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Will ‘Shortsighted’ Fossil Fuel Attacks on North Face Backfire?

As the American public grows to appreciate the dangers of climate change—the Pew Research Center reported last year that 53 percent of adults see it as a “very serious problem”—views on fossil fuels have cooled.

According to a poll Pew conducted in April, 62 percent of U.S. adults believe the energy industry is doing too little to reduce the effects of global climate change. An even larger number, 71 percent, think the U.S. should prioritize alternative energy development over the expansion of fossil fuel production. What’s more, one-third believe the country should phase out fossil fuels—43 percent and 42 percent of Gen Zers and millennials, respectively—and 47 percent are in favor of phasing out new gas-powered vehicles.

With public opinion shifting against it, the oil and gas industry is taking advantage of a controversy involving The North Face to present a positive view of its historical impact.

This attempt at both rehabilitating fossil fuels’ public image and dunking on a brand perceived as hostile to oil and gas, may not ultimately succeed, according to Margot Bloomstein, a brand and content strategy consultant and author of “Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap.” Rather, she said, it could simply give the outdoor brand a chance to spotlight its environmental investments and differentiate itself from competitors with “less evolved efforts.”

The North Face’s spat with the fossil fuels industry began in December when it declined to fill an order placed by a Texas oil and gas company for 400 co-branded jackets.

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Adam Anderson, the CEO of Houston-based Innovex Downhole Solutions, told Hart Energy last year that his company never received a direct explanation from The North Face or its owner VF Corp. Instead, he said, it was the distributor that indicated to him that the outdoor business was not interested in co-branding with an oil and gas company.

Frustrated with The North Face’s response, Anderson wrote a letter to VF  praising the oil and gas industry’s impact on society and highlighting the outdoor brand’s own reliance on fossil fuels to create its products. The North Face’s choice to reject Innovex’s business, he wrote, was “counterproductive virtue signaling.” After gaining steam online, the letter inspired other industry leaders to pile on, including the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which mockingly gave The North Face an award for being an “extraordinary customer.”

Earlier this month, Chris Wright, the CEO of Denver-based Liberty Oilfield Services, joined in, paying for billboards around The North Face’s Denver offices reading “That North Face puffer looks great on you. And it was made from fossil fuels. – Your friends in Oil & Gas.” The billboard includes a URL that leads to a three-and-a-half-minute video of Wright lauding the oil and gas industry.

The billboard campaign appears to have prompted The North Face to address the controversy. On June 8, it published a lengthy blog post outlining its policies on co-branding and highlighting its efforts to move to recycled synthetic materials.

“Letting another company put its logo on our products and essentially affiliating our brand with theirs isn’t a choice we take lightly, which is why these inquiries are thoughtfully considered with our brand DNA and long-standing outdoor values in mind,” it wrote. “There are times we choose not to sell product to certain organizations, from a variety of industries, with the intent of placing their logo next to ours. This includes companies in the oil and gas industry.”

The North Face noted that these decisions “are never made with the intent to pass judgement on others.”

The outdoor brand said it “fully acknowledges and recognizes the integral role” oil and gas play in powering its business and the world. “We are currently reliant on this industry for many of the products we make, fuel for when we travel and for the energy we need to operate our business,” it wrote.

“We applaud any efforts currently being made within the oil and gas sector to pursue policies designed to reduce their carbon footprint and invest in clean energy technologies, because we understand how the long-term use of fossil fuels is deteriorating the health of our planet,” it added.

The brand highlighted its own work on shifting away from virgin synthetics. Ten years ago, it said, 6 percent of its synthetic materials were recycled. By last year, that number had risen to 57 percent percent, it claimed. It expects 72 percent of its synthetic materials will be recycled by the fall. By 2025, it said, 100 percent of its “most used apparel materials” will be recycled, regenerative or renewable, and it will have eliminated all single-use plastic packaging.

Bloomstein said consumers understand working to preserve the environment is a long-term and complex commitment. Many individuals go through similar changes over time, she noted, drawing a comparison to those who may choose to eat less meat before embracing a full vegetarian diet.

“It’s shortsighted and foolish for prospective partners or industries that work against those efforts to castigate The North Face for wrangling with the complexity of their choices,” Bloomstein said. “Just because they haven’t been able to completely divest of problematic technology and fuel sources is no reason to mock their ongoing efforts to do so.”

“This smear campaign,” Bloomstein added, gives The North face an opportunity to build trust and reach an even greater audience of like-minded consumers.

“The potential for messaging and industry leadership is enormous: by embracing this scrutiny, The North Face has the opportunity to rally the outdoor apparel industry to collective environmental commitment and more focused divestment from fossil fuels,” she said.