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How Timberland Made the Move to Recycled Rubber Soles

timberland-green-rubber2With a new exclusive partnership with Malaysia’s Green Rubber, Timberland this July will begin to sell more than 200,000 pairs of shoes featuring soles made 50 percent of recycled tires.

The shoes, sold under the Earthkeepers line, will sport a low-carbon footprint, since the soles are partially made of vulcanized tire rubber. Green Rubber has a process called DeLinking that allows the recycled rubber soles to be further recycled, which is a newer innovation.

Because of the reduced input costs made possible by using recycled materials, Timberland will market a “green” shoe for about the same price as a similar conventional offering.

John Healy, General Manager of Timberland’s Invention Factory, and Emily Alati, Advanced Materials Developer, spoke with Environmental Leader March 17 about how the partnership with Green Rubber has progressed.

Here are five aspects that make the relationship work.

No. 1 – Both companies have a strong, top-down inner-company dialogue.

Jeffrey Swartz and Datuk Venad Sekhar, the respective CEOs of Timberland and Green Rubber, are well-matched, Healy said.

“It’s not just rhetoric, we want to produce products that have a better impact on the environment.”

At Timberland, Healy said Swartz’s influence in the matter is huge. “He’s the vision behind it. The individual products are left to the people that drive those things. He’s not molding outsoles in China but he’s the driving source for the innovation,” he said.

No. 2 Careful choice of partners yields beneficial results.

“We found Green Rubber at a rubber conference,” Alati said. “I like to go to shows that are not footwear-related. We previously had been trying several other companies to see what might work.”

When considering new sources for material suppliers, Timberland refers to its corporate social responsibility policy on human rights and its global code of conduct.

Healy said Timberland does have a corporate social responsibility task force, but that it is more related to corporate initiatives such as solar power at facilities than it is to product.

“From a product perspective, we do not have a pre-defined, perfect-step process to vet a supplier. For us to create a process for every new project that comes around it takes more time to do that than just to roll up our sleeves and do it,” he said.

Timberland has exclusive global marketing rights to the Green Rubber name on shoe soles through Dec. 31.

“Green Rubber benefitted from having access to our R&D arm for shoes, and we get the first exposure in the market,” Healy said.

No. 3 – Always improve upon the product and processes.

The material for the soles travels about 1,600 miles from Malaysia to Timberland’s factory in China, Healy said.

The recycled tires are sourced from Malaysia, Alati said. “We’re not taking other countries’ waste and shipping it to Malaysia and then to China,” she said, adding that the carbon footprint for this process is less than sourcing virgin rubber. Those figures are still being compiled and they likely will make their way into the marketing process when the shoes hit retailers.

Eventually Green Rubber will have factories in regions closer to the point of shoe manufacture, she added, further reducing the carbon footprint.

No. 4 – The Environmental Golden Rule: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

The Earthkeepers collection also has guidelines for sourcing materials, Alati said.

“In every single component we try to use the best option, whether that means recycled or organic content. Also, we’ve deconstructed the assembly of the shoes so we have the least amount of components, and we look at whether the shoe itself can be deconstructed and recycled,” she said.

The Fall 09 Earthkeepers boot will be 80 percent recyclable by weight, Healy said.

No. 5 – Give consumers what they want.

Based on sales of Earthkeepers shoes, which were launched in fall of 2007, there is definitely interest in green footwear, Healy said. Consumers may not say they want a recycled rubber sole, but they do say they want products that are better for the environment, Healy said.

“When consumers have the choice, they tend to want to make the greener choice,” Alati added.

But Timberland takes a critical look at any potential new eco-options for materials, she said.

“We think about performance first, then we design the material around that. We wouldn’t just use a material because it’s green,” she said.

“If we don’t make great product,” Healy added, “then it goes in the landfill earlier than it should, and that’s not a green process.”

Some consumers and businesspeople think it’s always more expensive to go the sustainable route. But that is not always the case, Healy said.

“Green Rubber is not more expensive than conventional rubber. There is no added cost. Many people have found that when you choose a recycled product it is cheaper than the virgin materials,” he said.

For example, an Earthkeepers men’s hiking boot lists at $160. A comparable conventional men’s work boot goes for $155, Healy said.

“We follow our CEO’s vision that we’ll make our products greener this year than the year before,” Healy said. “The news in the world today shows us if you can make a good green product then people will want it.”

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