08/14/2007 10:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stepping up at Timberland

Few companies have embraced the idea of corporate citizenship as enthusiastically as Timberland. The New Hampshire-based firm, which designs and markets shoes, clothes and accessories, leads in not just one arena but many -- community service, partnerships with nonprofits like CityYear, labor rights in its global supply chain, the environmental design of its stores and products, transparency, willingness to engage with critics.

Much of that is due to the passion of Jeff Swartz, the grandson of the company's founder and its chief executive. I got to know Jeff several years ago when I was writing Faith and Fortune, my book about exemplary companies and leaders. I came away with the feeling that Jeff is more passionate about using the power of his company to repair the world than he is about selling shoes. (He'd probably deny that.) But there's no doubt that he and his colleagues have made a sustained, concerted effort to do well by doing good at Timberland. I'm a believer -- I wear Timberland boots and socks and a T-shirt, too.

Timberland has just published its 2006 Corporate Social Responsibility Report. (You can download a PDF here. Print copies are produced with nontoxic ink on recycled paper, natch.) It's a serious piece of work, 90 pages in all. Among other things, it evaluates the company's social and environmental performance against its past record. So, for example, you can find out that Timberland employees did 80,000 hours of community service in 2006, up from 55,000 two years earlier. Carbon emissions grew, too -- not a good thing -- from 25,000 to 29,000 metric tons. (The company says it will become carbon neutral by 2010.) Timberland also measures its economic impact on the communities where it has offices, distribution centers and the last factory it owns, which is in the Dominican Republic.

Perhaps most interesting, at least to a CSR geek like me, is a section of the report on its supply chain and a separate paper that explores the issue of excessive working hours in overseas factories. This isn't a simple issue. Several years ago, Alan Hassenfeld, the chairman of Hasbro, told me about a visit he made to China, where his company, and the rest of the toy industry, had set limits on hours. There, he met with a young migrant worker, who had moved to the city for a couple of years to make all the money she could, and send it back to her village, before returning home. She complained to him that she couldn't work as many hours as she wanted to, and that Hasbro was imposing its values on the Chinese people. An extreme example, perhaps, but you get the point.

Timberland says it is committed to the idea of "work-life balance" and supports the conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) which say that regular working hours should not exceed 48 in a week and, even with overtime pay, no one should have to work more than 12 hours in a day or 60 in a week. The company writes:

Contrary to many other brands, Timberland takes a no-exception approach to these requirements. We're finding, however, that most of our suppliers are unable to control overtime within these limits all of the time -- some more frequently than others. Why is that?

In part, Timberland blames itself. Its orders, especially when combined with those of other customers, can stretch the production capacity of a factory. Particularly when learning to make new products, or when given more orders for smaller quantities, factories are overburdened. The company also talked to workers and found, like Hasbro, that there were some migrant workers who wanted to work more than 60 hours to make more money -- although most did not. Interesting, isn't it, that the company went to the trouble to seek out the opinions of workers, who aren't even its own employees, in the developing world? Timberland also spoke to factory managers. A Vietnamese executive described problems caused by late delivery of materials, change orders and tight deadlines, saying: "If a factory experiences delays in manufacturing, there is a high probability the factory will exceed the working hours required by the brand or law of the country." Solving this problem won't be easy.

Step back a moment and think about what's happening here. Progressive U.S. companies like Nike, Gap, Levi Strauss and Timberland have, in a sense, become cops of the global village. Despite that, their ability to influence global factory conditions is limited. The U.S. consumer market fuels the labor of about 3 million workers in about 2,500 factories in China; another 21 million workers toil in the clothing and textile industry globally.

Ultimately, it will be up to those workers to fight for their own rights and improve their own working conditions. In the meantime, Swartz and his people deserve credit for doing what they can.