The Business of Changing the World

6 March 2007 Marc Benioff

At Timberland, employees are actively encouraged to make a contribution to their local communities. Marc Benioff explains, amongst other initiatives, Timberland's 'service sabbatical', where employees can take three- to six-months paid leave to lend their professional skills to a non-profit organisation.

Although Jeff Swartz swept floors and painted walls at the Timberland factory as a child, he was discouraged from ever being seriously employed by the company started by his grandfather, Nathan Swartz, and run by his father, Sidney Swartz. Working in the New England shoe manufacturing business was a roller coaster of a way to make a living. Jeff's Family dreamed of a different future for him, encouraging him to 'get a profession' and become a doctor, lawyer or accountant.

Jeff chose not to follow their career counsel, and is today the CEO of Timberland – now a global brand. Under Jeff's leadership, revenues have charged from around $860m in 1998 (the year Jeff became CEO) to $1.5bn in 2005. In addition to his business acumen, Jeff upheld his Grandfather's moral beliefs (his mantra was 'You got to do for others') and applied them to building creative partnerships and sponsoring innovative programming. As a result, he has established Timberland as an icon for socially responsible businesses worldwide.


The unlikely ability for the original product to simultaneously serve as a utilitarian boot and a status symbol for urban youth echoes the unlikely way Timberland serves simultaneously as a for-profit business and a vehicle for social justice. In 1988 Timberland became a founding sponsor of the not-for-profit organisation City Year, making it the first youth service corps launched entirely through private sector support.

City Year, a Boston-based 'urban peace corps', offers 17 to 24-year-olds from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to do community service full-time for one year. The programming is mostly focused on educational initiatives; City Year participants serve as mentors in public schools and run after-school programs that focus on social issues such as domestic violence prevention and AIDS awareness.

To date, Timberland, has invested about $20m in funds and in-kind donations (it provides every City Year corps member with a uniform), but it's not about handouts. City Year New Hampshire shares Timberland's headquarters in Stratham, New Hampshire, and both organisations have grown together. Since partnering with Timberland, corporations such as Cisco, Comcast and Bank of America have also invested in City Year.

"Partnership at Timberland does not mean writing a cheque – employees are encouraged to actively participate."

Today, the growing partnerships mean that 750 young people dedicate themselves to making a difference in 15 cities in the United States and in South Africa.

From the groundbreaking City Year partnership, Timberland wholeheartedly embraced the idea of integrating social justice into its business model. Timberland has had a long-running program to direct a percentage of sales from its infant booties to Share Our Strength, an organisation that raises consumer awareness about children's hunger. It also partners with the Student Conservation Association, the nation's leading provider of conservation service opportunities, and the Harlem Children's Zone, a non-profit organisation that enhances the quality of life for children and families in New York City.


Partnership at Timberland does not mean writing a cheque – employees are encouraged to actively participate. It launched the 'Path of Service' program, where employees receive paid leave to do community volunteer work. (It began with 16 hours a year, and was upped to 40.)

The initiative has enabled Timberland employees to restore an abandoned African-American cemetery in Danville, Kentucky; create a garden at the Girls' After School Academy in San Francisco; and organise a bike ride in New Hampshire that raises money to fight cancer.

The company took the idea of service a step further by offering a 'Service Sabbatical', where employees can take three- to six-months paid leave to lend their professional skills to a non-profit organisation.

Volunteerism spans far beyond the people who work at Timberland headquarters: the company created an annual day of service called 'Serv-a-palooza' in an effort to unite employees, vendors, and community partners in more than 20 countries.

"To date, Timberland employees have dedicated 330,000 working hours to make their communities better."

In a recent Serv-a-palooza, volunteers in Japan cleaned a beach; teams in Italy, England and Germany built trails and planted gardens; and 1,000 people in New Hampshire dedicated their time to the Humane Society, Meals on Wheels and neighbourhood schools. To date, Timberland employees have dedicated 330,000 working hours to make their communities better.


Doing well by doing good is a holistic effort at Timberland that also incorporates environmental responsibility (including finding renewable and sustainable sources of energy, using organic cotton in some of its products, and purchasing 100% post-consumer recycled content cardboard to make its shoe boxes). It also applies its ethics in every corner of the world in which it operates.

Timberland has products made in more than 35 countries and has a global business alliance department which offers creative programming including worker training programs, microlending for factory workers and, among other things, ensures that workplace conditions are fair, safe, and non-discriminatory.

Everyone Timberland does business with – vendors, tanneries, suppliers, licensees and distributors – is bound by a code of conduct, which the company created in 1994 and has since translated into 20 languages.

Third parties perform assessments to ensure that Timberland and its business partners are following the guidelines. The assessments have uncovered some problematic issues, and while Timberland will leave the factories if the conditions don't improve, the company prefers to first try to effect change by working with local organisations to train managers and better conditions so that factories won't close and workers won't lose their jobs.

"Staff receive paid leave to do volunteer work."

Examples of working to create change in the factories include helping its apparel and accessory vendors in China meet expectations for compensation systems; conducting training for 1,500 workers that focused on human rights, local labour law, and the code of conduct in the Dominican Republic and sponsoring an HIV/AIDS awareness event in Vietnam.


Timberland represents the apex in innovation in corporate social responsibility and has been widely recognised as such. In 2002, it was a recipient of the Ron Brown Award for Corporate Leadership, an annual Presidential award presented to companies that have shown commitment empowering employees and communities. (The award, which is presented at a White House ceremony, is a tribute to Ron Brown, a former US Secretary of Commerce.)

The company has been honoured with the Corporate Excellence Award by the New York-based Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy and has topped many magazines' 'Best Companies to Work For' lists.