How Timberland’s President Jim Pisani Is Putting Sustainability at the Top of His Agenda

It didn’t take long for Jim Pisani to understand Timberland’s vital role in nurturing the environment.

Just two weeks into his stint at the Stratham, N.H.-based company in 2016, the global brand president was knee deep in the company’s eco-friendly initiative — getting his hands dirty transforming a vacant Bronx, N.Y., lot into a lush garden.

Three years later, Pisani is working to make sure eco-consciousness is at the center of everything VF Corp.-owned Timberland does.

The company has rolled out aggressive goals — under the banner of Timberland Environmental Product Standards — that it intends to hit by 2020. The initiative includes having at least one recycled, organic or renewable material on all footwear styles and using leather only from Leather Working Group (an organization that works together to maintain environmental standards) with gold- or silver-rated tanneries.

Industry insiders believe these efforts will help the brand resonate with the outdoor consumer. “They are leveraging their commitment to the environment and the service they give. This is something they’ve done for a long time but haven’t talked about much,” said Matt Powell, sports industry analyst at The NPD Group Inc. “They’re starting to step up and share their efforts with the public. They’ve done great work, but many people didn’t know what they were doing.”

As Timberland makes its sustainability message loud and clear, Powell believes the brand has an opportunity with two distinct groups of consumers — the core outdoor enthusiast and the fickle fashion shopper. “It’s always been a conflict for them to be true to the outdoor community, and at the same time be a part of streetwear, but they’re navigating it really well,” Powell explained. “The product they’re doing for streetwear is clearly understood, and the consumer [knows] it has little to do with the outdoor-focused consumer.”

Despite Timberland’s progress, the label is up against several challenges. A pair of VF Corp. brands, Vans and The North Face, are growing at a faster rate. And the business still relies heavily on the male consumer, with about 70 percent of its sales in men’s. (Timberland reported a 4% revenue increase in the Americas for the 12 months ending March 2019, while overall revenues were up 2% on a constant currency basis.)

“There is still some real runway for them on the women’s side,” Powell said. “They’ve made strides, they’re not strictly doing takedowns from men’s product, they’re making products just for her now, but there’s still more work to do.”

Ahead of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market this week, Pisani talks about winning with women, sustainability initiatives and the pressure to improve sales growth.

timberland manhattan store
Timberland’s new pop-up store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Timberland

Footwear News: President Donald Trump’s proposed tariffs are dominating the conversation. How concerned are you about this issue?

Jim Pisani: “Years ago, we were looking to diversify our sourcing and where we make our products. We have limited exposure in China. What we make there and ship to the U.S. is less than 7% — our sourcing is across multiple countries. We would feel a limited impact.”

The outdoor industry has been at odds with the White House over several climate-related issues. How important is it for Timberland to participate in these tough discussions?

JP: “We need to take a stand for what we believe in — from our values to our purpose — and do the right thing. We’re going to put politics aside and be bipartisan. We will step up and be bold. We need to think about how [decisions] impact us from a community perspective. For me, it’s about walking the talk and doing things to protect nature and the outdoors.”

How do you plan to elevate your sustainability messaging?

JP: “It’s embedded in our brand. Our team is part of our strategy; it’s been that way for years and continues to evolve. We’re about having responsible product and sourcing. We’ve given 350 million PET bottles (made of polyethylene terephthalate) new life in our product. We’ve served more than 1.2 million hours of community service across the globe, and we’ve planted more than 10.2 million trees. What’s new is we wanted to be bolder in our communications and invite the community to participate. You’re going to hear about a new campaign, Nature Needs Heroes, and see how we celebrate the everyday hero who is making the future greener and brighter. They’re strong influencers in their own right and are connecting with Timberland. It’s a global campaign and an overarching connectivity back to our purpose.”

How close is the brand to hitting its 2020 goals?

JP: “We’re constantly working toward all of our goals — whether it’s using sustainable organic cotton or silver- and gold-rated tanneries for our leather. With our Haiti Cotton initiative, it’s sustainable, long-term, life-changing. We hadn’t been able to farm cotton in Haiti for 30 years and were able to help those farmers start growing organic cotton again. We support and help them, but ultimately, they did it as a group. We just gave them the resources — and Vans is going to help as well. For us to be able to impact that community in a bigger, broader way and to be able to provide a future for those workers is important for us. On our end, we’ll be able to source the product from Haiti.”

How well does Timberland execute and promote sustainability compared to the greater outdoor industry?

JP: “We’re the leader in footwear, and as a lifestyle brand we’re one of the top. But we’re not perfect; we need to get better. We make products so there are certain aspects that aren’t sustainable, but our goal is to be planet positive someday. That’s a lofty goal, but it’s one that’s important for us. We’ve been doing this a long time and we’ve got to get better year after year.”

Where do you see the most growth opportunity?

JP: “First and foremost, we want to continue to diversify our portfolio. Men’s, women’s and contemporary casual footwear, work and apparel — those are all key categories. Elevating DTC and digital will continue to be [priorities]. From an Asia perspective, focusing on China is a key strategy for us. Making sure we have healthy sustainable growth across each region is really important [as well as] focusing on a premium position within our categories.”

How will Timberland cater to female consumers moving forward?

JP: “It’s one of the biggest opportunities for the brand. When I came here a few years back and I walked in the stores, it was challenging. [Now if you go] into our Fifth Avenue store in New York, you can clearly identify our women’s product front and center — the assortment and how it’s orchestrated gives us a different view. As we talk to our female consumer, we do it in a different way. We might have previously done it through a male voice, but now it’s changed. We have a direct marketing approach, and from a product perspective, you see colors and a softer side of Timberland. But it still has our rugged attitude and our DNA in it. She’s something that continues to be a focus for us across the globe; we’ve seen great growth in our European women’s business as well as the Americas, and we’ll look to do this moving forward in Asia Pacific as well.”

timberland manhattan store
Inside Timberland’s new pop-up store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Timberland

With the collaborations game constantly shifting, how are you capitalizing on this platform?

JP: “We’ve been fortunate to work with some of the most creative brands and minds in the industry, and we’ll continue to do that. One area we’re focused on is purpose-led collaborations. We recently did one with Pharrell [Williams] called Something in the Water. He [returned] to his hometown in Virginia Beach to give back — we had a pop-up and talked about how a greener environment will lead to a brighter future for all of us — and we did community service and volunteerism. We have a program with the NBA coming this fall. The product is great, but there’s also a volunteerism connection through NBA Cares where we go out into the local community. Our collaborations are going to be global and meaningful. They’ll bring relevance, but we also know consumers want more than just great product, they want a brand that stands for something.”

Timberland hasn’t posted the growth that other VF Corp. brands have, such as Vans and The North Face, with improvements of 26% and 10%, respectively. What is your take on their performance?

JP: “Being part of the VF portfolio and having brands like Vans and The North Face doing extremely well is helpful for us. We share best practices — everything around retail, digital, supply chain, consumer insights and an understanding of what’s going on in the marketplace. Those are all advantages we have being part of VF, and we’re able to learn from one another. We’re certainly focused on our business and the healthy sustainable growth that we want to continue to build across the globe. I stay focused on that, but I certainly reach out for ideas. And we’re part of the senior leadership team so we get together quite a bit to share best practices and what’s working and what’s not.”

Watch FN’s summer sneaker maintenance tips below.

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