The former executive director of global sustainability for Dell Inc. was appointed VP of corporate social responsibility for Stratham, N.H.-based Timberland this June. In the role, Newton is charged with heading all areas of CSR on a global scale, from green concerns and human rights to community engagement and reporting.
Timberland already has established its leadership position in the sustainability field in footwear through its 2006 debut of environmental “nutritional labels,” which break down the impacts of its product, and through its green-focused Earthkeepers line, which began as a single boot style in fall ’07 and now encompasses an entire casual line and some performance outdoor product.
Now that the firm has been aquired by Greensboro, N.C.-based VF Corp. — a move that was announced on Newton’s first day in the office — the exec said new ownership can only advance Timberland’s goals. In particular, he noted, recently appointed brand president Patrik Frisk has even more opportunity to drive change and transparency.
Here, Newton reveals what’s changed at Timberland and where the company can take its sustainability mission in the future.
Jeff Swartz’s passion for the environment — personally and professionally — was a huge driver at Timberland. What kind of legacy has he left behind?
MN: There’s no question that Jeff is an inspiration. We’ve all grown and benefited [from his leadership]. We are all little Earthkeepers. The coolest thing is that you could call up the head of value chain [here], the head of values marketing, the head of facilities or accounting or legal and finance, and you’d get the same passion and the same feeling about what’s important at Timberland. Jeff inspired everyone; now it’s in our hands.
How will Timberland’s sustainability mission be affected by the new ownership?
MN: [VF’s] corporate culture is very much aligned in terms of the values piece. The challenge is that VF has brands along the entire spectrum of progress of CSR issues. We lead on some things, but there are many other brands that are ahead of us that we’re inspired by. But [Timberland] wouldn’t have been sold if there wasn’t an alignment of philosophy. The factors they cited as inducements to purchase were high growth, great market share internationally and CSR excellence, [as well as] a culture of community engagement. That tells you right away they weren’t blowing smoke. It’s a mutually beneficial opportunity. We can help develop competence and share best practices, particularly in the outdoor coalition at VF, where there are a lot of like-minded brands with like-minded customers. And VF has this forum where we can work collaboratively to create scale.
How does Timberland prioritize its sustainability message?
MN: You can talk endlessly about everything, but it’s all about how much you disclose and to whom. [There are a lot of] social and environmental issues, [and] you address all of them, but what you do is you dial up [the communication around] a few of them. The ones that matter to Timberland are protecting the outdoors, and that’s a really important thing in what we do and how we talk about these issues. [For example], what we’re doing around tree planting. [Last year, Timberland commited to plant five million trees in Haiti, China and other countries by 2015.] It might not sound extremely impactful, but it matters, and it matters to our consumers.
What overall changes do you want to see take place regarding sustainability in the marketplace?
MN: The opportunity exists for any company to work with Wall Street firms and the CSR community to bring in the Securities & Exchange Commission and other agencies for this discussion about how to focus on issues that matter. [Green] is not defined, and this is what keeps the investment community on the sidelines. If you’re involved in analyst calls for earnings, you find that they don’t want to talk about [sustainability] because they’re not sure what they should be considering. There’s no guidance. [We need to be] making it easy for them to set a standard in place so they can make the right decisions about where to put their money and what to expect from companies [in that area].
Would Wall Street recognition help encourage companies to look at sustainability as something that could contribute to the bottom line?
MN: The value proposition piece has been worked out. Everybody should be doing this. They’re wasting money if they don’t. When you don’t use CSR as a lens, you don’t see the opportunity. That’s the cool thing: It’s not [just] the bottom-line stuff; it’s topline growth.