This weekend’s guest post comes from one of the most passionate and socially-engaged CEOs in corporate America: Jeff Swartz of Timberland. I wrote a chapter about Jeff and Timberland in my 2004 book Faith and Fortune, and the company continues to push the envelope around voluntarism, sustainability and stakeholder engagement. Recently, for example, Timberland announced that it would take steps to ensure that its leather supply chain does not contribute to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. (They also make cool boots.) Jeff kindly agreed to let me republish this post from Timberland’s Earthkeepers blog. It’s about what happened after he announced that he was banning bottled water from the company–and it’s about more than bottled water.
Two weeks ago, I announced here on Earthkeepers a new ban on bottled water at Timberland headquarters buildings globally. I was psyched about the announcement, even more excited about the action. You know what I’ve learned over the last 2 weeks? It’s really exhilarating to want to run a more sustainable business … but to actually do it is really freaking hard.
Get rid of the bottled water – simple ask, right? How hard could it be? Little did I know. First there’s a supply issue to contend with – our facilities team reports a 4-week supply of bottled water already in house and we don’t want to be wasteful, so can we continue to offer it until the supply runs out? Sure, okay … makes sense. Then the vending machine folks chime in, what about the plastic soda bottles in the vending machines? Are we getting rid of those, too? Wow. Okay, sure. No more plastic bottles in the vending machines. But hold on, says the guy in charge of our dining services – we don’t have nearly enough glasses and cups to accommodate the increased demand from people who would otherwise be drinking bottled water. We’re gonna have to add more dishwashers, or buy more glasses … yikes. All I wanted to do was get rid of the bottled water, now I’m buying new dishwashers? How come it’s never as easy as you think it will be to get something done?
That was the noise from our internal community – but we had a lot of valuable feedback from external folks, too. Many of you rightfully pointed out that the bottled water debate is a lot more complex than I indicated in my previous post, and that it does in fact serve a good purpose – critical, even – in many areas of the world. Chief among the arguments we heard:
- Tap water isn’t a completely “no cost, no effort” option – it costs money and energy to sufficiently treat public water so that it is safe to drink, and more money and energy to deliver it to people and businesses.
- In some instances – in crowded public places, on long trips, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere – it’s not realistic to expect clean, drinkable tap water will be readily available.
All this information made me realize that bottled water is about as hard to understand as it is to get out of our buildings … and also made me glad for the engagement with people who care enough about this issue to share their thoughts (even if their thoughts were, “Jeff you’re being stupid.”).
I have a better appreciation now for when and where bottled water is necessary, and I certainly believe that plastic has its place in the world, for all sorts of good uses. But I hold on to the notion that in the corporate world, where tap water is clean and reuseable containers are (soon to be) plentiful, we can do better than bottled water. And so we forge ahead with our plans to give the bottle the boot from our corporate offices, hopefully in the next few weeks. I’m excited to see idea translate into real impact – however small – despite the few good headaches we endured in the process.
I’m also excited about the real-life Earthkeeping dialogue this project produced; we shared a big idea, you were interested enough to want to talk about it, we came away smarter and more evolved in our thinking. That’s the power of engagement – bigger, better, smarter outcomes. I’m appreciative of the effort from those of you who joined in.
I realize getting rid of bottled water doesn’t negate our environmental footprint as a company (if only …), nor does it solve the climate crisis. But I’m of the mind that taking even one small step in the right direction is better than staying where you are … and that low-hanging fruit is there to be picked.
Now don’t go too far … my To Do list also includes removing all paper products from our headquarters cafeteria, save post-consumer paper napkins. This could get ugly.
President & CEO, Timberland