#BeyondBuzzwords Recap: How Timberland Is Tackling Rural Poverty in Haiti…by Planting Trees

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

While many people know that Timberland is an apparel and footwear retailer, it was founded to be much more. Since its inception, Timberland has been a purpose-driven outdoor lifestyle company with sustainability deeply ingrained in its ethos. The company has a longstanding Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda based on three key elements: (1) creating responsible products, (2) protecting the outdoors, and (3) serving the community.

To learn more about how Timberland’s award-winning CSR program is creating change in communities around the world, we invited Atlanta McIlwraith, Senior Manager of Community Engagement at Timberland, to be our featured speaker for our August 2018 episode of #BeyondBuzzwords — a webinar series hosted by MovingWorlds to help people lead change within their companies. In this episode, Atlanta brought us behind the scenes of Timberland’s latest reforestation program which weaves all three of these CSR elements together to create maximum impact. As you’ll see, what began as a tree-planting initiative grew into a scalable, self-sustaining model benefitting local farmers, as well as the local environment, across Haiti.

So how did this seed of an idea blossom into the award-winning program it is today?

Read on to learn about its fascinating evolution and 5 important lessons from Atlanta learned along the way!

The journey begins back in 2008, when Timberland decided to bring its CSR agenda to consumers via a Facebook campaign to plant “virtual seeds.” These virtual seeds matured into trees when shared with friends, and Timberland pledged that for each mature virtual tree, one live tree would be planted in a deforested part of the world. At the end of the campaign, Timberland’s CEO, plus hundreds of virtual tree-planters, had a conference call to choose the location, and ultimately settled on Nepal.

The project itself was a success — over 500,000 trees were planted to restore tiger habitats — but no one ever heard about it. Why? Because Timberland learned the hard way that there’s a separate negotiation process and required fee for the rights to share the story publicly.

This brings us to lesson #1: Ask the Right Questions.

Atlanta proves that these unexpected bumps in the road offer invaluable opportunities to learn, improve, and grow. Armed with the experience to ask the right questions, Timberland embarked on their second initiative in 2009. This time, Timberland chose to focus on Haiti, which at the time was one of the most deforested countries in the world with less than 2 percent tree cover. Another important factor was that Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, where Timberland operates a manufacturing plant and over ½ of its global employees live. The overall health and wellbeing of the island, and giving back to the communities that inhabit it, were top priorities for Timberland and made Haiti the right fit.

The right place to start isn’t always the easy place to start, though. From the beginning, Timberland was playing the long game, prioritizing long-term value over short-term wins. The first obstacle that the team had to overcome was the troubling reality that in Haiti at the time, trees were worth more dead than alive. To understand why, consider this context: 75% of Haiti’s energy comes from charcoal, and as deforestation drives crop yields down (trees increase agricultural productivity of land,) farmers supplement income by cutting down their remaining trees for charcoal. This pattern demonstrates the causal relationship between deforestation and rural poverty, and by focusing their efforts on this root cause, Timberland’s reforestation program had the potential to be even more impactful for Haitian communities.

To accomplish their goals, Timberland partnered with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) in Haiti. Haiti is home to over 1 million smallholder farmers, defined as farming an area of 5 acres or less. The fledgling partnership was thrown a curveball early on, however, in the form of the devastating earthquake that rocked the country in January 2018. The initiative was set to launch later that year, which meant Timberland was faced with the difficult decision of whether to stay the course or pivot to instead focus their efforts on short-term disaster relief. Though they contributed separately to the relief effort, ultimately, Timberland decided to stick to the original goal of planting 5 million trees in 5 years because they believed in the long-term value that the reforestation would bring to the island.

This brings us to Lesson #2: Stay the Course.

Re-committed to the plan, Timberland and the SFA now had to figure out how to make trees valuable again. The SFA’s initial proposal was to establish tree nurseries and pay farmers to plant and care for the trees, in effect giving trees a monetary value. Rather than accepting the first proposal, however, Timberland remained focused on the long-term and asked what would happen when the brand’s investment obligation was complete in 5 years. The SFA’s initial response was that they would find another donor. While the SFA’s response was understandable, Timberland challenged the SFA to imagine a self-sustaining model that wouldn’t be dependent on outside donor support, and the SFA delivered with an innovative new model explained in greater detail below.

This brings us to Lesson #3: Push Boundaries.

Had Timberland not pushed back on the SFA’s original cash model, the new self-sustaining tree-currency model may not have come to fruition. To develop this new model, the SFA leadership took a human-centered design approach by going into the community and asking the farmers what their most urgent needs were. The answer: Access to good quality crop seed, hand tools, and training to increase the efficiency of their land. By understanding what mattered to the farmers, the SFA was able to innovatively align stakeholder values to create the “Tree Currency Model.”

