As a lead up to Sustainable Brands conference SB’18 , students, alumni, and faculty of our MA in Sustainable Design program interviewed selected speakers — leaders in corporate sustainability initiatives. In this blog we share our interview Atlanta McIlwraith, Senior Manager, Community Engagement and Communications for Timberland.
What did you talk about at SB’18?
I talked about Timberland’s evolving partnership with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) to reintroduce organic cotton growing to Haiti after a 30-year hiatus. Ultimately, this agroforestry project will result in a transparent new supply of organic cotton for our products, 25 million trees planted, and significant socioeconomic benefits for the more than 30,000 smallholder farmers involved and their families.
You can learn more about this project in this article: https://www.fastcompany.com/40525347/timberland-is-helping-rebuild-haitis-cotton-industry
What is the most exciting thing you’re working on?
I’m excited about several projects, including our work to green urban communities and the upcoming launch of our in-store and online clothing and footwear recycling-for-reuse program.
That said, the promise of Haiti cotton is the most exciting to me in terms of its potential scale and impact. Vans and Patagonia are also supporting the effort, which will mean so much for smallholder farmers not just in Haiti, but elsewhere. There’s a potential to scale and reach people more people, creating access to global supply chains and a better world. It’s a great materials story for the brands involved because they will have a sustainable and positive impact on the environment as well as on people’s lives.
What was your personal path to sustainability?
I started as a political organizer, working on a Senate race in Iowa and later for Public Citizen in Washington D.C. I had an idea to start a socially responsible business and read a book by Anita Roddick of the Body Shop for inspiration. I finished the book in one night and knew I wanted to work for her. It took 6 months of campaigning to get hired! This was my jump to the corporate sector and I designed public awareness and action campaigns for The Body Shop’s retail stores, making it simple for customers to take action on issues while browsing in the shop.
I then went to business school and had a brief foray into international development. When I heard that then-president Jeff Swartz wanted Timberland to be the reference brand for socially responsible business, I wanted to work there. I launched a focused effort to get hired and it worked. I’ve been here ever since, and I use all elements of my previous work experience to build and manage strategic values-based partnerships for the brand.
If you could travel back in time what would you tell your 20-year-old self?
When I was a senior at Duke University I wanted to create a Green Consumer Guide and Week for our campus. During an internship the previous summer, I had been inspired by working on for the PR launch of the original Green Consumer Guide. To make it happen at Duke, I had to pitch the idea to students, faculty, and ultimately to the Dean. I had to ask for funding to support the publication of the guide and to bring various speakers to campus. It was a powerful learning experience to bring that idea to life. Last year when I visited Duke, friends showed me the latest version of the Guide — they had kept it going, and it is even more relevant today.
What I would tell that 20-year-old self:
Ask for what you want. You just might get it.
What has been your proudest moment in sustainability?
While I’m excited about the work I am doing now, one of my most memorable moments came early in my career. When I worked at the Body Shop, we launched a campaign to stop violence against women. We raised money to send women survivors of violence on a newly created Outward Bound program called Women of Courage. During the trip, the women were asked to draw a self-portrait every day or two. When they returned, Outward Bound gave me copies of one woman’s four drawings. The first was blurry and amorphous. The last was of a powerful woman on fire with energy and strength. I framed those pictures and see them daily. They remind me that the work we do to improve the environment and people’s lives has an impact — especially when we create programs that can scale. That’s why the potential of Haiti cotton inspires me.
If you had a magic wand and could completely solve one sustainability problem, what would it be?
I would like to see every business, government, and NGO in the world strive to be as sustainable as possible, and to collaborate with the aim to leverage core competencies to make the biggest positive impact on the environment and society. In the meantime, Timberland and other SB members do all we can to be models of doing well and doing good to inspire others to join the effort.
Thank you Atlanta!
If you want to become a leader in sustainability, consider joining our MA in Sustainable Design program!
[image courtesy of Sustainable Brands]