Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed

Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed

Summary: Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz wrote an extraordinary attack on Apple for its lack of performance on sustainability. Swartz laments that companies like Timberland have to play by the rules on sustainability but the cool brand of Apple gets a free pass. There is some irony that Swartz calls on Apple to marshall sustainability performance in its supply chain and yet feels powerless to influence Apple in his own personal or enterprise procurement process. Is Swartz a voice in the wilderness or is this the start of a popular revolt against the iconic Apple brand.


Not since the 1990's when Body Shop founder and CEO Anita Roddick declared war on Shell over its business practices have we seen a listed company CEO take a strong public stand against the sustainability and ethical performance of a peer, publicly listed company. But then last week Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz wrote a searing blog post - 'Morality V's Technology? Don't Make me ditch my iPhone' - taking on Apple on it's sustainability record. Says Swartz on Apple's sustainability opacity:

CEOs of publicly-traded companies in the fashion industry don’t get the “pass” that comes to the super cool Apple leaders and their uber cool company. ......................... Apple refuses to set targets for reducing its carbon emissions.  Despite Chinese factory workers falling seriously ill after being exposed to a toxic chemical while manufacturing Apple products, the company remains tight-lipped about its supply chain – presumably prescribing to the belief that that supply chain secrecy is key to competitiveness.  It’s an argument that sounds vaguely familiar: in the last decade, some in the fashion industry pleaded the same argument with activists.  The outcome?  These days everyone knows where Nike and Timberland and Adidas manufacture —names, addresses—and the “competitive secret” argument is debunked.  Period. Don’t tell me cool and sustainable aren’t compatible—there are too many examples in the marketplace, earning plaudits from consumers and activists for anyone to believe otherwise. 

Earlier this year Apple management and shareholders rejected two minority shareholder resolutions calling on the company to report on its sustainability impact & performance as well as to establish a non executive board committe to oversee its corporate performance in this area. Apple non executive Director Al Gore sat in the front row at the AGM when this vote was taken for what must have been a distinctly awkward moment.

Swartz goes on to also stick a well appointed boot into the Apple brand experience:

Is it because consumers of iPads and iPhones and iMacs don’t care about how their products are made, about how much energy was used, what chemicals were involved, what impact on the environment the manufacturing process wreaks, or whether the rapidly churned products will end up being recycled or in a landfill at the end of their usable life?  I doubt it.  The elite technology adopters who “wear” their Apple products like a badge of hipster coolness seem to me like the very center of the “moral capitalism” consumer universe—hanging at Davos, orating at TED, elbow rubbing at SXSW.  As a wannabe cool guy, I sit here with my headphones on, listening to my iPod and working on my iPad, wanting to feel as cutting-edge as the technology at my command … but instead, I feel a little sick.  Because a brand that’s seen as a world leader is, in this case, failing to lead.

Finally Swartz dips into some self loathing about the futility of it all:

Many of us – myself included – are perpetuating a mind-blowing double standard, proudly browsing the organic produce section and flaunting our recycled grocery totes … but wave the “it” technology product of the month in front of us, and we forget all about business’s need to be transparent and accountable and responsible. .............Why should consumers like me have to choose between transformational technology and moral consumption? To iPad, or not to iPad—why is that the question?  Why shouldn’t Apple’s leadership instead have to raise its game, and make their cool products and their cool company more socially accountable? If Apple would replicate the speed-to-market rigor and innovation of their product development in their corporate responsibility agenda, consumers like me could have our cool and self respect. .......Apple should keep exceeding my expectations for products, but not at the expense of my expectations for social and environmental responsibility.

And this is the point where the comparison to the late, great Anita Roddick peters out .....for now. Never one much for navel gazing, Anita Roddick knew how to take the fight to her enemies. She famously launched anti Shell campaigns in Body Shop store fronts and championed the cause of the Nigerian Ogoni people at the height of Shell's crisis there. And while she was happy to protest on the blockades she was, at the same time, also a tireless negotiator behind the scenes. In her own words:

For five years, we were campaigning against Shell and their business practices in Nigeria with effect on the Ogoni people. I mean, really, and it was not just campaigning, opening up the shops and corralling, writing letters to the media; it was dialoguing, going behind the scenes and talking to the CEO of Shell. And I so passionately believe in dialoguing. So this notion of confrontation, which is very sexy in the media, but which actually doesn’t work in many cases; you just have to find more—the Socratean dialogue. You’ve got to—that’s my belief.

