Timberland wants you to send back your old boots to be upcycled

“Circularity” has become a buzzword in the fashion world, with brands using the catchall term to refer to everything from using eco-friendly materials to selling secondhand goods. But becoming a truly circular company is harder than it looks, as Timberland, the iconic American boot brand founded in 1975, is discovering firsthand.

[Photo: courtesy Timberland]

Today it launches a program called “Timberloop” that invites customers to return used Timberland products so they can be refurbished or disassembled and then upcycled. For a brand that generates upward of $11 billion in annual revenue, this program was a major undertaking, requiring it to partner with experts across its global markets—including the U.S., Europe, and Asia—who could take apart shoes and clothes and transform them into new products. Now the big question is whether enough consumers will be willing to go through the effort of returning their old products, and whether Timberland can scale this program.

[Image: courtesy Timberland]

The concept of a circular economy has been around since the 1960s. It refers to moving away from a linear system in which consumers use products then throw them away. Instead, products would stay in circulation for as long as possible by being repaired, refurbished, and resold. Then, at the end of their lives, they would be recycled into new products, minimizing the amount of raw materials that need to be extracted.

[Image: courtesy Timberland]

As climate change worsens, brands increasingly tout their circular practices. Many, however, just focus on one small part of the process. Companies like ThredUp and TheRealReal focus on selling secondhand products, while brands like Everlane and Reformation use recycled plastic in their manufacturing. Atlanta McIlwraith, Timberland’s director of global community engagement and activation, says that the company’s goal was to come up with a comprehensive system that would address many aspects of circularity.

Starting today, customers will be able to download a free shipping label to return any Timberland product, or return items to any Timberland store. (To encourage participation, the company is offering customers a 10% discount on their next purchase.) These products will be collected and shipped to Timberland’s recycling partner, ReCircled, to be processed.

McIlwraith says products that are in good condition will be refurbished and resold on a soon-to-be launched secondhand website that’s part of  Timberland’s main site. Products beyond repair will be taken apart, so each part—from the leather to the plastic sole to the metal components—can be recycled. “Historically, footwear has been very hard to recycle, because it is made of so many different materials that are tightly attached together using adhesives and thread,” she says. “We chose to partner with ReCircled because it has the expertise and the equipment to process our shoes.”

[Image: Timberland]

Another benefit of partnering with ReCircled, McIlwraith says, is that it has an international footprint. In April, Timberloop will roll out in Europe; later in the year it will be available in the Middle East and Asia Pacific markets, all of which will be processed by ReCircled. “For the customer, the entire experience will operate through Timberland’s website and stores, so it will be a seamless process for them,” she says.

Timberland’s goal is to create a fully closed loop, in which components that ReCircled takes apart and recycles are then used to make new Timberland shoes. ReCircled sends each material to a different industrial recycler that specializes in, say, plastic or metal. Many of these recyclers are now Timberland’s suppliers.

But Timberland is also redesigning its shoes to make them easier to take apart, which will ultimately mean ReCircled will require less time and effort to separate their component materials. The company’s designers are already working to reduce the number of materials in the shoes, using adhesives that are easier to dissolve, and developing stitching techniques that will make them easier to disassemble. In April, the brand will unveil a new shoe called the Timberloop Trekker, made from recycled materials and designed so that the outsoles can be easily removed for recycling. McIlwraith says the brand’s designers will incorporate these new techniques across the entire product line in subsequent seasons. “It’s a complex design problem,” she says. “The shoes are designed to last a long time but be easy to disassemble at the end of their life span.”

For Timberloop to have a real impact, customers will need to send in large volumes of product. While some environmentally conscious consumers will likely embrace the new program, it’s unclear how many people will take the time and effort to send in their old shoes and clothes, or bring them back into stores—and a 10% discount may not be enough of an incentive to do so. McIlwraith says that the company is working hard to educate customers about the program by creating attractive collection bins in stores that explain the process, training retail representatives to talk about it, and sending emails to encourage people to take part.

Ultimately, for circularity to work it will require consumers to change behavior en masse. In Europe, governments are considering legislation that would use tax incentives to reward reuse, repair, and recycling, and discourage incinerating or landfilling clothes, but no laws have yet passed. For now, brands like Timberland are absorbing the cost of recycling products through programs like Timberloop and are encouraging consumers to send in old products voluntarily.