The outdoor-apparel maker has considered its impact on the environment from the start, according to Carol Shu, its sustainability manager. It just doesn’t brag about it.
“We’ve been doing a lot of things in the background for a long time,” she told Sourcing Journal.
A 1974 catalog, which Shu stumbled upon in the company archives, for instance, criticized the U.S. government for pouring millions into nuclear energy when it should have been building solar plants instead. Douglas Tompkins, who founded The North Face as a climbing equipment retailer in San Francisco 1966, was a noted outdoorsmen and conservationist. So was Kenneth “Hap” Klopp, who took over two years later and directed much of the firm’s environmental ethos, she said.
“Sustainability has always been part of our brand, and I would say we’ve lived by those values,” Shu added. “We’re just not as good at communicating them to our customers.”
But The North Face may finally be opening up. Its recent Fall/Winter 2019 collection is replete with eco-friendly touches, from Futurelight, a line of polyfluorinated chemical-free jackets derived from recycled materials, to Cali Wool, a range of “climate beneficial” wool products made in the United States using regenerative-agriculture techniques.
Indeed, the current assortment may be The North Face’s greenest yet. “It’s definitely our highest volume for recycled materials,” Shu said.
Case in point: its Bottle Source line of T-shirts and hoodies, the latest iteration of which mines single-use plastic from the waste streams of national parks such as Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains and Great Teton. The North Face has rescued 384,000 pounds of plastic bottles to date. To support recycling and reuse programs, it’s also donating a dollar to the National Park Foundation for every Bottle Source product it makes.
But The North Face is also transitioning existing virgin fibers into recycled versions. Raw material production and manufacturing accounts for between 60 percent and 85 percent of its total environmental impact, the clothing seller has said. To curtail its footprint, The North Face is phasing out Thermoball, its synthetic alternative to down, in favor of Thermoball Eco, which is spun entirely from recycled plastic bottles.
This season, the brand launched the Eco Heritage collection, which remakes three ‘90s “classic icons”—the Nuptse Vest, the Nuptse Jacket and Mountain Jacket—using 100 percent recycled materials. (The products are available exclusively at REI.)
The Denali, another North Face signature, has also been reinvented in 100 percent recycled fleece.
The North Face is also exploring the concept of the circular economy, where products are made and remade instead of landfilled or incinerated. With The North Face Renewed, a collaboration with Oregon’s The Renewal Workshop, the company is refurbishing previously worn, returned, damaged or defective merchandise. The idea is to keep its clothing in circulation as long as possible.
“Circularity has become an imperative,” Shu said. “And Renewed is a great opportunity for us to think about new business models for the future of our brand.”
It’s also a testing ground. The North Face recently launched a Renewed Design Residency program so it can better incorporate the principles of circularity and creative repair into future collections.
“There’s a lot of possibility and opportunity with that program, both for our designers to be rethinking how they’re making our products and also for us to engage with customers in a new way,” Shu said. Eventually, The North Face may dip into clothing rentals, which has enticed high-street staples like Banana Republic and H&M.
The North Face wants to make further inroads into regenerative agriculture, perhaps with hemp. The technique, Shu said, isn’t just a “less bad” way of creating raw materials but one that actively promotes soil health, water tables and biodiversity. The North Face, she added, was the first major fashion brand to utilize the concept. Now, labels like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia are adding similar schemes to their arsenals.
“I think we showed how you can go far back into your supply chain and partner with the ranchers and farmers who are literally caring for our lands and rebuilding our soil,” Shu said.
Still, she admits the vast majority of The North Face’s materials are synthetic, which can slough off tiny fragments of plastic in the wash, whether they’re recycled or not. Microplastic pollution is rapidly becoming the scourge of waterways, the food chain and even the air we breathe.
The problem, Shu said, is there isn’t a standard testing method to measure microfiber generation from clothing. The North Face is working with the Microfibre Consortium in Europe and the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists in the United States to unify the two leading test methods.
“Once we have that method, and we can actually say, ‘Okay, this a repeatable, valid method that has been agreed upon by the industry,’ we can use that and really understand what our impacts are,” she said.
Creating fabrics, Shu noted, involves myriad variables that could impact fiber release.
“It’s an oversimplification for folks to say, ‘Oh, recycled materials might shed more than a virgin material’ [or vice versa], because it depends on the way that yarn was created or how the fabric was knit or woven,” she said. “And we really need that test method to know.”
Despite its newfound openness, The North Face still wants to keep a few things close to its chest. Any targets regarding climate emissions or water and chemical use are for internal consumption only.
“They’re not public, unfortunately,” Shu said.
Clues can be gleaned, however, from environmental priorities outlined recently by VF Corp., The North Face’s parent company. (VF Corp. also owns Timberland, Icebreaker, Kipling and Vans.)
By 2030, VF Corp. plans to acquire 100 percent of its top nine materials—which, in turn, account for roughly 90 percent of its materials-related carbon emissions—from “regenerative, responsibly sourced, renewable or recycled” sources. It also seeks to reduce its Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 55 percent and Scope 3 emissions by 30 percent (from a 2017 baseline) by 2030, with a focus on farm-to-retail materials, sourcing operations and logistics.
One of The North Face’s advantages, Shu said, is its scale, which amplifies the impact of its efforts. Though based in Colorado, it has footholds across Europe and Asia. Revenues for The North Face grew 11 percent between April to September 2019 in the Asia-Pacific region alone, according to financial records. (It’s been hailed by eBay as one of the online marketplace’s “most sought-after” brands.) By 2024, the apparel maker is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 8 percent to 9 percent to hit $4 billion.
Its affiliation with VF Corp. also means it can leverage partnerships a smaller company cannot.
It’s this clout, Shu said, that has allowed The North Face to secure financing for key suppliers, including a facility in Vietnam that raised $4 million to improve its water and energy efficiency. Already, the factory has received 52 percent of its investments from savings in production costs.
“Those are the kinds of programs we want to continue to grow in our supply chain,” she said. “Because when our suppliers lower their footprints, they ultimately lower the footprints of our products, too.”