Update - Swartz to Jobs: let Timberland help Apple on sustainability

Timberland CEO, Jeff Swartz offers Steve Jobs some friendly advice: Apple should have board level supervision of its sustainability strategy. However, despite repeated shareholder resolutions and the presence of Al Gore on the board this is one piece of advice Jobs maybe likely to ignore. But is Apple really bottom of the rung relative to peers? At least one investor feels that although Apple has problems so too does HP and Dell - its just that people are a bit emotional about Apple.
Written by James Farrar, Contributor on

A quick update to my last piece about Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz's taking to task of Apple over its sustainability record. Its rare that leading CEOs break peer ranks on sustainability and rarer still that a leading CEO shows up in the comment section of this blog. That Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz chooses to spend time to engage speaks volumes about his genuine concern and passion for sustainability so I think its worth re-posting his comment here in its entirety.  

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.

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Jeff Swartz
05/25/2011 02:35 PM

I won't hold my breath for board oversight given that Apple has already seen off a shareholder resolution on this earlier this year. While Swartz has gone public here maybe that's just the tip of the engagement iceberg. In my minds eye I can imagine the type of boardroom to boardroom 'Socratic dialogue' spoken of by Anita Roddick is already underway behind the scenes between Swartz, Jobs and maybe even Gore. Certainly Swartz's claim of added shareholder value is borne out by Alyce Lomax of Motley Fool.

Moments like this support why Timberland was the first pick for my Rising Stars portfolio, and make me feel even more confident about that decision for the long term. If responsible CEOs' rantings usher in more big ideas like this, I say bring them on.

And yet despite Swartz's attempts to get 'more specific' I'm still left wondering what really sets Apple apart from an industry of - lets face it - laggards on sustainability relative to companies like Timberland who have made it part of the DNA for a very long time. The answer could lie in the emotions that the Apple brand arouses in its consumers for better or worse. Lomax says:

Apple recently admitted that 137 workers had been injured from exposure to toxic chemicals while making iPhone components at supplier Wintek. Then there are the troubling reports regarding Apple supplier Foxconn, which go beyond the company's controversy about worker suicides. Just days ago, an explosion at Foxconn killed three workers and injured others.......................... Granted, Apple's not alone here. Other Foxconn customers include tech heavyweights such as Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) and Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) . However, those tech companies' brands don't bring about quite the same emotional response that Apple's products do.

So Apple may just be a victim of its own success. When Dell and HP inspire consumers to get as emotionally roiled up as the Apple brand does they might just see expectations of their sustainability performance increase also.

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