Leveraging the Strengths of Social Enterprises Through Innovative Business Relationships
The unbridled accumulation of single-use, post-consumer plastic bottles represents a social and environmental crisis affecting populations and landscapes the world over. While industrialized countries have evolved systems and customs that effectively displace this waste stream, the problem is glaringly evident in less-industrialized countries, ill-equipped to control the flow. Yet strategies to manage Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) plastic have led to surprising new markets. The social enterprise Thread makes polyester fabrics derived from used bottles sourced from some of the most affected communities, a model that creates jobs, incentivizes environmental decontamination, and builds awareness about the value in the waste stream.
In March 2017, global outdoor lifestyle brand Timberland launched a new product line that integrates Thread’s fabric as part of its goal to feature some level of recycled, organic, or renewable content in 100 percent of its products by 2020. Proliferating and scaling such business partnerships holds great potential. Our CEO, Deirdre White, had the opportunity to moderate a Timberland-Thread discussion in a session at the Ethical Corporation Responsible Business Summit NY entitled “Partnership X Factor.” The audience heard from Thread CEO, Ian Rosenberger, and Timberland’s Director for Strategic Partnerships and Business Development, Margaret Morey-Reuner, and determined that this partnership does have the “X Factor.” Following the Summit, Ian and Margaret shared more of their unique perspectives on the partnership and their learnings.
Talk about the common ground that brought you together.
Ian: As the CEO and Founder of Thread, I’ve created a company that takes trash from the very poorest neighborhoods in the world and turns it into fabric. It’s not much of a company if we can’t find somebody to buy that fabric and put it into stuff. So, we found ourselves in this really interesting position where we realized that companies were reaching down into supply chains trying to find better and more sustainable ingredients and products. We realized, more by pure chance and luck than anything else, that we were sitting at the bottom of the supply chain reaching up, looking for customers. From a core values perspective, we both want the same things, so that made the partnership very easy. From a beliefs perspective, I struggle to find any differences. This isn’t the case with all brands – in that sense I think that Timberland is unique.
Margaret: Culturally, in the Timberland organization, everybody is on board with the idea of partnering with a company like Thread because we believe inherently in what Thread represents. The ability to be able to connect our consumers, who buy our products made with Thread, to the first mile of the supply chain, to the people who collected those bottles that become the fabric on the way to becoming the boot that they bought, that’s an invaluable proposition. The fact that we can translate in the storytelling for our consumer, communicate to them the impact that their choice in buying our product has on the people who are recycling the bottles; it’s amazing.
The ability to be able to connect our consumers, who buy our products made with Thread, to the first mile of the supply chain, to the people who collected those bottles that become the fabric on the way to becoming the boot that they bought, that’s an invaluable proposition.
What impact did the difference in your organizational structures have on the partnership?
Margaret: Operationally we have the same goals, but our respective levels of agility are vastly different. The agility of a company like Timberland, a global company, a global brand that’s part of an even larger corporation, it’s like turning an ocean liner versus turning a small sailboat. So, I think operationally, we found that to be the root of any tensions that we’ve experienced for the most part.
For example, we had some strategic decisions that were made that caused some people who were leaders on the product and materials development side to move on to new roles. In that happening, we took our eye off the ball in making sure that the people who came in were brought up to speed with Thread and made it a priority. That’s something we never even thought of and now I would bring this up in the future in exploring this type of a partnership. That became a very big pain point for both organizations.
Ian: Anytime a partnership comes together, you’ve got a big group of people. Bringing all the people together to march to the same beat, especially when they’re from different companies, is not easy. But I also know that there’s comfort in the commitment. Thread has committed to Timberland that we’re going to make it work and in turn, Timberland has communicated to Thread that they are too.
One thing I really credit Margaret with in the partnership is, very early on, she said ‘you know, we need to find the right stakeholders for this and they need to be in the room all the time.’ And while the people have changed and we’ve had to negotiate and work with those changes, we’ve also had some people stay the same, people like Margaret. We don’t go to a brand now, at all, unless we can get everybody together in one room. I think it’s as much about committing when things are bad or hard as it is when things are good.
How has the partnership impacted the culture and goals of your organization?
Ian: As an organization, at a core level we’re bound to our mission – to pick up as much trash as we can and put as many people to work as possible. The great thing about the partnership with Timberland is that it has taught us to also be aligned towards business. What I’ve learned through this experience with our partner is that business is actually the biggest lever we have to solve the most pressing issues of now. I think that the speed with which the market works is the only tool that can approach the problems of the day with any amount of velocity. The partnership with Timberland has taught us that.
We were able to support 77 jobs, clear out 30 million gallons of water from the supply chain and pick up 765,000 bottles off the ground. It made me realize that, if we could get brands like Timberland to 10X that, and then add 10 or 100 more brands of their size, our mission becomes much more attainable. The partnership has instilled in me this urgency to do really well from a business perspective because that’s going to allow us to solve the issues that we came here to solve.
Margaret: I’m the person in the building that has to always go to all of the people that make things happen and say, ‘I’ve got a crazy idea. What if we were to partner with people that make recycled PET fabric that we could actually trace back to when it was a bottle? We could tell the story of the lives of the people that picked up that bottle and sent it on its way and how that was their job, and how their job has made their life better.’
I have to face a lot of cynicism, often times from functions like finance, and I always start out by saying, ‘there’s a reason people work at Timberland. Because of our culture and our commitment to being a responsible company and why we all place a high value on that here internally.’ So when you tell them this is a possibility, they inherently believe in it. But when they find out that it might be a little harder than an inline operating way of doing things, sometimes, that’s when a lot of the naysayers and challenging opinions come up. And I always say ‘if it were easy, everybody would be doing it.’ That’s how we’ve tried to build a brand and a business. We’ve tried to do the right thing, and the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing.
Feature photo courtesy of Taylor Free Solo (Timberland X Thread)