Earth Day dawned gorgeous at YMCA Camp Tricklin' Falls in East Kingston, N.H., this year. As her fellow employees registered for a day of service, Timberland's Betsy Blaisdell was already in the bucket of a boom lift, getting a lesson at the controls from Camp Director Tracy Fuller. Decked out in Timberland boots, shirt, fleece jacket, and hat, Blaisdell, manager of environmental stewardship, sipped from a stainless steel coffee mug as she rode up and down next to a 60-foot climbing tower — one of the projects that Timberland employees would work on that day. Blaisdell wanted to get the job going: “I can't wait to climb that wall!” she said, with the smile of someone happy to be outside instead of at a desk.

Get Out and Do Stuff

Blaisdell wasn't the only one smiling. “This is why I've been with Timberland for 13 years. It's all about the community,” said Fabienne Verschoor, customer fulfillment. “This is a really important thing we do. You have senior staff, the loading dock crew, customer service, all working together. And you won't know the difference when you see a team working. They are all putting heart and soul into it.”

Verschoor was project leader for the YMCA camp outing, one of six local Timberland service projects that together involved most of its 600 headquarters employees. And those projects were among 160 projects worldwide, involving 2,100 employees. It was in essence a 24-hour day of community service, planned by Timberland as part of its drive toward corporate social responsibility.

“Our mission is to equip people to make a difference in their world,” explained Jeff Swartz, Timberland president and CEO. “If all we did was create purposeful products, we would be fulfilling only part of that mission. We have the ability — and the responsibility — to also create a positive and sustainable impact in the world around us.”

Make It Better

Swartz is the straight-talking, third-generation leader of Timberland, a New Hampshire-born company that got its start making an unassuming but crazy-popular waterproof yellow boot. When he shares his CSR moment of truth, you believe him. “How could we be the voice of the authentic outdoors and the despoiler of the same?” he asks. “It just didn't make sense.”

The company began to formulate a CSR policy more than a decade ago, with three areas of focus: human rights, environmental stewardship, and community engagement. A sampling of its work so far: Timberland has assessed all its factories for compliance with a code of conduct to protect workers; the company continues to increase its use of organic cotton and renewable energy; and on the community side, there's the Path of Service program, which takes us back to Earth Day at Camp Tricklin' Falls.

With Path of Service, introduced in 1992, Timberland grants every employee 40 paid hours to do volunteer work. Some of those hours are used for local projects on Earth Day and on Serv-a-palooza day in September. On these two days, Timberland employees take off from their stores, factories, and offices worldwide, and pour into their communities to — in Timberland's catch phrase — make them better.

In addition, the Path of Service program allows employees who have been with the company for one year to take service sabbaticals of up to six months. After the company's experience working with the American Red Cross on Hurricane Katrina relief, a mini-sabbatical option was developed so that employees can get two paid weeks to participate in a disaster-relief effort.

“We know our Path of Service program impacts employee attraction and retention,” says Atlanta McIlwraith, community engagement leader. “It always ranks as one of the most popular benefits.”

Doing Good, Making a Profit

It sounds great. But consider the months of planning, the tools and supplies, the workers, the empty factories and retail outlets. How can this be worth it? Do shareholders really want a company taking a financial hit to be a good corporate citizen?

Actually, the company's investment in its Path of Service program shows a measurable return. Here's the calculation: According to Bob Willard, speaker and author of The Sustainability Advantage, the average company annually loses 1 percent of its workforce that it would prefer to retain. For Timberland, which has 5,448 total employees, that means 54 people would leave. However, 70 percent of Timberland employees say the company's Path of Service program is key to their decision to stay with the company. So Timberland beats the average, motivating 38 of the 54 to stay instead of go. The U.S. Department of Labor puts the average cost of losing and replacing one good employee at $30,000. Multiply that by 38, and Timberland's service programs may save the company more than $1 million a year.

Back on-site at the YMCA camp, Betsy Blaisdell pointed to the importance of the Path of Service program at this moment in the company's history: “We've recently gone through a lot of change. This is what keeps people at Timberland despite the changes.”

It's among the things that has kept George Belanger, who heads shipping and receiving, at Timberland for 27 years. “I'm a firm believer in giving back to the community,” said Belanger, whose team was building canoe and kayak racks on Earth Day. “It's great when people come together.”

Indeed, employee goodwill has never been more critical than over the past 12 to 18 months. In his annual letter to shareholders, Swartz called 2007 “a very challenging and disappointing year,” with full-year revenue declining for the first time ever. Tough decisions to close some retail stores, license its U.S. apparel line, and restructure and streamline its workforce seem to have put the company back on track financially. Solid Q1 2008 results, with revenue up to $340 million from $336 million in Q1 2007, sent Timberland's share price up 16 percent in early May.

As for morale, it might have been because of the fresh air and sunshine, but employees at the YMCA camp were full of energy and smiles as they cleared a winter's worth of leaves from a baseball diamond.

“It's totally awesome,” said Jennifer Keith, customer service, who was leading a group making birdfeeders to be hung around the camp's new outdoor classroom (also a Timberland project). “The bottom line is that when you've done something like this, it feels great.” This was Keith's second trip to Camp Tricklin' Falls. The previous fall, she spent Serv-a-palooza day there installing benches and hooks in cabins.

“It can be transformative, both in terms of what you've done at the place and what it's meant to you,” said Lisa Rakaseder, Timberland global creative services. “It is a teambuilding event. It gets you to interact with other people at the company.”

Verschoor appreciates that aspect of the service days as well. “You meet a lot of people you never talk to. With 600 people in the building, you are not that connected on a day-to-day basis. So you learn a lot about people. And you go back to work renewed.”

