Beth Holzman, manager of corporate social responsibility strategy and reporting at Timberland, speaks with Ben Cooper about how the company's CSR strategy brings not only intrinsic environmental and social benefits but also helps reinforce the Timberland brand image.
 
In these days of heightened consumer sensitivity towards social and environmental issues, being a responsible company seems to be good business.

But there are times when a company's ethical profile becomes part of its identity and intrinsic to its brand image. Timberland is arguably one such example.

There can of course be dangers in placing too much emphasis on ethical achievements. Consumers and media are sceptical about a company that seems 'too good to be true'.

And such are the challenges in the social and environmental arena that even the most assiduous company can slip up occasionally. One that has overegged its record is more of a hostage to fortune than most.

It is perhaps for that reason that Beth Holzman, manager of corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy and reporting at Timberland, steadfastly avoids any air of self-congratulation about the success of the company's CSR programme in improving the company's environmental and social performance and the positive effect that it has on brand image.

Holzman says strong environmental and social awareness has been a feature of Timberland's approach from its foundation, but as more companies seek to make capital in this area, the company has had to become "more comfortable" about promoting its achievements.

"I think we're starting maybe to talk a bit more publicly about it because we realise it is a possible differentiator, and we have the credibility and the programmes to back it up," she says.

"Sometimes you see new companies coming into this space and there is the question of greenwashing and the validity of their claims. We have been doing this for a very long time and we have very robust, credible programmes and engagement with stakeholders that really backs up all we have been doing."

Remaining challenges
Underlining this point, she adds that "we probably talk a lot more about challenges" that remain rather than the achievements to date, which she believes is the right way round.

However, Holzman does consider the "scaling up" of its CSR communication to be a key achievement in Timberland's CSR strategy over the past year.

Last year, Timberland set a significant precedent by switching to quarterly sustainability reporting. This has been important in communicating with the investor community and, in particular, with the socially responsible investor (SRI) sector.

But Holzman points out that the increased frequency of reporting is by no means the only noteworthy innovation.

The company is also communicating via two websites, www.justmeans.com and www.earthkeeper.com, both of which allow it to convey its ethical values and CSR activities to a wider audience.

"These web 2.0 tools allow us to scale our conversations, especially with consumers, activists and maybe students, in ways in which we did not have regular interaction on these issues," says Holzman.

In addition, Timberland's CEO holds a quarterly live question and answer session on facebook.

Holzman stresses that these initiatives are as much about garnering views as disseminating what the company is doing. "The goal is to take the feedback people are giving us in those forms and integrate it into our strategy."

Other achievements
Other key recent achievements, Holzman suggests, have been the establishment of Timberland's Green Index eco-label, as a means of "communicating with consumers to empower them to make responsible purchasing decisions", and the growth of the company's Earthkeepers brand. 

Holzman reports that in spite of still being a fairly limited product range, the Earthkeepers line has become one of the company's best-selling products in the US, Japan and Europe. "We are seeing consumers we hope starting to reward us for putting these products into the marketplace."

With regard to eco-labelling, Holzman reports that Timberland is working with other members of the Outdoor Industry Association to establish an industry-wide eco-labelling scheme. She also points out that the company is an enthusiastic participant in multi-stakeholder initiatives. 

"Our commitment to working with multi-stakeholder organisations and institutions is, I hope, very apparent. It's really embedded in our transparency and accountability policy.

"We want to be as communicative with stakeholders, both our partners and our critics, so we can improve our programmes and the impacts that come out of those programmes. We really do believe in collaborative opportunities that can scale our impacts."

Holzman cites as an example how Timberland looks to partner with other clothing companies in jointly auditing factories which they have in common, with the intention of freeing up resources within the supplier companies to work on improvements and capacity building.

Environmental profile
While Timberland's CSR strategy is divided into four key components , strategic goals or 'pillars', which include both environmental and social elements, it is the company's environmental profile that is arguably most prominent.

And given the nature of its business, this is not surprising. It is also perhaps the area where the company's CSR profile can be most closely allied to the brand, brand image and marketing. 

While Holzman plays down the notion that environmental programmes are directly linked to a brand marketing purpose, she says there is some truth in the suggestion that Timberland's environmental credentials are central not only to its CSR agenda but also to its overall brand identity. 

Clearly, given the sensitivity Timberland and many other companies with developed CSR strategies have towards the idea of ethical issues being used cynically for brand promotion, Holzman does not dwell too much on how brand marketing and ethical profile interact.

She says: "We make products that serve people in the outdoors and if our consumers weren't able to enjoy those products in the outdoors we wouldn't really be in business anymore."

While this may seem a little simplistic, it arguably speaks to precisely the kind of associations that consumers might make about the brand.

From a positive brand marketing standpoint, the company's environmental actions will therefore naturally resonate with the brand message. Also perhaps, a company so identified with the outdoors might be expected to have a strong environmental programme.

What Holzman is clear about is that commitment to its ethical programmes forms a very important part of Timberland's long-term strategy.

This also means that the current downturn is unlikely to deflect the company from those long-term objectives even though she concedes that like any other company Timberland is feeling the pressure.

"We are a retail company, so like any other business we are affected by consumer purchasing decisions changing.

"But Timberland has been working on these things for a long time and while resources are being scrutinised and tightened, we really believe that our CSR objectives and the improved products are going to help to distinguish us as we go forward."