this right, it's a very interesting place to be," Newton says. "This is hard stuff. We don't have all the answers."

Admitting that and opening up the conversation to consumers builds a much deeper trust than even the most comprehensive data site a company could make. The fact that Timberland is hosting these conversations is a testimony in and of itself; while it may not be perfect, it is working to improve. Not to mention that the forum helps consumers know when other brands' claims aren't matching up with reality.

"It's created a conversation," says Newton. "I think it's awesome, even when companies are greenwashing, because now you get called out on that stuff, and you end up converging on better results."

Timberland is working harder than ever to achieve better results – and, of course, to report its progress along the way. Though the company says it has a long way to go, it has long been hailed as an industry leader for transparency with regard to sustainability efforts. says of the company: "Timberland has to be one of the most impressive, innovative, transparent and visionary companies in the world where sustainability and sustainability reporting is concerned."

That's a pretty solid endorsement. Newton says that the more companies that get on board with transparent reporting of their sustainability efforts, the better – not just because it's good for business, but also because it creates awareness about corporate responsibility, which is good for everyone.

"When consumers start to demand it more, we're going to see larger, more impactful change," he says. "When you unleash that across the private sector, that's very powerful."

– By Natalie Burg  


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