Monday, 19 December 2011

Timberlands for Christmas - A Gift within a Gift

When I was a student (some time in the last century – do not ask me when), Timberlands were not necessarily green, but certainly cool boots. I still remember when I bought my first pair of Timberlands. I loved them and I wore them all the time.

For me (and probably my peers) they represented a kind of “urban ruggedness”. The more I wore them, and the more worn they looked, the better it was. Over time we built up a relationship, but I am afraid it did not last (I was still a student and not ready for a long-term relationship yet). I was disappointed by the product. The real experience did not match my expectations. I thought they lasted for life, but they did not. After a couple of years they fell apart and my feet got wet. Maybe my pair were a lemon. Maybe I did not take enough care of them (too little time because of too many parties, I guess). Well, we parted. As far as I remember I inquired about repair, but it was too expensive considering the price for a new pair of shoes (I was not super sustainability conscious then). Anyway, I bought a new brand, which looked similar, and yet different. Coming from the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, “Cat” boots were considered to be even cooler at that time. I still have one black pair of Cat boots and I wear them during the winter time.

Recently, I have read about Timberland again. We also mentioned the medium-sized global apparel company in our last post on the “four Ds” of standards, certifications, and labels. I learnt that Timberland has a long-standing commitment to social and environmental issues. Well, many companies claim that, but Timberland also walks the talk. Back in 1993 Timberland signed a set of environmental ethics, introduced by the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), which guide corporate conduct. Since then, Timberland has been taking steps to reduce the impact along the entire life cycle, including agriculture, tannery, transportation, retail stores, customers and communities. The company set up an internal team of people to support and review factories around the world, which make Timberland products. The Timberland representatives review the social and environmental performance against the Code of Conduct to ensure factories promote fair, safe, and non-discriminatory conditions. They build up sustainable relationships with their suppliers to implement good practices and increase productivity in the factories.

In 2006 the company also introduced indicators, which appeared on every box of Timberland footwear, to provide consumers with information about the company’s environmental performance. They called it the “Nutrition Label” (similar to a cereal box in the grocery store), which is something consumers can relate to. According to life cycle analyses (LCA) the three most important environmental impacts include climate impact, chemical use, and resource consumption. Accordingly, Timberland provides consumers with information about the percentages of: renewable energy use, PVC free materials, eco-conscious materials, and recycled contents of the shoebox. In addition to that, Timberland lists the number of trees planted per year. Internally, the product specific indicators help designers to make sustainable decisions (e.g. choosing eco-conscious material). As a result of the sustainable design efforts Timberland launched the “Earthkeepers” collection, which incorporates recycled PET bottles in their linings, recycled rubber in their soles, organic content in apparel, and leather from rated tanneries, which implement good practices in water, waster, and energy management. The relevance of recycling was emphasized in an entertaining way in the following TV ad “Lost Bottle” as part of the global communication campaign:

The company also partnered with Green Rubber Inc. to launch two new footwear collections featuring outsoles made using recycled rubber from discarded tires. Earthkeepers 2.0 pushes the limits further: This new collection is designed for disassembly, so at least 80% of this style's parts can be reused or recycled. The ultimate goal is to make “cradle-to-cradle” products. So far, the Green Index has been successful as a design tool, while driving consumer preferences towards environmental purchasing remains a challenge. There is little evidence that the Green Index has driven sales. In the absence of an independent and certified sustainability label in the footwear industry it is difficult to communicate the environmental and/or social merits of sustainable boots. In addition, these benefits just play an auxiliary role in the purchasing decision making process: “We know that no one’s banging on our door to ask for a cool green shoe”, says Timberland’s CSR manager Beth Holzman, “So we consider our environmental attributes to be a ‘gift with purchase’. It does help to differentiate us in the marketplace, but it’s the fundamental quality and value attributes that attract the consumer.” 