Here’s how it works:

Tree Currency Model

  • Participating farmers provide tree planting labor (planting, transplanting, etc.) in exchange for “farm credits”
  • Farm credits can be exchanged for seeds, tools, and training

As the program caught on, participating farmers began asking for more services. The original model evolved to include additional agricultural and community services, including:

Tree Currency Model 'Plus'

Using this model still gave trees monetary value, like the original cash model proposed. What makes this model sustainable is that rather than paying the farmers in cash, the farmers were paid in training and tools to help them improve the productivity of their farms.

It’s clear from the data just how much of a difference these services made: on average, participating farmers had a 40% increase in their organic crop yield and a 50%-100% increase in their income!

To sustain the nursery, at the end of the harvest season, each farmer would return the same number of seeds he/she had originally used from the seed bank, plus a few extra. As the farmers productivity and income increased, they also contributed a small share of their profits to ensure that future farmers could continue to take advantage of the program.

You can learn more about the Tree Currency Model by watching Timberland’s documentary of the project at Kombitfilm.com. This film is an important piece of the story, but it wouldn’t be possible without Timberland’s foresight to capture content as they went.

This brings us to Lesson #4: Be Prepared to Tell Your Story.

The Timberland team captured photos and video footage throughout the project, rather than trying to scramble for it at the end. Atlanta’s advice? Make a commitment to capture content as you go, because even if you don’t know what exactly you’ll end up with, you know you’ll end up with something. As Atlanta explained, “It’s easier to share your story if you capture content as you go. It’s much harder to do after the fact.”

Timberland and the SFA reached their 5 million tree goal in 2015, but they weren’t about to stop there. The team decided to dream even bigger, and set out to scale the program to increase its impact both on the island and eventually in other parts of the world, too. Their existing business model kept the established nurseries going, but to reach this ambitious goal they needed to find a revenue stream to support scaling the model.

Timberland was instrumental in its collaborative approach to grow the initiative beyond just itself. The company took on the role of connector for the SFA, introducing them to various US-based brands and companies to expand their network of customers. This led to the SFA’s first US-based customer, a health food company called Kuli Kuli, whose snacks you may have seen at Whole Foods. Kuli Kuli is the leading Moringa (protein rich nutritional supplement) brand in the US, and agreed to start purchasing some of its Moringa from the SFA. As a result, a portion of the SFA farmers began planting the fast-maturing Moringa trees on portions of their land, adding a high-value crop to export. Witnessing the success of the SFA/Kuli Kuli relationship, and the benefits of the close alignment of values between customer and supplier, Atlanta began to wonder whether Timberland could also take on the role of customer instead of investor. What could the SFA grow for them?

This brings us to Lesson 5: Re-Imagine What’s Possible

To answer that question, Timberland considered how they could align their needs with the capacity of the SFA. This led Timberland, in partnership with the SFA, to propose a bold idea: to re-introduce organic cotton farming to Haiti, and purchase the cotton. Once the fourth largest producer of cotton worldwide, Haiti hadn’t seen a single cotton crop in over 30 years. Again, this was not a small, “easy-win” type of project. But, as with any investment, with bigger risk comes bigger reward. After a feasibility study confirmed that cotton had vanished due to political and economic rather than environmental or climactic issues, Timberland, the SFA, and local farmers charged ahead with their bold idea.

One of the most impressive things about this initiative is how much thought and care clearly went into sustainable long-term planning. Before planting, Timberland ran field trials of 12 varieties of cotton to see which would thrive. They also took the time to build a broad coalition of local support, including government agencies, SFA members, and even the 89-year-old “father of cotton growing in Haiti” (pictured below, far right with Atlanta pictured second from left.) In January 2018, the program had its first harvest, which Atlanta recounted was a joyous occasion with palpable excitement as new generations were participating in the long tradition of growing a crop that held so much promise for their families.

To avoid over-dependence by either party, Timberland committed to purchasing up to ⅓ of the cotton they need annually from the SFA, while also not purchasing more than ⅓ of the total cotton that the SFA produced. In addition, farmers were asked not to plant cotton on more than 50% of their land to ensure food security via crop diversification.

The evolution of this program demonstrates how a project can grow in scope without losing its core focus: the expanded offerings were still based on inputs earned from planting trees. As a result of this program, over 7 million trees have been planted in Haiti, and farmers who planted them and their families have higher incomes, access to education, and new opportunities for the future.

In Summary

We’d like to thank Atlanta once again for sharing the realities of Timberland’s journey to create shared value in Haiti. As you work towards creating meaningful change in your own company, keep in mind Atlanta’s advice to:

  1. Ask the Right Questions
  2. Stay the Course
  3. Be Prepared to Tell Your Story
  4. Push Boundaries
  5. Re-Imagine What’s Possible

For more curated content to support your own transformation into a corporate changemaker, visit our #BeyondBuzzwords page where you can subscribe for updates and access the full recording of Atlanta’s episode. You can also register here for October’s installment of Beyond Buzzwords featuring Racquel Russell, VP of Government Relations & Public Affairs at Zillow Group and former Senior Staffer to President Obama.