THE BLOG
08/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I Fought the Law and the Law Won

Talk about a brave new world: when my grandfather started this company more than 30 years ago, he was concerned about making a profit, not making headlines ... "sustainability" meant staying in business, not saving the environment.

The challenges I face as a third generation bootmaker are very different ... not necessarily bigger or smaller than the ones that kept my grandfather awake at night, but probably more complex. The good news, in my unwaveringly optimistic mind, is that the more complex the problem, the greater the possibilities for creating meaningful solutions.

Take deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. You might think, as I did, interesting issue. Deforestation is never good, and the Amazon deserves to have its natural environment and ecosystems protected as much as the next region, so no -- deforestation in the Amazon is not okay. But -- how is it our problem? We're a U.S.-based bootmaking business - sympathetic to the cause, but certainly not responsible for it. Right?

Not according to the environmental activists at Greenpeace, who recently issued a report detailing the impact of deforestation in the Amazon and tracing the deforesting activity to major brands and businesses that benefit in some way from the deforesting activity. Timberland is a company that buys a lot of leather ... and leather is a bi-product of cattle farming ... and the cattle industry in Brazil is huge. Ah-ha. We source some of our leather from a supplier in Brazil -- a supplier that may or may not (more on that ambiguous statement in a minute) purchase leather from cattle farms in illegally deforested areas of the rainforest. It didn't quite take 6 degrees of separation to get there but this explains how, through out supply chain, Timberland and the Amazon are connected.

In response to this news we said, "Good to know. We'll most definitely look into this issue with our Brazilian supplier and thanks for bringing it to our attention." Not meant as a kiss-off, not meant to be empty promises -- in fact the discovery was pretty startling and it did lead to some candid conversations with our supplier in which we learned just how difficult it is to trace leather back to a particular cow on a particular ranch in a particular region of the Amazon. That's roadblock number two. Roadblock number one was Greenpeace's response back to us which in essence was, "Not good enough. You can act stronger, faster, harder on this issue." And to further their point, they launched an email campaign which resulted in a ton of emails coming into our company over a period of several weeks from Greenpeace supporters urging, "Stronger, faster, harder."

This is about the time when I found myself wishing for the seemingly simple challenges my grandfather faced, like how to sell enough boots in a week to put food on the table. I've got a hard-nosed activist organization on one side shouting for immediate action and a major supplier on the other side pleading a complex sourcing system ... and in the middle, the Amazon rainforest is diminishing by the minute. What's a CEO to do?

There's no magic to the answer, only a lot of hard work. Painful, frustrating, bang-your-head-against-the-wall work requiring supplier, brand and activist NGO to come together in the spirit of doing the right thing. And that shouldn't be so hard, considering we all three want to do the right thing ... except for our very disparate beliefs about how to make the "right thing" happen -- and how quickly. It would be easier for us to take an all-or-nothing approach which demands immediate compliance from our supplier "or else" - but what would walking away accomplish? It wouldn't do anything to save the rainforest and furthermore, wouldn't preserve jobs in an area where they're much needed. Collaboration might not be as easy or as immediate as disengagement, but that's our path of choice -- and, we believe, our best hope of creating the most positive outcomes.

Bobby Fuller sang, "I fought the law and the law won" -- seems fitting enough, when you consider the combative manner in which big bad corporate titan and extreme activist group have been engaging in what could have been a much more civilized and collaborative effort from the beginning. Did Greenpeace "win" because we've adopted some of the terms and guidelines they proposed in working with our Brazilian supplier on this issue? I guess - it certainly makes for good headlines in advance of their next fundraising campaign. But I'd rather think of it as a win for the law that is commerce and justice -- the law that prescribes that the business of business is to create a profit and create a positive impact in the world -- because that's ultimately what has happened here. We've been given an opportunity to leverage the power of our business to create sustainable change on the environment ... that's a law I'm more than happy to concede to.

To be clear, the real work is still ahead of us. What happens after the noise dies down and the headlines fade is what will make the real difference: is this just another publicity campaign, or are we all committed to a long-term, collaborative process to influence real-life impact?

My grandfather wouldn't have appreciated it as much as a record-breaking sales day, but just imagine: major supplier, global brand, diehard activist, working together to create meaningful change. Not a bad day at the office.