Timberland’s CEO on Deciding to Engage with Angry Activists - Jeff Swartz

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Timberland’s CEO on Deciding to Engage with Angry Activists
by Jeff Swartz  |  
12:00 PM October 22, 2013


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timberland You can tell a lot about how your day is going to unfold by the number of e-mails that are waiting for you. I’m a pretty early riser—4 AM most days—so I typically start out ahead of the game when it comes to e-mails. But on June 1, 2009, they kept coming, and coming, and coming.


timberland discount shoes The first one accused Timberland of supporting slave labor, destroying Amazon rain forests, and exacerbating global warming—all in the first sentence. The second was the same as the first. The fan mail was from Greenpeace supporters reacting to a newly released Greenpeace report about deforestation in the Amazon. The senders didn’t threaten a boycott but said they were “concerned” and urged us to work with Greenpeace to find a “permanent global solution” to both deforestation and climate change.


timberland shoes As a CEO, I’m used to getting angry e-mails. But these were different. Even though their text was a form letter pulled off the Greenpeace website, it was well written and informed. And it was coming from a potent activist organization, suggesting a problem I wasn’t intimately familiar with. Even in my early-morning haze, I knew that was a bad combination.


timberland boots on sale My first response to the e-mails was to be pretty angry myself. Of all the environmental problems Timberland has been actively committed to addressing, deforestation tops the list. We’ve planted a million trees in China; we host community regreening events in cities all over the world. Our logo is a tree, for crying out loud. How much more ridiculous could this campaign be? It would have been laughable—if not for the 65,000 Greenpeace supporters who were buying into the allegations.


timberland boot sale The Origin of Hides


timberland fashion boots As much as I didn’t want to admit it, Greenpeace was asking a legitimate question: Where was our leather coming from?


The fact is, the origin of hides has never been easily traceable: They’re treated as a waste product by slaughterhouses, which are mostly interested in the meat. In some parts of the world, hides are sold in batches of two or three by guys on the side of the road. The lack of traceability in our materials supply chain is almost archaic. I thought Greenpeace had raised a good question and that there was value in trying to answer it.


We called Greenpeace within a few hours of receiving the first e-mail, but it took days to get someone knowledgeable about the issue to come to the phone. While we waited for the organization to talk to us, our supplier tried to get some answers. To illustrate its claim that ranchers were illegally clear-cutting the Amazon forest, Greenpeace published pictures from Google Earth showing cows grazing in places that had been forest just a month before. In conversations with our supplier, we learned that it didn’t actually know where ranchers were pasturing their cattle—so Greenpeace might be right. Hmm…not the answer I was hoping for.


My next question for the team: If our supplier didn’t know where the cattle originated, could we start figuring it out? Could we track where specific cows were grazing? Our engineers concluded that the task was arduous but not impossible; although there wasn’t a system in place to capture and manage that data, there could be, given enough time and resources. What would make it impossible, they said, was if the companies further up the supply chain—the cattle ranchers and the slaughterhouses—were unwilling to go along with it.


It’s called a supply chain for a reason: There are a lot of links—ranchers, slaughterhouses, tanneries. In the scheme of things in Brazil, we’re a very small player with very little leverage. To its credit, Greenpeace understood this. So it didn’t come after shoe companies only—it also targeted companies that buy beef, including Wal-Mart and other grocery chains. It applied pressure to Brazilian politicians, who turned to Brazilian law enforcement, which began going after the ranchers who were breaking the law. Greenpeace effectively brought a coalition of pressure against every link in the chain simultaneously—a powerful tactic, and one it knew would work.


Crafting a Response


Dealing with the supply chain would take weeks, if not longer—but in the meantime, we had 65,000 love notes to respond to. Bill Clinton likes to say that when it comes to winning votes, you need to consider two kinds of people: the Nos and the Maybes. Now, the Nos are against you all the way; you can’t win their votes, so you shouldn’t waste time trying. Every election, he says, is won or lost on the Maybes—they’re your fighting chance. Even though we had no way of differentiating Nos from Maybes, given the cookie-cutter e-mail, we knew we had to craft a response that had the best possible chance of winning the Maybes (provided there were any in the bunch)—those who might, just might, see that we were trying to do the right thing.


Our response ended up evolving over time. Writing an e-mail response may seem like a no-brainer, but we worked really hard to get it right. For instance, if an e-mail had come from an Italian internet address—even if the message was in English—we replied in Italian. And we watched how many senders replied. We never expected that everyone would write back and say, “Wow, we never realized you were great guys!” but we did hope to hear from activists who appreciated our response. And some of them did.


By July, we’d begun to make progress in working with our supplier and in consulting with our competitors and with Greenpeace. Although Greenpeace had hoped that we’d simply come out with a high-level statement agreeing with its position, we wanted to really understand the problem—and to make sure our supplier had a system in place that could be implemented and sustained.


On July 22, Nike announced that it would require its Brazilian leather suppliers to certify in writing that their hides hadn’t come from deforested areas. Now, Nike is huge—a much bigger player than we are in terms of leather sourcing—and its suppliers would have to start mapping and tracking ranches all over the country. A few days later—seven weeks after the e-mail onslaught began—we reached a similar agreement with our supplier.


At the end of July 2009 we issued a statement praising Greenpeace for bringing the matter to the industry’s attention, and it was able to declare victory. In return, it issued a statement saying that Timberland had taken a leadership position on the issue, which was as gratifying as praise from an organization that has painfully put you through the paces can be.


Did any of this make a difference for the issue of deforestation in Brazil? The jury’s still out and probably will be for a while. But I believe there’s real value in the outcomes we’ve already seen and in the lessons I’ll take with me as I continue to work to make Timberland a more responsible and sustainable organization—the same path I was on before the first e-mail came in, and the same path I’ll be on tomorrow.


This is an excerpt from How I Did It: Timberland’s CEO on Standing Up to 65,000 Angry Activists from the September, 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review .


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Jeff Swartz

Jeff Swartz is the president and CEO of Timberland.


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