A greener footprint: How Timberland's boots ignited a decade of circular economy progress

As Timberland celebrates the 10th anniversary of its EarthKeeper product range which utilises recycled plastic, edie catches up with the outdoor clothing retailer's sustainability director Colleen Vien, who explains how a decade of continual improvements has put the firm on track to achieving the circular business model.

More than 270 million plastic water bottles have been given a new life in Timberland footwear

More than 270 million plastic water bottles have been given a new life in Timberland footwear

A lot of 'unprecedented' events took place in 2007. The Bank Of England bailed out the fourth largest mortgage company Northern Rock, paving the way for an economic crash that the nation is still climbing out of. Barack Obama announced his intention to run for US President (although many of his impacts are now slowly being reversed). And the Tesla Roadster was shown at car shows prior to full production 2008, igniting the electric vehicle revolution.

It was also 10 years ago that Timberland launched its EarthKeeper range of boots. The 6-inch boot incorporates 50% recycled PET linings and laces, 34% recycled rubber outsoles and leather sourced from tanneries rated 'silver' by the Leather Working Group for environmental best practice.

The EarthKeeper boots were - and still are - a lighthouse product in a rising sea of plastic waste. And, as Timberland's sustainability director Colleen Vien explains, the key to getting the range off the ground was instilling a feeling of defiance across the company when it comes to accelerating sustainability. 

“10 years ago, we decided to take on the concept of taking a stylish boot that performs on par with our other products and is at a price point that our consumers expect, that then incorporates the best sustainable materials that we can find," Vien tells edie.

“Back then, the feedback from the industry and within the company was that it couldn't be done. Either it wouldn't perform on par with other conventional materials or it was going to be cost-prohibitive. We took that challenge to heart and one of the things I love about Timberland is that we often say 'don't tell us it can't be done.'”

Although the Earthkeepers were designed through an “internal DNA to do things the right” way, Vien notes that consumer demand has grown to the point where the boots are now considered one of the fastest-growing products in the company’s 99-year history. It is this growth in sustainable products over time which sets Timberland apart from other retailers. What could have just been a nice eco-story has instead served to transform the company’s approach to product sustainability. What started out as a concept to test the boundaries of product innovation has now become ever-present across all Timberland products.

While sales of the boot weren't originally driven by consumer demand for 'sustainable' products, Vien claims that the company is seeing a crucial shift, here, with consumers increasingly looking at the transparency and sustainability credentials of brands before they make a purchase. 

"Ten years ago, this kind of topic wasn't commonplace with consumers. We were introducing something new that wasn't coming from consumer demand, but internally it was us proving what the industry was pushing back on.

“Today, that is definitely changing. We know our consumers are more aware, they are more interested, and they want to do business with brands that they can trust. They want more transparency and they expect a certain behavior from companies. It is nice to be in a position to stand for these things.”

Target-setting

The legacy of the Earthkeepers has been strengthened in recent years. Timberland launched its Environmental Product Standards (TEPS) in 2016, which sets the brand category-specific targets to ensure that 100% of all footwear include at least one recycled, organic or renewable (ROR) material.

TEPS also puts goals in place to ensure that relevant materials are sourced from tanneries that earned gold or silver ratings from the Leather Working Group for following environmental best-practice, that all footwear and apparel is PVC-free and that 100% of apparel cotton comes from US-origin or Better Cotton Initiative certified sources.

To date, Timberland has strived to deliver on these goals: more than 80% of Timberland footwear contains one ROR material, while 94% of leather used in Timberland products complies with the Leather Working Group's gold or silver conditions. A big focus has been placed on innovation, too: parent company VF corporation now has dedicated innovation centres in New Hampshire and California. Both are aimed at unlocking new materials and business models for the footwear and apparel industries.

The Earthkeepers have also helped to spark other sustainable product lines. Timberland recently launched the Eagle Bay boot, made with the same eco-materials as the Earthkeepers. The Eagle Bay boot will build on the work done by the brand to incorporate post-consumer plastic into products. So far, 270 million plastic water bottles have been given new life in Timberland footwear.

Unique partnerships

A key aspect of this continual improvement to Timberland's sustainability approach has been collaboration. As a case in point, the retailer has joined companies such as HP in striking a partnership with Thread, a community project that harvests materials from plastic bottles littering the streets and landfills of Haiti. More than 3,800 jobs have been created for Haitians through the partnership and Vien feels that this collaboration offers a different narrative to promote the benefits of the circular economy.

“While we've been incorporating plastic bottles for years, our new partnership with Thread is unique,” Vien says. “It’s not just using a recycled plastic bottle, it’s a product that we know exactly where it's been picked up from - by individuals in the poorest communities in Haiti and Honduras.

“It has a human impact now, and it’s a story that resonates so much stronger than the environmental one. The social side is a crucial impact. When most people think about the circular economy, they don't think about the social impact. As a company that is trying to demonstrate that there is more to be handled and more opportunity to address issues, we can show there's more sides to the equation. It's the people we need to be protecting as well.”

Ultimately, the success of a circular economy within the retail sector hinges on consumer involvement, and the social aspect of these initiatives could be key in driving much-needed engagement. But this alone will not be enough to galvanise an entire customer base, as Vien testifies. 

“I think consumers are aware that we are using resources beyond their availability and that we need to start rethinking about purchasing.“I think that not enough has been done, and it hasn't been done fast enough. We wouldn't be in this issue as a planet today with so much plastic in our ocean. Certainly, there needed to be large amounts of action happening long ago.

“It's unfortunate and we have catching up to do. It’s wonderful to see consumers become more aware of that and demanding action. It's now translating into companies taking action. Across so many industries you're finding that this is becoming a practice, some view it as an obligation and others need to follow with that mindset.”


Sector summary: The state of sustainability in retail

edie recently published a new sector summary report exploring the state of sustainability in Britain's retail industry. The report incorporates the key findings from our own industry survey to outline five drivers, challenges and opportunities facing sustainability professionals in the sector.

Case studies from the likes of Argos, Tesco and Amazon are combined with exclusive commentary from retail firms such as Co-Op, M&S and Stella McCartney in the 17-page report, which concludes with a look at some of the latest technologies and innovations which are shaping the retail business models of the future.

Read the retail sector summary here.


Matt Mace


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