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Why Timberland Made a Documentary to Share Its Haitian Tree-Planting Initiative

REPRINT > by Dan Solomon for Fast Company

"We’re an outdoor lifestyle company that has a tree for a logo" is a blunt reasoning for the company's social responsibility.

A lot of brands talk the talk on social responsibility and sustainability. Many of those also walk the walk—but few put both together as forcefully as Timberland has with a new documentary, produced by Found Object, called KOMBIT: The Cooperative, telling the story of the company's mission to plant five million trees in Haiti over five years. The film, which premiered earlier this month at the SXSW Eco conference, documents not just Timberland’s agroforestry enterprise, but its development of the program into a sustainable, self-funding entity that continues on even after the brand has fulfilled its commitment.

After a 10-year tree-planting initiative of Timberland's in China, the company sought a new large-scale project to take on. Haiti was suggested to the company’s then-CEO Jeff Schwartz, and Margaret Morey-Reuner, who led the initiative (and appears throughout the film). As the company agreed to plant five million trees in five years, they documented the process—filming it for short videos on social media and capturing how it worked—until, a few years in, they realized that the footage and the subject might be special enough to turn into a proper, full-length documentary film.

"It gives us the opportunity to not only share with our consumers our commitment to environmental stewardship and being a socially responsible company, but it also allows us to tell a story of a different approach to creating a social business," Morey-Reuner says of the decision to turn the project into a documentary. The program they started was unique: Friends of the company had suggested that they pay farmers to plant trees, but Morey-Reuner wanted to refine the idea so that it would be sustainable even after their five-year commitment was completed. 

"The idea was that, through a network of tree nurseries that we established, farmers would volunteer their time to plant trees and care for them, and in return for their time, we give them tools, seeds, and training that are geared to agricultural purposes," Morey-Reuner says.

By using those tools the farmers are able to improve their crop yield and their productivity. While they’re cultivating their crops, they bring back seeds to a seed bank, and those go to additional farmers, and more nurseries are established and more farmers are brought on board. "What we found through this cycle is that their crop yields were improving and the soil health was better," says Morey-Reuner. "The increases in their crop yields were so substantial that we started reaching out to some friends of Timberland to find some market opportunities for them. That was phase two of the program—we identified some customers for the farmers, including Whole Foods."

The goal for Timberland was to transition from being the project’s funders to being its customers—and in that way, to keep the program sustainable for the long term. Doing that was crucial for a company that speaks openly about corporate responsibility.

"We’re an outdoor lifestyle company that has a tree for a logo," Morey-Reuner says. "We believe that it’s our responsibility, as a corporation who does create an impact on the environment and in the communities in which we sell our products, to give back, and to do everything we can to minimize our impact on the environment. The idea that if there were no outdoors, we wouldn’t be in business, is a pretty powerful rallying cry to stay true to those beliefs."

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