For VF Corp., being a “purpose-led” company means alternating between the roles of teacher and student.
For the past four years, the North Face and Timberland owner has been a sponsor of the Redress Design Award, a Hong Kong-based sustainable fashion design competition that focuses on zero-waste, upcycling and reconstruction techniques.
As part of the process this year, VF Corp. worked alongside the nonprofit behind the contest to train designer hopefuls from across the globe to use a systems approach to think critically about the entire life cycle of a garment from traceability and circularity standpoints.
Traceability is about more than knowing a product’s provenance or complying with a growing raft of due-diligence legislation, said Sean Cady, vice president of global sustainability and responsibility at VF Corp. Because the bulk of a garment’s impact happens in the raw materials stage, understanding where that extraction, production and processing actually takes place is “critically important” for any sustainable designer.
“If you missed that piece of reducing the environmental impact of a product design, you’re leaving a lot on the table that hasn’t been managed,” he told Sourcing Journal.
And, as for circularity—that’s a no-brainer if environmental responsibility is a goal. There is no “away” for clothing or shoes once they’ve outlived their perceived usefulness, Cady noted. Designing products that can be disassembled or repurposed so they don’t molder in a landfill or stoke an incinerator can go a long way toward minimizing fashion’s footprint.
VF Corp. is equally eager to learn from Redress’s participants, many of them students or recent graduates who are less fettered by the industry’s rules or sacred cows. Finalists who took part in last month’s crowning event hailed from Chile, India, Spain and Sri Lanka. They came up with ideas such as making dyes from food waste, digitally printing on deadstock and weaving strips of old jeans to create “striped” textiles.
“They’re at the tip of the spear, if you will, on new sustainable designs and what the new generation may want from sustainable products,” Cady said.
The “win-win” synergy comes when VF Corp. can take some of these notions and bring them to scale.
“Many of the concepts presented by the contestants actually use post-industrial and post-consumer waste, whether it was a discarded as a piece of clothing from a consumer or whether it was from the end of rolls from a manufacturing facility,” Cady said. “For VF, there’s a lot of learnings there from these designers on how they actually sew products together, or how they choose to use different materials that have properties in a homogenous material that may otherwise only be available in a blended material or fabric.”
This year’s Redress Design Award winner, Federico Badini Confalonieri from Spain, will get to flex some of his concepts at Timberland, where he will help develop a capsule collection for launching in 2024.
“This prize is about more than winning a competition,” he said. “It will give me even more energy and determination to work towards building together a more sustainable fashion industry. I am humbled that the jury selected me among such skilled designers. We sustainable designers may have competed, but the reality is that collaboration creates greater fashion. To partner with one of the world’s most iconic brands, Timberland, is a huge opportunity for me, and I look forward to creating a positive and powerful project together.”
Confalonieri’s designs, which employed synthetic waste fabrics with built-in filters to capture any microplastic pollution during laundry, impressed judges with his “outside the box” thinking in terms of circularity and sustainability, said Puneet Khosla, vice president and managing director of Timberland APAC.
“Federico will commence his experience with the Timberland brand immediately, with additional mentorship from VF’s sustainability and responsibility team to ensure that the materials and design strategies maximize sustainability,” Khosla told Sourcing Journal. “He will gain valuable insights from across the VF supply chain from sourcing to product development, while deepening his skills and understanding around sustainable production and marketing.”
Timberland hopes to tap into Confalonieri’s imagination to help the brand spark other “next-level” sustainable products that get people outdoors and can stand the test of time, he added.
The footwear maker has been making strides of its own, launching earlier this year its Timberloop take-back program to refurbish items for resale or disassemble them for reuse and recycling.
“Timberland is committed to a greener future and therefore incorporating sustainability and circularity into our collections is extremely important to Timberland,” Khola added. “We know that as a fashion brand the creation of our products has an environmental impact, and we’re working really hard to minimize that impact. When we design a new boot, jacket, bag or even a T-shirt, it not only has to look great, but we also consider its impact on nature.”
In the longer run, VF Corp. hopes to pour what it has gleaned to date into its aspirations for local-for-local manufacturing, meaning making products in the vicinity of where they will be consumed.
“Like many companies in our space, we’re looking at how do we produce garments close to the consumer, how do we take those products back close to where the consumers live and enjoy them and how do we recycle or repurpose those products close to consumers?” Cady said.
The conglomerate will also continue to ramp up its traceability scheme by mapping the supply chains of products across all its brands. So far it has published 100 of its bestsellers; there are also many more that have been mapped internally for the purpose of making better business decisions, he said.
“We map many more products and many more paths in our supply chain than what you see publicly,” Cady said. “And we do that to provide ourselves with confidence in the provenance of our supply chain at all the different tiers across our supply chain, all the way back to the origin of key raw materials.”
VF Corp.’s decision to ban leather from Brazil because of deforestation concerns? That was a result of its tracing efforts. But it’s not sure how much more it will divulge, especially since the supply chain is always evolving. So far, it hasn’t seen its mapping drive the average consumer to purchase more products, though that might be beside the point. VF Corp’s challenge is to continue to question suppliers, including those that are further upstream and therefore less engaged.
“We’re going to continue to map our supply chain for our internal purposes, because that’s greatly valuable to the way we assure the integrity of our supply chain,” Cady said.