At our recent conference, Timberland’s Atlanta McIlwraith shared the secrets of how her company transformed a standard transactional cause effort into something truly transformational (watch the full video here).
It all started in 2008 when Timberland turned to Facebook to create a virtual tree planting campaign that would alert consumers to the value Timberland placed on protecting the outdoors. Harsh reality set in when a disasterous earthquake hit Haiti in 2010 just as Timberland was getting ready for round two of tree planting.
Among the lessons learned that Atlanta McIlwraith shared with us in Chicago:
Stay the Course. For the next iteration of tree planting, Timberland turned its sights to Haiti in 2010. Before they could get started, an earthquake left the country in ruins and Timberland had to make a decision about whether to stick with their original tree planting plan or divert those resources to disaster recovery. Ultimately they decided to stay the course as they felt their tree planting efforts could provide long-term benefits to the country, the correct decision in hindsight.
Push Boundaries. Timberland partnered with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) to grow and plant five million trees in five years, but asked the organization to develop a way for the program to become self-sustaining at the end of the five year period. The SFA created a ‘tree currency’ model that paid smallholder farmers to work in the nurseries in credits that were good for obtaining the things they most needed: seeds, tools and training. Farmers returned the same amount of seed that they originally took, as well as a small share of their profits. The result was a self-sustaining model that provided significant increases in crop yields and income for the farmers.
Reimagine What’s Possible. Timberland started as a sponsor of this program in Haiti, but wanted to become a customer of the SFA and set out to understand how to make this a reality. Although Haiti hadn’t grown cotton in 30 years, Timberland did a feasibility study and determined it was a viable crop for the country once again and started field trials in 2017, harvesting the first crop in January of 2018. Timberland has committed to purchase up to one-third of the harvest and brought along VANS and Patagonia as other customers.
In addition to introducing a new crop to Haiti, Timberland’s original tree-planting effort is on track to plant 25 million trees by the end of the project in the deforested country. The SFA continues to expand its reach with a goal of touching 17,000 farms and 34,000 farmers, enabling additional children to go to school (a family expense).
Timberland’s example clearly demonstrates that planting a small – even virtual – social impact seed can result in business and community growth that shatters expectations if nurtured wisely and consistently.
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