Timberland continues collaborative circular economy drive

Outdoor clothing company Timberland is ramping up its circular economy efforts as a number of innovative closed-loop models for footwear now approach the next stages of development.

Timberland has partnered with tyre manufacturer and distributor Omni United to produce a line of tyres intended to be recycled into footwear out-soles. Photo: Timberland

Timberland has partnered with tyre manufacturer and distributor Omni United to produce a line of tyres intended to be recycled into footwear out-soles. Photo: Timberland

Speaking exclusively to edie, Timberland’s sustainability senior manager for the EMEA region Aurelie Dumont confirmed that the firm is looking to extend its re-use and recycling commitments following a successful takeback programme established in Germany last July.  

The Second Chance takeback project extends the lifecycle of footwear brought into Timberland stores by consumers; giving them a new life by re-using the materials. Dumont asserts that the scheme has proved a success for the firm’s customers and staff alike.

“So far it has been pretty positive,” Dumont said. “Consumers like it and it seems to be working well with the continental staff. We are thinking about extending it to the rest of Europe, but we are three months in so far so it is in the early stages.”  

The takeback scheme forms one element of Timberland’s growing commitment towards a closed-loop retail future, with cross-sector collaborative partnerships proving crucial. 

For example, the manufacturer recently partnered with Pittsburgh-based social enterprise Thread to provide upcycled materials such as plastic bottles for use in its footwear. Made in the US with up to 50% recycled PET from plastic bottles collected from the streets, canals and neighbourhoods of Haiti and Honduras, each yard of Thread fabric is traced and tracked at every step of its journey, from bottle collection to fabric creation to the delivery of the fabric bolt to the manufacturer. The scheme will bear its first fruit in spring 2017 with a collection of Timberland footwear and bags made from Thread fabric.  

Timberland has also partnered with tyre manufacturer and distributor Omni United to produce a line of tyres intended to be recycled into footwear out-soles. Dumont confirmed that the first shoes containing this recycled rubber should be available from winter 2018 or spring 2019, and revealed that Timberland is exploring similar innovative partnerships as the firm looks to move away from a linear-based approach.  

“As a brand, we look more and more into circularity,” she added. “The fact that we have been using recycled material for a while forms a part of that. Collaboration outside of the industry is the next step and, on the basis of solid partnership, we can foresee more and more materials getting back into our products. It’s long-term thinking - 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.  

“There are many possibilities when it comes to circularity. It’s still early stages but the tyre collaboration is a great one. It’s not in our footwear yet but it will be soon as the tires that are currently being used in vehicles come to the end of their useful lives and will be repurposed in our products. The possibilities when it comes to cross-industry partnerships when we are talking about the circular economy is very wide, and we are really looking at what will be the next collaboration."  

New business models

Dumont's progressive and collaborative approach reflects a growing circular economy movement within the fashion industry. Recently, jeans manufacturer Levi Strauss announced plans to open clothing recycling collection points at all its local stores as part of its initiative to create an infrastructure to support the circular economy by 2020.  

Eco-clothing company Rapanui, meanwhile, has created a scheme which provides store credit to consumers who return last season’s clothing. A similar initiative has also been offered by Dutch-based firm, Mud Jeans - when customers no longer want their jeans, they can return them and Mud Jeans will either upcycle them into a unique, vintage pair or they will be completely recycled.   

Dumont insists that this circular economy approach adopted by smaller fashion companies can spur on Timberland and other apparel giants that are best-placed to accelerate the transition to a resource-efficient industry.

“All of these initiatives are very inspiring for bigger organisations,” Dumont said. “I don’t believe that there is anyway outside of ‘circularity’ in the future. As businesses, we have to look into that and find the solution to get to circularity. 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.

“Our commitment to recycle material is also going in that direction. Is the material coming from our own product? Not yet, but they come from plastic bottles; they come from rubber that has been used in other products, such as tyres. So they don’t all come from our industry, but it doesn’t matter – it’s nice to say ‘that shoe is going to be a new shoe soon after you’ve already worn it’. It makes sense to re-use the materials that have been used in the past with other items, so we are definitely looking at that direction.”   

Target-setting

Dumont believes that companies are gradually recognising the need to break the mould in a sector that has become notorious for a seeming lack of appreciation for sustainable business models. Indeed, celebrity chef turned eco-warrior Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall highlighted the pervasive fashion culture in his recent ‘War on Waste’ TV show. The industry “seems hell-bent on persuading us to buy more than we need”, Fearnley-Whittingstall said on the show as he revealed that it takes just 10 minutes for the UK to throw away 10,000 separate garments.

But fashion companies are gradually starting to "get their house in order", Dumont contends, as consumer awareness over textile waste increases. “The consumers really care,” Dumont said. “I think there has been a really eye-opening change with the consumer. When consumers start asking questions, the businesses react – they have to. I think that more companies are considering the questions from the consumers and the NGOs.”

For Dumont and Timberland, the hard work has only just begun. The footwear manufacturer has set a range of ambitious CSR targets for 2020 as it looks for innovative solutions to reduce its environmental impact. For example, 100% of footwear will include at least one material containing recycled or re-used content by 2020. Already in 2015, 84% of Timberland footwear incorporated recycled, organic or renewable materials.

“I am very lucky to be at Timberland which has been taking these questions very seriously and genuinely for many years already,” Dumont concluded. “Timberland was a pioneer in the industry. Yes, more and more companies are addressing these issues, but there is so much more to be done. This is why at Timberland we have those goals and that’s a great way to have a clear direction and know where we want to go and work towards those goals in a way that brings progress. Large organisations need to have big targets and know how to get there."

George Ogleby


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