Timberland has long been one of the more proactive and socially responsible companies within the apparel industry, and this commitment has continued since its acquisition in 2011 by the multinational VF Corporation. The outdoor gear company has launched a bevy of social responsibility programs across the globe and reports on its environmental, social and governance progress quarterly. Now, leading up to the five-year anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake on January 12, the company is promoting the work it has done to help the Caribbean nation rebuild.
Timberland has partnered with the NGO Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) to tackle problems with one market-based solution: transform the agricultural practice at roughly 1,000 farms while planting millions of trees throughout the heavily deforested country. Centered in the northern town of Gonaives with a total of four projects across the island, the project sees SFA training farmers on improved agricultural techniques. In return, the farmers raise trees from seedlings in nurseries and plant them on their land and in communal areas within their communities. Proceeds from the sale of excess tree seedlings cover the cost of additional benefits including a seed bank and microfinancing programs.
Timberland provided the initial seed funding with the goal — recently attained — of having the program entirely self-sufficient within five years. The intentions of the project have merit, but Timberland’s involvement poses some interesting corporate responsibility questions, among them: Is the company’s work in Haiti a feel-good project, or will it actually create tangible benefits within the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere? Last month, I interviewed Margaret Morey-Reuner, Senior Manager of Values at Timberland and SFA president Hugh Locke to find out more.
According to Timberland and SFA, the long-term goals for this alliance are to build farmers’ wealth, while also developing potentially lucrative food exports for them in the future. Haiti, about the size of Massachusetts, has roughly 1.1 million farms, most of which are no larger than two hectares (five acres). They are generally tilled by families, and most of the crops harvested are sold in local markets.
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But these husband-and-wife farms cannot grow enough food to feed Haiti’s 10.5 million people. In fact, the country imports about 60 percent of its food, due to a combination of inefficient farming methods, the domination of the country’s 200 bourgeoisie family in every facet of Haiti’s economy, and low tariffs that in turn flood the nation’s markets with cheap, imported food. Haiti’s poverty rate is estimated between 58 and 84 percent, depending on the source quoted, and only worsened after the January 2010 quake. Unfortunately, the world’s generous response to that disaster ended up in a black hole, with little of it actually benefiting needy Haitians. Hence, when SFA approached Timberland, the company reacted at first with tepid caution: “We would only do it if the project results in a model from which we could walk away in five years,” Morey-Reuner said.
The results are certainly bearing fruit. SFA estimates yields have increased on average 40 to 50 percent. The farms are also becoming more efficient: Five years ago the average farm required about 103 pounds of new crop seeds annually, but because of better cultivation methods, that number has fallen to about six pounds annually — farmers have simply become more successful at growing their own seeds for the following year’s planting. Now SFA is ready to carry their work to the next level.
Locke said he envisions Haiti becoming a steady exporter of two cash crops: limes and moringa. The latter, a tree native to Africa and Asia, has potential to become a superfood as it is rich in calcium, protein, minerals and vitamins — plus the moringa tree can grow well in harsh environments, such as deforested Haiti.
“We’re looking at production of four tons of dried moringa leaf powder a month,” Locke said with enthusiasm, “while we pay farmers dividends and a good price.”
Another project underway is the distribution of lime trees to kickstart Haiti’s lime oil industry. Once a profitable export, the industry became nonexistent after a series of U.S. embargos on Haiti during the 1980s and ‘90s. If the pilot program can expand, Haiti once again could become a global leader in this oil, which is used in many products, from carbonated drinks to cosmetics.
Both Locke and Morey-Reuner also discussed the possibility of growing cotton in the southern part of the country, which could open the door to more exports while providing Timberland raw material. But this raises a question: Does it make sense to promote more cash crops for export in a country that already imports a large majority of its food? Or to introduce a water- and pesticide-intensive crop in a country that already has a fragile, if not already damaged, ecosystem?
Locke replied with the valid point that Haiti’s wealthy families have a chokehold on the island nation’s agricultural sector and it was doubtful that arable land in the southern part of the country, once tilled for cotton, would be viable for growing food. Plus, the cultivation of moringa could result in farmers making a projected extra $800-1,000 annually — though these numbers are not yet confirmed. Despite recent economic recovery, Haiti’s economic policy for the most part has not worked during the nation’s 200-plus years of independence, though embargos by the world’s powers certainly did not help.
Programs such as this SFA-Timberland alliance definitely couldn’t hurt: “If we didn’t ask these questions in trying to envision a different way, things would never change,” said Morey-Reuner, “and we’re trying to look at the materials we use, how we can better source them, and how we can create better economic impact throughout the supply chain.”
Three years ago, Timberland aggressively promoted its opening of a shoe factory in Haiti — and arranged a visit from President Bill Clinton timed to coincide with the earthquake’s second anniversary. Timberland insisted the leather upper factory made “good commercial sense” and supported its “commitment to community.” The facility also employed 150 people, who received extensive training and enjoyed a weekly visit from a doctor. But two years later, Timberland sold the factory to another company, leaving some to question its commitment to Haiti.
“Timberland chose to focus its efforts on the brand’s larger footwear manufacturing operations in the Dominican Republic,” one of the company’s public relationship representatives said in an email, “(because) it was more effective to consolidate all of the brand’s Caribbean production in one company-owned facility and helped to improve customer service and shorten response times.”
In fairness, Haiti’s poverty and trade imbalances are not easy riddles for one company to solve. But time is still needed to see whether Timberland’s work there will create the tangible, long-term benefits the company envisioned for Haiti’s people and economy.