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

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.
Written by James Farrar, Contributor on

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?

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