I graduated from UNC in May of 1998 and after a month-long surfing trip to Costa Rica I started a job in Washington DC with a networking hardware manufacturer. On the first day of work, they set me up with my email account and off I went into my first real job.
Sounds pretty normal, right? Well, had I started five years earlier, that office might not have had email. Since then, email has become the de facto form of communication in offices and has increased efficiency and accountability in the workspace. What I’m trying to say is that I can’t even imagine working in an office without email.
A similar thing happened to me when I started with Timberland. Newly hired to lead CSR reporting efforts, one of my first tasks was to manage the company’s relationship with Ceres, a non-profit based in Boston. This organization would help us convene a diverse set of stakeholders to review and provide feedback for the development of our annual CSR report. I was excited to get started.
As the date for our first official stakeholder review neared, this positive attitude quickly dampened as the scope of the information we were to share became clear. Some of the data pointed towards good progress on social and environmental fronts, but many other areas indicated improvement was needed. What if the stakeholders were overly critical of our work? Would I destroy the brand’s good name in the spirit of transparency? What if I couldn’t answer their questions?
Needless to say, there was much uncertainty as that first meeting approached.
Looking back, that first stakeholder engagement went pretty much as I had expected. We got a lot of tough questions, and some positive comments about our progress. Later, reflecting on the meeting with my boss, I learned that I didn’t have to have all the answers. We were getting invaluable feedback about our progress as a socially responsible company.
The critiques, while sometimes hard to hear, are the most valuable things that come from these meetings. It might be nice to have everyone congratulate us on a job well done, but it would fail to provide us with the needed guidance on difficult issues like global human rights in the supply chain, environmental product development, climate change and community engagement.
Today, we work with Ceres and our stakeholder groups in a wide variety of areas. They have reviewed our last three CSR reports and Facility report and provided feedback that greatly improved the documents. We held an in-person stakeholder engagement to gain feedback about a product-related label called the Green Index. Stakeholders have reviewed all four “pillars” of our CSR agenda and helped shape our long-term strategy at Timberland. We are even holding quarterly CSR conference calls with stakeholders to have a general discussion about material social and environmental issues in our industry.
Stakeholder engagement has become woven into the fabric of corporate social responsibility at Timberland.
Having been with Timberland for nearly three years, I cannot imagine working in a CSR capacity without having a direct channel of communication with our stakeholder community. It has become as integral to my ability to do my job as email.
Like email, stakeholder engagement provides a necessary communication channel that allows us to tackle tough issues in a more efficient manner. The flow of information profoundly impacts the way we do business.
Business tools and standards are always changing. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll fascinate my kids with stories about the days before business was a collaborative effort between corporations and their stakeholders. One can only hope.
Alex Hausman is CSR Reporting Manager at The Timberland Company.