Authenticity, transparency and opportunity

I’ve just been reading an interesting Ethical Corporation interview with Jeff Swartz, CEO of Timberland – particularly interesting to me because it taps into the dominant themes of this blog over recent months…

On CR and the recession – the global economic downturn only sounds the death knell for CR as practiced by the “CR as PR” brigade. For champions of CR 2.0, with a genuine commitment to sustainability, it actually represents a great opportunity to reconnect with disillusioned consumers.

On authenticity and transparency – these ideas represent the biggest challenges for brands today. Admidst the current fallout, more than ever, consumers are searching for brands they can trust. Sustainable brands (sustainable in the original sense of being capable of surviving and prospering in the long term) must be built on truth, from the inside out.

There’s much to admire about what Swartz has to say, and the very honest and pragmatic way in which he says it – including frank admissions of previous gaffs, such as its virtual tree planting experiment on Facebook.

You get the sense that Timberland has learned from such mistakes and is now focusing much more closely on issues that are truly material to its business – building an ethical supply chain, and developing more sustainable products. And their commitment to transparency – as illustrated by their “nutritional labelling” approach – is particularly impressive.

The only disappointment is the slightly defeatist tone of Swartz’s remarks that his company’s shoes, “are toxic, by definition,” pointing to slower-than-desired progress towards products that are fully recyclable and biodegradeable.

I hope he takes the opportunity to learn from the work that Nike has done with two of my sustainability heroes, Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart. If he took a look at their article in green@work, or at Bill’s excellent TED talk on cradle-to-cradle design, he’d see that there’s plenty of room for optimism on this front too.

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