In fairness to Apple they have made some progress on sustainability performance on their own terms over the years but Swartz would be far from alone in thinking Apple could do much better in this area. The real question is what Swartz can or will do about it, or for that matter, what can other CEOs do about this especially those considering making Apple products part of their standard enterprise IT kit? There is a certain irony that while Swartz is calling on Apple to control its supply chain he bemoans his own impotence in influence over Apple as an individual, well heeled consumer. Nor does he seem to recognise the power of Timberland's own buying process or the strength of voice of its brand to shape behaviour. Timberland even have their own app on iTunes called Nature Needs Heros - you can't make this stuff up.

So, will Timberland marshall its own procurement process to squeeze Apple (and also Dell & HP while they are at it)? Will Swartz reach out and ask other peer CEOs to squeeze Apple on procurement too? Will Swartz deploy the Timberland brand warriors, Body Shop style, to take on the mighty Apple just as Anita Roddick took on Shell all those years ago? Could this be start of a populist push back on the iconic Apple brand? Or will Swartz be content to be a lone, if sensibly clothed, voice in the wilderness?

Topics: iPhone, Apple, Emerging Tech, Hewlett-Packard, iPad, Mobility

James Farrar

About James Farrar

James has more than 15 years of experience working on corporate sustainability issues from both the corporate and NGO campaigning perspective.

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  • As long as the ebook reader clubs hang a sign on the door proclaiming

    "iPads only. others need not apply" as they're not perceived as cool, people will buy them regardless of what toll it takes. And Apple is following the money train, rich in profits for the first time in their existence.

    Will they see the incentive to "do right" when the buying public doesn't care if they do or don't?
    John Zern
  • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed

    Great piece, James. You wrote what many of us have likely been thinking, but haven't been able to put to such pointed words. There is great power in early sustainability adopter/change agent corporations like Timberland and Nike banding together to publicly and collectively call out Apple. (I'm one of the guilty consumers on this topic, so it hurts!)
  • Message has been deleted.

    • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed

      Well, I am glad that it does matter to some and that number is growing. Perhaps when the world finally changes, we will send you a post card.
      • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed


        I don't know anyone that puts green first. None of us drive hybrids, want to drive them, or even care.

        The funny thing is people fail to do a TCO on "Green" things and forget that wind, solar, etc. can have a negative effect on the environment when you count the manufacturing, maintenance, and disposal costs.

        Heck, it's been said that the "green" bags everyone totes are worse for the environment than paper bags.... They have a healthy petrochemical dose (plastic bottoms, threads, etc), don't readily decompose, are not recyclable, can spread disease, etc.

        While we should not belch out tons of noxious gasses, pollute the water/air, etc. The "green" movement may end up being worse than what we have now. And don't forget - they are funded by the same thing (greed) that the "un-green" are funded by.
    • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed


      I think you just demonstrated why we are in this mess at the moment - thank you for taking responsibility for your own stupidity.

      Whoever has the most toys when they die - wins.
  • BeamItDown has only themselves to blame

    The company build a one-trip-pony expecting the market to stay the same forever. Then they made contracts that sounded good, without looking at the fine print.<br><br>The funny thing is that they are STILL CLUELESS. Last I checked, they can build applications for the Android platform (and others) and drop support for the iOS when ever they want.<br><br>But .. NOOOOO!! They have to b!t@h & moan like little spoiled brat kids.
    • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed

      @wackoae Umm, is this the same company you're thinking of? The Boot Manufacturer? They make Great Work Boots and I would still use them if the need were there!
      • Good catch

        @Peter Perry I C&P from the title but was thinking about BeamItDown.
  • Attention Whore

    The usual pattern of generating publicity by attacking Apple. It's Greenpeace all over again. Wouldn't do to attack the industry as a whole, oh no, that might not get the same amount of press.
    • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed

      Just like Nike in the past, Apple is being attacked as an industry leader. That's OK because that is how industry changes for the better.
      Just look at some of the reduced packaging that Apple products come in. However that is not enough and more has to be done.
      • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed

        @MG537 Apple makes products that are little more than glass and aluminium. And what we learned from the Greenpeace episode that while Greenpeace was lauding companies for handing out PDFs of the changes they might someday do, Apple had already made those changes. They just don't feel the need to report to non-regulatory, non-governmental agencies who make strident, attention whoring accusations in the press.
      • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed

        @MG537 I am sure that Apple, and most everyone for that matter, could do more but it will NEVER be enough for the green movement until we go back to the 1800s way of life and technology, or lack there of.
  • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed

    @itguy08 - I don't drive a hybrid, instead I made a careful economic and green decision to buy a TDI clean deisel. I get great performance, and better highway mileage than a Prius, better equipment, and more storage space.

