“I look back fondly on my days at Keene State. I fell in love with chemistry there. It was idyllic.”
Dr. Mark Newton ’87
The Simple [chemistry] of Sustainability
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 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.
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.
Begin pull-quote...“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.” ...end pull-quote
Soon after Newton started at Motorola, the company got a letter from a customer; 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. Newton 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.”
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.
Begin pull-quote...“The philosophy and ethos here [Timberland] is: if it's the right thing to do, go do it.” ...end pull-quote
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.
“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.”
“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.”