The US manufacturer is working to recycle its sourcing in three quite different ways.
Timberland aims to close the loop of its supply chain circle and recycle across all its footwear by the next decade, and is tackling it from different angles.
In a familiar recycling model, it has partnered with Thread International, which converts waste plastic bottles from Haiti into “the most responsible fabric on the planet”.
Thread has the sustainable B Corp certificate – a Fair Trade-style scheme for for-profit companies that pledge to achieve social goals. Its Ground to Good fabric will feature in Timberland X Thread shoes, T-shirts and bags, launched this spring.
In Germany, however, Timberland is targeting its own products for recycling. There has been an encouraging initial response to the Second-Chance scheme, which offers customers a 10% discount when they bring worn-out footwear of any brand back to stores for recycling.
The company plans to increasingly design products with a view to their components living a second or third life.
“Collaboration outside of the industry is the next step,” Aurelie Dumont, Timberland’s sustainability senior manager for the EMEA region told news site edie.
Timberland has partnered with tyre maker Omni United, which will create a product line suitable for recycling into footwear outsoles.
Once the first batches of tyres have had a chance to wear out, Timberland expects to convert them into shoes for sale towards 2019.
“It’s long-term thinking,” says Dumont. “We take back our own products, we collect the rubber that can be used for tyres, and then from the tyres back to the shoes.”
Timberland has long had a bent towards corporate social responsibility, producing sustainability reports before it was commonplace, but these principles are now becoming increasingly central to the brand: it plans to use recycled, organic and renewable materials in 100% of its footwear by 2020.
“We have been turning from minimising negative impacts to strategically providing positive impacts and thousands of economic opportunities in the developing world,” says Timberland’s manager of environmental stewardship, Zachary Angelini.
Though ambitious, Timberland is also cautious: “I deal with greenwashing daily,” says Angelini. “Many suppliers have cool stories, but very few come to us presenting life-cycle assessment models.
"We don’t want to have an incident or process that affects us negatively. Our legal department is conservative and will ask to see environmental claims forms. Thread being a certified B Corporation gave us a vote of confidence.”
Thread tracks every production step from bottle collection to delivery to the manufacturer, providing 100% transparency.
This has allowed Timberland to share stories, photos and videos with consumers about individual bottle collectors and processing plant workers and the impacts on their lives.
A 2015 study by Nielsen found that 66% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products. Timberland’s environmental icon, the Earthkeeper boot, made from sustainably sourced materials, has thrived to the extent that it constitutes 80% of Timberland’s product line.
“Over the years, our Earthkeepers became so successful, design teams across multiple categories were understanding the value – the actual cost savings to be had, leveraging the purchasing power from other product categories, or the value of the marketing,” says Timberland’s director of sustainability, Colleen Vien.
It’s no surprise outdoor-brand consumers are interested in sustainability issues, and for Timberland it’s logical to preserve the outdoors.
“I don’t believe that there is any way outside of ‘circularity’ in the future,” says Dumont. “We are all aware that we won’t have the resources to continue on a similar linear business model as the one that has been in place for the last decade.”
Sources for courses
Timberland’s inaugural material order used 765,000 plastic bottles, saved 30.5m gallons of water and averted the use of 15,000lb of pesticide.
Timberland describes its products as 98% PVC free: it hasn’t yet found a material that can match PVC’s durability in attaching a shoe’s upper to its outsole, but hopes to do so by 2020.
Thread fabric expects that scaling up with a company like Timberland will make it more viable.