Timberland chief executive Jeffrey Swartz pulls no punches when he says, “If there’s no outdoors, you don’t need our brand.”

It’s mid-November, several weeks before the U.N. climate change talks in Copenhagen, when I reach Swartz by phone in the middle of another busy day at Timberland headquarters in Stratham, N.H. For decades, Timberland has been synonymous not only with waterproof boots, but also environmental stewardship. The latter should come as little surprise from a company that outfits its customers for the great outdoors. But “doing good and doing well” are inextricably linked, Swartz is apt to say. “The confluence of commercial interests and social justice is not coincidental. It’s implicit in our business model,” he tells me.

He’s making the case for environmentalism not just for the sake of the planet, but also as a good business practice. This month, Timberland dipped a boot-clad toe into public advocacy and urged world leaders to set emission standards in Copenhagen. The company’s “Don’t Tell Us It Can’t Be Done” campaign included a petition and a call for businesses, large and small, to do their part. “When people say it can’t be done, I say, ‘Don’t tell us it can’t be done,’” Swartz said. “Because we did it.”

And they have. Under Swartz’s leadership, Timberland has become a $1.4 billion company even as it embraces carbon neutrality and other green initiatives. Since 2006, Timberland has reduced its carbon emissions by 27 percent by improving lighting design, building stores to LEED specifications and using renewable energy in its factories.

Timberland shoes come with a “nutrition index” to inform customers about the environmental footprint being left by their footwear, and the company is involved in reforestation efforts in China and Haiti. Last winter, in partnership with Green Rubber, it launched two footwear collections using rubber from recycled tires for its Earthkeeper line of shoes.

“Timberland’s just a great-looking shoe with a terrific sole,” says Swartz, who believes in sustainability and aesthetics. “We can’t make ugly, well-intentioned, overpriced, self-righteous products and expect consumers to purchase them because it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “On the other hand, I can’t stand to make sexy, shallow pieces of crap. The question is, is there a middle ground?”

Certainly, that philosophy makes sense coming from the CEO of a company whose logo is a tree. “When the day is done, environmental stewardship is a perfectly sane business argument for Timberland, just like clean drinking water is the right choice for Howard Schultz [the president and CEO] at Starbucks.”

Swartz says any CEO would benefit from similar arguments. “Consumers are going to start asking, ‘Is this apple organic or isn’t it?’ Whole Foods made a fortune by having the answer in hand. It’s better if they ask than if we preach,” he says.

Swartz (pictured right), whose grandfather founded the business, says his company’s ethos is a family value. “He was a frugal man and a principled man,” Swartz says of his grandfather, who refused to waste even the 1-cent bobbins that fell off his sewing machines. As for his grandmother, “she wouldn’t know from organic, but she wouldn’t used processed foods,” he says.

Their “waste not, want not” mentality stuck. “This respect for scarcity is built into us genetically and we didn’t call it environmental stewardship until 15, 20 years ago,” Swartz says. When he took the helm of Timberland in 1998, people told him the company was an environmental steward. “If you say so,” he recalls saying. “What’s cool about that is that it’s not a program at Timberland, it’s an ethic. It turns out to have currency in the world.”

A member of the group Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP), Timberland recently redoubled its efforts to work with businesses and lawmakers to pass climate change legislation. Swartz says to achieve fundamental change, “you gotta get ‘em around one table.”

He says he hoped to present world leaders in Copenhagen with a petition signed by a million consumers who support emission standards. Several weeks before the talks, with dim prospects for a concrete treaty, Swartz concedes: “We sure as heck are disappointed.”

But the impossible is possible, Swartz repeats often. Maybe someday, Timberland will plant a tree for every pair of boots purchased, he says. (“It would be wicked cool.”) Or, he muses, maybe the government will require manufacturers to disclose more detailed product information, such as who made it and under what conditions. “You don’t buy food, not without a nutrition label,” Swartz rationalizes.

“It would be like putting an EnergyStar rating on a washing machine,” he says. “Consumers would be able to consume like they do with one more piece of information, and they might make the world a little better.”

MNN homepage photo: Timberland.com

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