    In the city I live in, people voluntarily divert 80% of their household waste away from landfill in the green and blue box programs. The evidence is very clear. Ordinary people actually do care about their environment, and when the body corporate empowers them to decide, they do so overwhelmingly in a green direction.

    Obviously, if you pompously spout your uninformed "anti-green" sentiment, you are not going to have too many environmentalist leaning friends in your circle, so you won't hear contrarian views. Thank heavens for the internet where people will gladly share opposing views with you.

    Green practices, or environmental friendliness are and always will be a moving target, and errors will always be made. Just because at some points, things are done that turn out not to be in the best long term interests of the environment, does not mean that we should simply toss the entire concept and live like there was no tomorrow, destroying the earth for our children.

    All companies need to feel the heat as it were, and hats off to anyone who is willing to speak out. With enough voices, a difference will be made, whether our so called leaders will it or not.
    • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed


      Again, is your diesel better or worse for the environment? You still burn a nasty fuel, have expensive emissions equipment that probably uses rare earth metals (like those in a car's catalytic converter) and is just as bad, if not worse than my car.

      Solar is great until you calculate the cost to manufacture, ship, and install. Many times it's worse than burning natural gas. Think about it - you have to mine more metals, use more silicon, ship these huge panels across the USA, have batteries with their heavy metals, etc.

      Windmills are the same thing. Add to that the constant expense of maintenance and how are they better?

      The reusable bags - same thing - lots of plastic in them, they don't recycle well or at all, long time to decompose, etc. Better off going back to paper - you can renew trees, they recycle easier, and decompose quicker.

      going "green" is more about appearances than actually doing a damn thing.
  • A machined helix fastener to this gent

    Swartz can take his self-serving, holier-than-thou screed and put it where the solar wind don't blow. I don't need his politics, I don't need his guilt trips, and now -- thanks to his big mouth -- I don't need his boots.<br><br>CEOs who insist on dragging politics -- and worse, the 'morality play' politics of the high-dudgeon left -- into business had best not not forget that not everyone goes to the same cocktail parties they do. There are going to be people out there who find the political harangues offensive, unwelcome, and worthy of withholding business.
    Robert Hahn
    • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed

      @Robert Hahn Pretty much sums up my take on it. BTW, who is it that is deciding what the "moral" standards are, those that want the change?
  • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed

    Hybrids aren't green. And socialists aren't for freedom. Why don't these brain deads attack socialist government like they attack free enterprise. Oh yea they hate freedom but love tyrannical government.
  • maybe the recent Foxconn plant explosion will give them an &quot;i told you so&quot;

    i drive a hybrid and will never buy Exxon or Shell or BP unless i have no other choice.
    i don't buy Apple, at all.
    it is highly inappropriate to say that none of us care about such things and vote with our wallet.
    it is unfortunate that there are too few of us.

  • RE: Morality V's Technology: Timberland takes Apple to the woodshed

    James?thank you for challenging me to be more specific about a call to action for Apple. Based on 20+ years of struggling to make Timberland a sustainable business, I know that every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And Apple absolutely has the capacity and the capability to go further in their journey?starting now?if they want to amplify product and technical leadership by adding sustainability to their coolness aura. Here's one specific action Apple could implement without batting an eye, that would signal a commitment to leading with technology and sustainability:

    What keeps Mr. Jobs from establishing a Board level committee, charged with overseeing Apple's business practice? The committee would hold management accountable for commitments that Apple says they already own?like basic dignity in the supply chain, like basic commitments to responsible environmental stewardship. Adding accountability at the Board level is completely within Jobs' hands to achieve, would elegantly reframe Apple's posture towards sustainability, and would go gigabytes towards demonstrating a different kind of leadership posture than the frustratingly disengaged posture to date. We've had this kind of Board committee for 5 years already, and it adds real value for our shareholders. Apple should feel free to send an email to my iPad, or my iPhone, or my iMac, if they want to hear how our independent board committee functions?
    Jeff Swartz