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Why Timberland Failed to Meet Its CO2 Emissions Reduction Targets (and You Might Too)

Timberland is being refreshingly honest about not hitting its greenhouse gas-reduction goals. "We have to fix our business process fundamentally," CEO Jeff Swartz tells us. If they can't do it, though, how can anyone?

Why Timberland Failed to Meet Its CO2 Emissions Reduction Targets (and You Might Too)

Companies scrambling to boost their environmental credibility have the tendency to make all sorts of impressive—and unrealistic—commitments to cut down on water use, CO2 emissions, and mowing down forests. They make a big announcement, everyone oohs and ahs, and then no one remembers to check in on how they did. That's because they generally did horribly and no one sends out a press release about that. So we'd like to commend Timberland, at least, for keeping it honest, if not for actually hitting their goals.

In 2006, the company announced a five-year, 50% reduction goal for greenhouse gas emissions associated with its owned and operated facilities and employee air travel. But that's not what happened. Timberland cut its emissions by only 38%, almost entirely because of their excessive air travel. Which made us wonder: with all the funky telepresence robots and gadgets on the market that are intended to help companies avoid this exact problem, what happened?

First of all, Timberland now says they were never really sure that this was a realistic goal in the first place (of course they do!): "We were looking at goals
through consumers' eyes. We wanted to be able to say we're cutting our
emissions in half. It sounded like a really interesting jab—if we cut emissions
by 50% and improve profit performance at same time, it would make it hard
for the [emissions vs. profit] debate to continue," says Jeff Swartz, Timberland's CEO.

But Timberland just couldn't figure out how to not put people on planes and jet them around the world, spewing CO2 in their wake. This is just the way the company is set up, says Swartz: "We have to fix our business process fundamentally. 80% [of that travel] is
problem-solving ... because we don't run our business as smart as we should. We should be distributing people
closer to the point of attack."

So if the company has an issue in Amsterdam, there should be more people near the city who can handle it—or Timberland should invest in some of these new-fangled video phones. It's an environmental issue, but a business one, too. If you're set up so one guy in your organization has to fly all over the world to fix things, that's going to start adding up pretty fast. Business class seats ain't cheap these days. Swartz says that the company looked into Cisco's Telepresence solution, but ultimately decided not to spend the cash. That decision may have cost the company its emissions goal.

Timberland is investing carbon offsets to make up for the emissions it wasn’t able to slash in 2010, but this is, at best, an illogical solution—and Swartz knows it. "We invested in renewable energy because we use a lot of energy in China with third party manufacturers. Our penance was to invest close to the source
of our own sin, but that's not the same thing as not sinning," he says. Timberland has the balls to try, though, and then admit its failures. That's more than we can say about most major companies.

If Timberland, which did everything from LEED-certifying its stores to purchasing large amounts of renewable energy, couldn't meet its goal, how can any other consumer goods company do it? Cut down on those plane flights. Pick up the phone! Take a train! One really simple solution: Be a local businesses. If you manufactured everything in one place, you wouldn't have to fly someone to Amsterdam to fix a problem that the people in Amsterdam couldn't fix themselves. But we need multinational corporations. We just need them to be smart enough to figure out how to get things done without a plane flight. Welcome to the Internet age, people. Try sending an IM.

UPDATE: Timberland isn't daunted. They're going to try again (and probably fail, and then tell the world about it) for a 50% goal with their owned and operated facilities. They'll make mistakes, and we'll learn from them.

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.