NIB Career Q&A: Peter Lankford, Design Director, Footwear Concepts, Timberland LLC

On Thursday, May 29, Net Impact Boston and the New England Chapter of the National Association of Environmental Management (NAEM), are holding an interactive panel discussion on Solutions for Driving Enhanced Product Sustainability. We’re so excited that Peter Lankford, Design Director, Footwear Concepts, Timberland LLC will be joining us as a panelist. Here’s a sneak preview of what you’ve got to look forward to.

How did you first become interested in sustainability?
In my experience, sustainability for most is personal- a core part of who they are that was instilled in them early on. My parents were born in the 20’s and so grew up during the great depression. Like many of their generation, frugality was ingrained hard by those times and was something practiced unconsciously throughout their lives. Looking back, much of what they taught me by example sat latent until college but then began to inform my thinking in industrial design and architecture. I can’t pinpoint any particular moment in time when i became keenly invested in sustainability; there instead was a growing awareness of the gulf between how I was raised and how the world was trending. Being a parent has only sharpened this awareness.

Can you tell a little about Timberland’s approach to driving sustainability across the product life cycle?
As a designer here at Timberland I had the opportunity to be part of the launch of the Earthkeepers product line, which has come to define, and be a vehicle for the company’s sustainability aims. The company has focused attention on the front end, using it’s size to leverage innovation in materials and fabrications that reduce carbon footprint and increase the percentage use of recycled materials. In parallel to incremental improvement of recycled content an emphasis on simplicity of design has evolved as well. For example some footwear designs can have upwards of 35 discrete parts and managing all of these ‘bits’ around sustainability goals is difficult, if not impossible. Fewer parts put together more simply requires extra work on the front end for product development but ultimately helps the company more quickly attain it’s sustainability goals by managing and improving few parts better. Sourcing and assembling just a few ‘ingredients’ also sets the stage for a post-consumer life in the future that could begin to fully close the loop.

What are the key challenges of driving sustainability across the product life cycle?
There are several challenges. Developing, then maximizing the use of the most impactful sustainable materials is hard work. Timberland serves a wide array of consumers, markets and price points with a broad and varied product line which means that these new materials have to be broadly applicable with respect to price, character and availability. Add to that the brand’s reputation of quality, craft and durability and you begin to see that for materials and fabrications to be truly useful, they have to meet a very high standard. For our customer we’ve learned that, green is a ‘free gift with purchase’ which means that sustainable offerings can’t compromise on value or style in the service of sustainability goals. It isn’t that our customer doesn’t care- they do- but expect brands they buy from to be green and a great value that looks right on them.

What innovations in product sustainability are you most excited about?
For every one of us there is a point in time when your beloved shoes have finally, sadly, bit the dust and you are holding them by the laces over a trashcan quietly guilty about adding to a landfill. I like to think that, not so far in the future, we as shoemakers will have become clever enough to resolve this dilemma by creating footwear that can be painlessly recycled or composted. Nelson Mandela was quoted saying “It always seems impossible until it’s done”. I keep that in mind often.

What advice would you give to people wanting to pursue a career in sustainability?
That’s both a hard and easy question. One’s first impulse might be to join an NGO that is rabidly focused on the issue but I believe the real work (and potential) lies in effecting change within organizations that have the most power to make things better…or worse. I was fortunate to join Timberland just as it began to deeply consider what CSR (corporate social responsibility) fully meant and so was poised to be part of it’s initiative to include sustainability as part of CSR. Transforming an enterprise along these lines involves everyone at every level and is never concluded. This means that whatever your talent or training you can have an impact by joining with an organization- whether that be governmental, business or other- that is after making that difference. My point here is that the work around sustainability is big, challenging & continuous and requires the effort of committed people from all areas of expertise.

Finally – if you could make one item or product in your life more sustainable, what would it be?
I described that sense of guilt one has when finally throwing away a pair of shoes. People own a lot of shoes. It would be deeply gratifying to one day create footwear that could effortlessly be green- binned or blue-binned.

Don’t miss out on hearing more from Peter on May 29 – sign up to attend the Net Impact Boston and NAEM panel event today.

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