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When one of the country’s few purpose-based and values-driven company announces new sustainability goals, chances are you won’t be as excited as you would be if it was BP, for instance.

Because we expect ambitious and aggressive goals from leaders, and at Timberland, this expectation is part of everyone’s job.

Before the boot maker announced its new set of revised sustainability goals earlier this week, I caught up with Timberland’s new Vice President for CSR Mark Newton on his new role, the goals, as well as their latest efforts at stakeholder engagement: Timberland’s new Communications Portal.

Sustainability: From Apple and Dell to Timberland

Newton, who has spent his entire career working on sustainability at electronics giants like Motorola, Apple, and most recently Dell, understands that the road ahead will be rocky as Timberland completes its merger with VF. VF owns several outdoor brands like The NorthFace, Wrangler, Jansport and Nautica.

We started with the new 2015 goals. What’s new about them?

“Focus,” said Newton. “Moving forward it is very important that we create focus for our companies, including a commitment to innovate from cradle to cradle.”

Timberland’s 2015 Sustainability Goals

Set in four broad categories of Climate, Product, Factories and Service; the goals are ambitious and aggressive, if not new or radically life-changing. I asked Newton the purpose of each category.

Climate: “This is a topical focus for us if not so much a functional one. But we’re not saying we’re going to be singularly focused on climate change but that this affects our customers and decisions and therefore, we must equip them with decisions and the right products.”

Product: “At some point we all want to start creating innovations that have a zero footprint. The idea is to move toward a vision of a closed loop product lifecycle. You can see where we are and where we want to go. It is directionally correct.”

Factories: “We have an obligation that is not just transactional to our suppliers, employees and other stakeholders. The whole idea of sustainability is to stay in business. In perpetuity, we cannot do that without treating our employees well and scaling our business properly.”

Service: “Timberland was founded on the idea of commerce and justice, of giving back and creating value. We offer our employees 40 hours to volunteer every year. Today we are asking what the impact of that workforce is. Where are we going with this, how do we prioritize our efforts and do it well?”

What underlines all of these goals and their success, however, is engaging and changing consumer behavior.

Changing Consumer Behavior: Timberland-style or VF-style?

Earlier this year, at the Annual GreenBiz conference, Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz said that sometimes companies have to lead consumers by taking a stand on what is right. “You cannot always wait for consumer demand to dictate your decisions,” he said.

Now with Timberland becoming a part of the VF family, are dynamics shifting? Will the merger bring a renewed and united effort in the apparel industry to shift consumer behavior or lead to inertia and inaction?

I put the question to Newton, who while new in his role, is a veteran in the consumer products industry. “We are having several conversations around this. We are Timberland and we will always be that. This is the reason people are interested in EarthKeepers and we will continue to move the needle,” he said.

What about Swartz’s inspiring declaration? Newton offered Timberland’s EarthKeepers product line as an example:

“The ultimate goal of every company that is working on sustainability is to be able to drive top line growth because of its sustainability efforts. It’s very rare to see top line growth associated with these things, many companies are running leaner and end up staying within compliance. At Timberland, our EarthKeepers product line is actually doing that with double-digit growth in the first quarter.”

Authentic Communications: Engage the Consumer, not Just Inform

With skepticism already high in the market, there is a fine line between selling more units and ensuring responsible consumerism. EarthKeepers seems to be clearly bucking the trend and providing a new, profitable way of doing business sustainably.

Was this growth the result of consumer education, eco labels, or increased communication?

“Authenticity. We’re finding success because it is authentic. We are intentionally focused on products that are environmentally friendly and socially conscious. And we are committed to continually communicating that. We’re not waiting for everything to become perfect, we’re putting it out there and calibrating it as it evolves,” he said.

Examples? Newton offered the eco-index, which Timberland was instrumental in creating and pushing out. “We are promoting the index so we can create real change and movement. That’s exciting and offers us a chance to drive real, calculable change,” he added.

What VF brings to the table then is scale. “VF has been a partner for years on making the process much more efficient. Now the merger will allow us to collectively drive things that Timberland alone simply cannot do. This bigger opportunity is huge for us,” he emphasized, adding, “It’s also not just forward-looking things and what we can do upstream. VF has a very efficient process in place because of their brands. We have had limited impact there but now we can have much more.”

Timberland’s New Communications Portal: CSR in Real Time

With Timberland already being aggressively visible and vocal in the consumer marketplace, why did Newton and team feel the need to launch a new CSR communications portal?

“We’re segmenting the conversations on our website around products and around topics so everyone has a better sense of clarity. Even though our authenticity ensures that sustainability conversations become natural in all parts of our business and you don’t have to go to the CSR portal to have a CSR conversation, we felt that different stakeholders have different perspectives. You can still go to the products portal and have the same conversation as you would on the CSR portal, because the intentional design, how we conduct business with suppliers and community issues are woven into the product and the product description.”

Why then is the new portal necessary if sustainability is so intricately embedded into the work culture at Timberland?

“We are having conversations with a very vast and diverse spectrum of people, from wholesalers and retailers to direct consumers. They all come with very different demands and perspectives and we want to offer them the opportunity to engage in the language they understand best,” he explained.

Fully integrated with social media tools, the portal is designed for consumers looking for details on green products, interesting stories and much more. Not only can you go to the redesigned portal and discuss Timberland products, you can also discuss the team’s CSR efforts, join ongoing conversations through their Bootmakers blog, and chime in on more topical discussions around the Green index and climate change.

Admittedly, many companies continue to struggle with this balance between preserving the granular stuff and promoting more general conversations around products.

For Timberland, the answer was to lead in both.

“People can go granular as they want or stay as generalist as they’d like. What’s different about the portal is that we are not starting conversations by discussing one of our pillars or metrics but focusing on stories that matter and then getting to the things that are underneath those stories; this marks a fundamental shift for our website,” Newton added.

Being a communications geek, I can definitely attest to Newton’s excitement about this new portal. The ability to throw open your business practices and product lifecycle to your stakeholders takes gumption and a resolute belief in transparency.

The Timberland team knows that this throws the door open to endless questions and scrutiny but Swart’z recruits are used to that and know that open engagement is the only way to maintain authenticity and empower their stakeholders toward sustainability and a zero impact footprint.

This is mission critical for Timberland.

As Newton put it, “Regardless of what happens post-merger, we are all in this together. Our values are integrated into all of us and everyone who works here. Jeff Swartz might be the leader but you can expect to hear the same things from all of us.”

This is Timberland’s — and VF’s — opportunity to drive the apparel industry toward a more sustainable future. The 2015 goals are the means to an end, a future that VF and Timberland can now together impact much more powerfully.

Comments? Leave a comment, email me or connect @AmanSinghCSR.

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