Timberland’s approach to sustainable corporate social responsibility is as down to earth as its famous tan boots. Helen McCormick went along to its annual community service day to find out more.
On 20 September this year, Timberland employees around the world, as well as business partners, suppliers and community volunteers, left their offices to take part in the 10th annual Serv-a-palooza community service day. (Its unwieldy name is derived from American rock festival Lollapalooza.)
The level of participation is impressive. Some 4,300 volunteers took part in 140 projects worldwide, from building nature trails to refurbishing run-down schools, serving at least 28,000 hours – all at the company’s expense. All aim to meet long-term community needs, and many sites are perennial, with volunteers coming back to build on their previous work.
Timberland’s senior manager for European HR, Helen Whinfrey says: “Like many companies we give a proportion of our profits – 1.7% last year – to charity. But, crucially, we also give time.”
She believes this practical approach to corporate social responsibility (CSR) sets the company apart. And it is no empty claim. Timberland employees can take up to 40 hours – the equivalent of a working week – of paid time to undertake volunteer work in their local communities.
I’ve come to Timberland’s UK headquarters near Slough, where 270 staff are ready to help the local volunteer group spruce up nearby neglected Langley Park, a once manicured royal estate that has become an overgrown wilderness. The enthusiasm is infectious, and trees are soon toppling to hollers of “Tim-berrrr!”
After a few hours of sawing and lopping, the difference is staggering. A sweeping view down to distant Windsor Castle has been opened up for the first time in many years, and the park warden is thrilled: “This has made a huge difference, and represents half the volunteering effort we expected to get for the whole year.”
Glad of the excuse to give our aching arms a rest, Whinfrey and I retire to the shelter of a large oak tree to discuss Timberland’s approach to sustainability, and the effect it has on staff.
“We have a philosophy about our employees doing well and doing good,” she says. “People perform better in their job if they have a connection with their work that isn’t just about pay. It also means the local community knows who we are – we don’t want to be a faceless business with no connection to where we work and trade.”
The company’s CSR strategy has three threads. The first is a human rights code of conduct to uphold standards in its factories and those of its business partners. The second, environmental stewardship, is closely tied to the third, the 40 hours of paid community volunteering time, called Path of Service.
Aside from two global events – Serv-a-palooza and Earth Day – employees are also able to organise their own projects, going through a rigorous application process. Two UK employees recently took sabbatical trips to Africa to undertake environmental and humanitarian work, and now return regularly in their spare time.
“We choose organisations that have a similar mindset to us,” says Whinfrey. “There is no point in working with companies – be it charities or business partners – that don’t share our values, because they won’t do a good job of selling our brand.”
The company also has a global stewards programme: 23 volunteers worldwide who take on accountability for organising and tracking community service. “They can be at any level in the company, and it’s a great opportunity for someone to step out of their day job and develop their leadership ability, looking after a cause that’s maybe more meaningful to them than their day job.”
While Whinfrey has not seen much impact on retention as a result of the company’s CSR policy, she believes it is a powerful recruitment tool.
“We tell people straight away that this is one of the key benefits. It’s one of the reasons that people want to come and work for us – it was certainly one of the things that attracted me.”
Whinfrey does not think Timberland’s CSR strategy is simply paying lip service to a fashionable issue. Once employees are on board, they are appraised twice a year against the company’s four values: humanity, humility, integrity and excellence. “These provide a bedrock for the way we work, and for why we want links with the community,” says Whinfrey.
The wider company philosophy aside, Whinfrey believes the community service day itself has a powerful effect on local teams, and stresses that very few people choose not to take part. “It’s easy to find a reason not to do it, since it takes considerable organisation, so the fact it happens at all shows that the office has pulled together. It’s peer pressure too, of course. You have to work together on this sort of day to achieve an outcome, including with colleagues you may not have met before, so it’s great from a teambuilding point of view.”
While she is genuinely passionate about Timberland’s CSR programme, Whinfrey is happy to admit the company’s motivation is not simply altruism. “Of course we’re a commercial enterprise, but we believe the way we generate profit, treat our people and work with the local community puts that profit in different light.”
Ethics and values
Timberland is curiously self-effacing about its CSR programme, regularly turning down offers to speak at environmental conferences. There has been some press coverage in the US, but no national exposure in the UK until now. “The reason we do this isn’t to get headlines, it’s about ethics and values, started by the family who happen to own most of the company,” says Whinfrey. (The Path of Service programme was the brainchild of the Swartz family, who still own 70% of Timberland).
Despite any worries about appearing boastful, it is probably a good time to generate greater exposure. “Timberland in the UK is quite a well-known footwear brand, maybe less for clothing, but I don’t think there is huge awareness of what we’re about from an ethical, environmental and community standpoint,” says Whinfrey. “Consumers increasingly make choices about the products they buy based on these criteria. They will buy more expensive meat or vegetables because of their provenance, so if consumers are aware of the care and consideration that has gone into how our products are sourced, designed and produced, it will help us to be more profitable and encourage more people to want to come and work for us.”
Whinfrey is keen to raise awareness of Timberland’s CSR strategy with other HR teams. She acknowledges, however, that a day spent lopping shrubs might not work for everyone. Timberland’s approach, like its products, is resolutely practical. “This makes sense for us and our brand because our staff are wearing and using our outdoor products while they work.”
Other projects, such as the local retail branch’s relationship with students at Morpeth School in East London, also reflect this. “Our staff there offer help and guidance with simple training for the workplace – CV building, how to behave in interviews and at work,” explains Whinfrey. “It’s all practical help they might not otherwise get. As HR professionals, we’re about giving people the skills to improve, develop and fulfil their ambitions, and this can be done in all sorts of ways.”
Whinfrey is keen to meet with other HR professionals to exchange tips and ideas. “We can offer people great advice and support on CSR issues, but we could benefit from information and tips about other aspects of HR and find out what can we learn from each other.”
“We want to share this knowledge,” says Whinfrey. “If we found the right like-minded partners, we’d be prepared to do it together. If HR professionals reading this are interested in participating in an event and finding out more, we’d be happy to host them. It does so much for perception of brand, employer brand, and staff development. It’s something everyone can feel good about.”
Carl England, European product training manager
“Helping to return Langley Park to its former splendour for everyone in the community to enjoy was very hard work, but also extremely rewarding. It was great to work as a team to get as much done as we did. I look forward to seeing the landscape of the park change in the coming months and years, and maybe lending a hand again.”
Geoff Ivatts, TSR (technically specified rubber) footwear allocator
“Serv-a-palooza reminded me what you can achieve when you work as a team. At work I tend to focus on what I’m doing in my particular role, so it was important for me to remember that I can achieve a lot more by working with others. Apart from aching arms, I did feel that I’d helped make a positive change, however small, to the local environment, and it helped enforce and build on the relationships with the people I work with.”
Helen Smithard, financial analyst
“It was good to get some fresh air and do something different with colleagues you see every day. I knew that Timberland was actively involved in this sort of work, and it was something that contributed to my decision to work here. I’m glad that it genuinely acts on the principles it holds. Although individually we only contribute a day of our time, as a whole we make a difference helping organisations that spend every day supporting the local community. It’s a nice and surprisingly wholesome sort of feeling.”