Everyone remembers the turning points in life, when unforeseen forces blow open a door and, without hesitation, we step forward. Mark Newton, Timberland Corporation's new VP of Corporate Social Responsibility, has had a few turning points, but the most powerful one changed more than his life, it changed the world as we know it.
“I look back fondly on my days at Keene State. I fell in love with chemistry there. It was idyllic.”
When Newton came to Keene State in 1983, he knew little about applied chemistry, but once he got a taste, he couldn't get enough. "It was like drinking from a fire hose for me. I gulped it. And when I took p-chem [that's physical chemistry to the rest of us] with Professor Jasinski, it became a language I could suddenly speak. I could visualize it. I had to go to grad school."
Over his seven years of graduate work and industry internships at the University of Texas in Dallas, Newton witnessed an explosion in personal communication devices. He cruised into a Texas job fair, sporting a shiny new PhD in chemistry and a fluency in polymers.
Upon meeting him, recruiters from Motorola closed their booth and took him to lunch.
“And I'm glad I went to a liberal arts college. I'm a real advocate of having a specialized field, but having a liberal approach, a more well-rounded approach to that discipline has really served me well.”
Motorola, at the time Newton was hired, was a leader in developing the gadgets we all carry today – mobile devices, largely made of polymers. Leveraging what he had learned during his internships at manufacturers such as United Technologies, which bathed aircraft parts in boiling vats of chromic acid and cyanide, Newton tried to get the most out of toxic and expensive materials before they had to be treated and disposed of. His work improved products and saved money.
Soon after Newton started at Motorola, the company got a letter from a customer, the likes of which they'd never seen. The Netherlands, a massive buyer of two-way radios, had passed tough environmental laws governing chemicals in discarded electronics. They had ground up and analyzed the Motorola products and found a list of now-illegal chemicals.
“Nobody ever asked about what was in this stuff; it was all about performance. […] It caused us to start thinking more intentionally about design.”
"Nobody ever asked about what was in this stuff; it was all about performance," Newton says.
He took the assignment and solved the problem by using other materials. But the manufacturing paradigm had shifted. "It caused us to start thinking more intentionally about design."
One of the first design-for-environment programs – entirely common today – was born, with Newton and a new Motorola research team in the delivery room. Only the research leaders – IBM, Lucent, Bell Labs – were in the game.
"It allowed me to question the status quo – things that scientists are trained to do. And because materials were the first focus of sustainability in companies, my area of expertise led me into working with the suppliers, design groups, manufacturing groups, communications teams, and legal teams."
But did Motorola executives see sustainability as profitable, as value added? "They thought I was crazy," Newton says.
“I learned the difference between being a boss and a leader in scouts.”
Fortunately, the company had a blue-sky approach to research and development. "Everybody talks about Google doing that today, but that's what a whole bunch of companies used to do."
The boom in electronics and demand for design-for-environment programs blew open a door for Newton. He returned to New Hampshire as a principal scientist for the visionary Dean Kamen's DEKA Research [think inventions, from arterial stents to Segways], then moved on to Apple, and to Dell, where he became Executive Director of Global Sustainability.
Along the way, he's traveled the world, and with his wife, Dee, who also holds a graduate degree in chemistry, raised three children: Emily (once a student at KSC), 24; Daniel, 21; and Sam, 13.
The admittedly "overachieving" dad is an Eagle Scout and re-engaged with scouting as an adult. He credits it with teaching him pragmatic skills, confidence, and leadership. He says, "I learned the difference between being a boss and a leader in scouts."
Newton admits avoiding the environmental teams at his early jobs. "Everybody hid under their desks when they came, because they weren't seen as adding value, just creating constraints."
“The philosophy and ethos here [Timberland] is: if it's the right thing to do, go do it.”
Over the years, though, his work has likely preserved countless natural systems. He says he didn't set out with an agenda. But once he got to Dell and his creativity with materials focused on energy efficiency that dovetailed with environmental compliance, which in turn led to health and labor conditions in the supply chain and concerns about the products' end-of-life, he realized that he had a full-blown, integrated sustainability program on his hands.
Making a real impact in the community: Timberland employees build houses for Habitat for Humanity.
And yet, he says, when it comes to social responsibility, "the social side of it…I was happy not to touch it with a 10-foot pole. It wasn't my background, I hadn't worked with it, and it's a can of worms. Working conditions, wages, hours, rights – it wasn't until I was in a leadership role for overall sustainability that, oh, man, I had a lot to learn. Again, I do like drinking from a firehose."
Until he came to Timberland, he had seen the local, civic, and community service aspects of corporate social responsibility relegated to philanthropy. "I never saw it in action. It never clicked for me. It had always been about writing a check. Yeah, I admired Timberland's climate leadership and benchmarked the company for its excellence while at Dell. I had worked with Jeff [Swartz, founder and president] on panels but I didn't really know about their commitment to community service.
"I was shocked. At first, I was almost saying, 'Jeff, you take your folks here and line them up to do service projects. I mean, why are you such a cheap bastard? Write a check like everybody else.' Because I didn't get it."
"I really didn't. And then I saw them shut the place down twice a year, putting 500 to 600 of us, plus our partners, shoulder-to-shoulder, working on doing things like building five Habitat for Humanity houses in the parking lot, in one day! Well, that's transformative. It breaks down walls in the company and creates a real culture. And, it catalyzes real impact in the community!"
Newton understands that, since 1993, he's been working near the nexus of commerce and justice. "It's been about doing well and doing good, feeling good about it…but not nearly the way it is at Timberland, a highly profitable entity, serving individuals well and doing the right thing. The philosophy and ethos here is: if it's the right thing to do, go do it."
When Newton was a student, he worked mornings at UPS and evenings cooking at the legendary Folkway in Peterborough, paying his way through school. He says, "I look back fondly on my days at Keene State. I fell in love with chemistry there. It was idyllic.
"And I'm glad I went to a liberal arts college. I'm a real advocate of having a specialized field, but having a liberal approach, a more well-rounded approach to that discipline has really served me well. Because that's what it's all about," says Newton. "If I had wanted to become a bench chemist or a research scientist, that would have been fine. But, opening up my blinders and considering other perspectives has created a world of opportunity for me."