Well, I won’t probably bang at the door of company, but I will certainly reconsider my relationship with Timberland. After 15 years or so I decided to give it a second chance: A pair of Timberland boots is on my Christmas wish list!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Define, Deliver, Demonstrate and Demand: The “4Ds” of Standards, Certifications, and Labels

Alan Knight, the Founder of Single Planet Living, praises and questions the value of labels in the same breath: “We’ve created a model that has delivered real results in the market and in the field – but the coupling of standards-setting with labelling might not be sustainable in the future.” What are the value and the future of labels? Will demand for labels increase or diminish? Will their role change? Against the background of these questions the think-tank SustainAbility interviewed some 85 experts, including business people, standard-setters, and certifiers. Recently, the results of the study have been published in “Signed, Sealed … Delivered?” written by Patrin Watanatada (Director, SustainAbility) and Heather Mak (Manager, SustainAbility). It is a remarkable report, which looks behind certifications and beyond labels.

The authors conclude that labels have become commonplace in many consumer goods industries since the turn of the century: apparel (organic cotton), carpets (GreenGuard, NSF 140), electronics (Energy Star), food & beverages (Fairtrade, Marine Stewardship Council, Organic, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified), household & personal care (Eco-Cert, Fairtrade, Nordic Swan, Organic), and pulp & paper (Forest Stewardship Council). By the end of the year 2011 the global Eco Label Index lists more than 400 labels in 25 industries and 250 countries.

Labels are usually based on certain standards and certifications. “Standards” are set requirements to be followed by program participants. “Certification” provides third party assurance that a process, product or service is in line with certain standards. “Labels” are on-pack claims, marks or seals that indicate conformance with the standards (The State of the Sustainability Initiatives Review 2010). The following “four Ds” help to understand how the three mechanisms are linked together and how they work to achieve better sustainability outcomes (SustainAbility 2011, p. 12):
  • Define standards for processes, performance or measurements. Codify requirements, which are consensus based.
  • Deliver through capacity-building, expertise, relationships, infrastructure and networks.
  • Demonstrate delivery through certifications or verification. Provide assurance by third parties that a product, process or service is in conformity with certain standards.
  • Demand influence by identifying and appealing to wants and needs among buyers. Provide on-pack claims that indicate conformance with the standard and serve to communicate with the customers.
Not only small sustainability pioneers, but also large leading companies employ labels, which increases the outreach and impact of the programmes. In general, we can say that labels helped in establishing more sustainable supply chains, improving lives and preserving natural resources. However, there are limits to this model: Firstly, not every farm and factory can (and should) be certified and labelled: Certifications and labelling are time and money intensive. They are not aims in themselves, but a means to reach the ultimate goal of sustainable supply chains, sustainable products and services. Secondly, the sheer number of labels is confusing for consumers (and even for businesses!). “People are logo’d out”, says Drew Tremblay (Business Development Manager, Domtar). In addition, a number of companies commit “sins of greenwashing”. Thus, scepticism prevails amongst consumers. Thirdly, labels preach to the converted, and do not make much of a dent to the rest (read: the majority of consumers).

To overcome scepticism and reach out to the rest, Watanatada and Mak suggest further developing the model that combines standards and certification and on-pack labelling. They think that the three mechanisms are necessary, but not sufficient to make production and consumption more sustainable, and reach out for the rest. Sustainability innovations play a key role in delivering outcomes rather than standards, complement certifications with strong supplier-buyer-relationships, and use the power of brands to mobilize consumers into adopting more sustainable behaviours. There are some companies like Timberland and Method, for example, that use standards, certifications, and labels increasingly strategically based on what works for them, their supply chain, and their customers. They integrate sustainability into their business models and brands, and communicate it in a holistic and credible way to their customers. This is an emerging model which is based on increasingly demanding and pre-competitive standards, above brands compete, and collaborate with civil society (SustainAbility 2011, p. 27-42).

The new report by Watanatada and Mak is well researched and written. It provides an excellent overview of the state of standards, certifications, and labels. It shares interesting insights, and contributes to the debate over the future role of labels. As usual, there are some shortcomings: By definition, labels are limited to existing products and markets. New forms of consumption such as services instead of products are not considered. In addition to that, the report is focussed on “the perspectives of consumer brands and retailers operating in Europe and North America, where certification and labeling is relatively advanced.” (SustainAbility 2011, p. 10). The state and the future of labels in emerging markets are beyond the scope of the report. Last, but not least the report and the new emerging approach focus on labels and leading consumer brands, which are positioned in (high) quality segments. What about other products, which are not branded and positioned in low price segments? Despite these shortcomings, we highly recommend reading the new SustainAbility report "Signed Sealed ... Deliverered?"