Timberland headquarters is an office park in the woods off the highway in Stratham, N.H. Among the first things you notice as you near the front door is a solar panel bordering the sidewalk. The panels provide a bit of extra energy, but considering the fickle northern New England sunshine, their value is primarily symbolic. Much more than a symbol is the 400-kilowatt solar panel array at Timberland's distribution center in Ontario, Calif., which generates 60 percent of the energy needed to power that facility and avoids 480,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Stratham lobby is dominated by more symbols: a sculpture of bicycles with a sign stating that you save one pound of CO2 emissions for every mile that you don't drive; a display of bamboo and sandals that showcases the material as renewable — and great for heels, too; and a tower of plastic bottles, like those used in some Timberland boots.

Global Reach

From Stratham, Timberland's four-person community engagement team has to get its message to company outlets around the world. Performing that task are employees who volunteer to act as global stewards. “They are ambassadors of CSR,” McIlwraith explains, “recruiting volunteers and managing service projects locally.”

It's a serious commitment. “The most successful are passionate about service anyway, and that sustains them,” she says. “And I've always seen the global steward program as a leadership development program.” Which points up one perk of the position: Whether you're a director or an assistant in your day job, when you're a global steward, the CEO knows who you are.

In addition, you get to travel to the annual Global Stewards Meeting that rotates among Timberland's worldwide locations. The first was held at a factory in the Dominican Republic; the second at Timberland's “jewel in the crown,” its factory in the Netherlands that is run entirely on renewable energy; and the third at HQ in Stratham. “They come together from all over the world and share their successes and struggles,” says McIlwraith. “They are motivated by being around each other.”

McIlwraith is currently wrestling with how to balance the stewards' desire for a longer meeting and more time to share best practices against the company's respect for work/life balance and its consciousness of the environmental impact of air travel.

“We will be doing a lot less travel,” says McIlwraith. Still, she counts getting out and seeing CSR in action as critical to her job. “It's a real motivator to go out and see our corporate culture within these other very different cultures. To see how it translates is helpful for the stewards and for me. There is no substitute for meeting at their offices and understanding their challenges and opportunities.” A challenge for McIlwraith is to get people to use all their service hours. Usage is 40 percent worldwide, and 57 percent in Stratham. “We leave a lot of hours on the table,” she says. “My goal is to see us use much more of them.”

A Million Trees

As for goals, CEO Swartz is not shy about stating his: By 2010, Timberland aims for the “greening” of 300 communities and the planting of a million trees, on its way to carbon neutrality. And it appears that he wants to be held to account. “We do not want our CSR to be a type of corporate cologne,” he said in a September 2007 conference call he set up to launch a conversation with stakeholders about CSR.

Beyond the conference calls (to be held quarterly — you can sign up at the company's Web site to be notified of the next one), Swartz pushed Timberland to the forefront of customer communication by partnering with social networking site Visit the company's profile page there, and you can see its quarterly CSR report, research its goals and progress, view video clips, and leave comments. And Timberland recently launched its own YouTube channel, Earthkeepers, where green-minded consumers can share ideas with each other and with the company. Clearly Timberland recognizes the power of the people — in particular, young people raised on YouTube and Facebook, young consumers who genuinely care about the environment and like showing it.

Swartz, who speaks like an Oscar winner trying to cram in every last thought as the wrap-up music plays, sees customer engagement as critical to the success of CSR in the marketplace. He's looking ahead to a time when competitors create “nutrition labels” like those on Timberland shoe boxes. The label outlines the company's manufacturing footprint, covering the bad along with the good: how much energy was used to make the shoes, how many service hours employees have worked, how many factories are compliant with Timberland's code of conduct. He also wants to see competitors give their products a “green index rating” the way that Timberland does. The rating provides a combined measure of efforts to reduce energy input, reduce harmful chemicals, and incorporate recycled and renewable components into products.

Then, consumers could comparison shop based on a company's use of renewable energy or its efforts to protect overseas workers' rights. But would they? Are consumers ready to shop consciously? Swartz wants to believe they are.

You could feel the same kind of optimism from Fabienne Verschoor on Earth Day. Employees submitting RFPs for service projects often ask her how much they should propose to accomplish in one day. “I tell them to ask for the sky and we'll see what we can fit in,” she said with a grin. Jeff Swartz couldn't have said it better.

Meeting Green: Get the Message Across

When she booked a Timberland sales meeting into a Florida resort in September 2006, Michelle Johnson met with the general manager for some green talk. He listened to her list of requirements and said simply, “We can't. We'll lose our status.” As a four-star, four-diamond property, the resort had to maintain certain practices, environmentally friendly or not. Johnson, who until recently was Timberland's senior manager, corporate meetings and events, pressed her case. “They worked with me. We did the linen choice — but only in my attendees' rooms. And they put recycling bins in guest rooms and meeting rooms.”

It was great progress, but it's not the end of the story.

“On the first day, I went outside and found one guy throwing the contents of a recycling bin into the garbage,” she recounts. She had him pick all the bottles back out.

“They got it quick after that,” she says. “They didn't want to go picking through the trash again.”

Johnson's experience demonstrates the challenge of sending a green message throughout an entire hotel staff. She thought that she had covered everything in the pre-con, but follow-through is critical. “If you don't hold them accountable, why bother putting it in your contract? That was a lesson for me.”

She continues to plan Timberland's two annual sales meetings on a contract basis, and although there is no official corporate green meetings policy, environmental considerations remain a priority for Johnson. Upcoming events, for example, will see recycling bins in all meeting rooms, recycled printed materials and T-shirts for attendees, minimal (preferably zero) handouts, branded coolers used as substitutes for box lunches, perishable food going to local pig farms, and nonperishables going to food banks as approved by hotels.