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VF Nabs Next-Gen Talent to Power Sustainability Strategy

The parent company of Timberland has tapped an emerging talent to create a capsule collection using zero-waste and upcycling techniques, with the goal of furthering the company’s commitment to eco-innovation.

The designer in question is Jessica Chang, the recent Parsons School of Fashion graduate who snagged first place at this year’s Redress Design Award, which is widely hailed as the world’s largest sustainable fashion design competition. Following her victory in Hong Kong over the weekend, the Taiwan native will embark on a yearlong partnership with Timberland. The resulting clothing line, with perhaps a shoe or two in the mix, will be available for sale in spring 2023.

VF Corp., which also owns The North Face, Jansport, Supreme and others, has been a Redress Design Award sponsor for the past three years. Not only does the platform supply a vision of what a more sustainable fashion industry might look like, the conglomerate said, but it also presents an opportunity for VF to leverage its scale to bring some of those cutting-edge ideas to life.

The company expects to learn as much from Chang as she will learn from it, said Sean Cady, VF’s vice president of global sustainability and responsibility, who served as one of the judges. “We can use those learnings [from one another] to build training [programs] for all the designers in VF globally,” he told Sourcing Journal. “It’s definitely a win-win partnership to create more sustainable fashion, starting at the design stage.”

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Chang bowled over judges with her use of surplus and secondhand textiles, her skill with designing for disassembly and her ability to craft a compelling narrative around her collection, which she dubbed “The Wall,” referring to the physical and emotional barricades that people surround themselves with.

“[She supplied] a story and a collection of products that would sit very well under the Timberland brand and attract new consumers to actually go on this sustainable journey with the brand,” Cady said. “And at the end of the day, she actually built a collection that the Timberland team and I saw as commercially viable—not necessarily from a revenue perspective, but more around engaging with [whoever] makes the purchasing choices.”

Jessica Chang wins 2021 Redress Design Award
Jessica Chang dubbed her collection “The Wall,” referring to the physical and emotional barricades that people surround themselves with. Courtesy

Timberland has emerged as the perfect proving ground for new concepts for a slew of reasons. Men’s wear impresario Christopher Raeburn, who is famous for turning castoffs into couture, serves as its global creative director, for one. Its familiarity with recycled leather, recycled rubber, recycled PET and other landfill fodder is another. Last year, the outdoor-wear purveyor committed to designing 100 percent of its products for circularity and achieving zero waste by 2030. Timberland also promised to harvest any natural materials only from regenerative sources that draw down carbon emissions, so it can surpass its climate-neutral ambition and have a “net positive impact on nature.”

“The environment today is in a degraded state. As a footwear and apparel brand, we are part of the problem,” Colleen Vien, director of sustainability for Timberland, said at the time. “For decades Timberland has worked to minimize our impact, but it’s time to do better than that. Imagine a boot that puts more carbon back into the land than was emitted during production. By following nature’s lead, and focusing on circular design and regenerative agriculture, we aim to tip the scales to have a net positive impact—to go beyond sustainability and help nature thrive.”

Still, one question that dogs Christina Dean, who founded Redress in 2007 to tackle fashion’s massive waste footprint, is whether the sector as a whole can learn to do more with less before it’s too late. Textile waste is a problem the planet over; Americans generate 16 million tons of used textiles annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Chinese, per state news agency Xinhua, consign some 26 million tons to incinerators and landfills every year.

Efforts to pare back this avalanche of unwanted clothing have been mixed, Dean told Sourcing Journal. On the plus side, brands and retailers are making strides to create more efficient supply chains, whether by employing more sophisticated predictive algorithms, integrating better inventory management or experimenting with on-demand manufacturing. On the other, consumption and production continue to spike. By 2030, textile waste is poised to increase by 60 percent from 2015 levels, “clearly in response to our growing population, and also due to continued excess consumption, including in emerging markets who are jumping on the fashion consumption bandwagon,” she said.

Meanwhile, developments in post-consumer clothing recycling technology remain “extremely sluggish.” Circular economy supply-chain solutions, from recyclers to automated sorting, too, are considerably underfinanced. “So clothing ‘waste’ continues to clog up in various developing countries and charities the world over are awash with clothing ‘donations’—many of them mixed up with actual rubbish—from consumers,” Dean said. “This should be enough to keep recycling R&D engineers up at night.”

But there’s a silver lining to the morass. Investors, she noted, are flocking to resale startups that are promoting extended clothing use, even if they don’t address the fashion’s environmental impacts at the raw material stage. With an estimated $500 billion in value lost annually due to clothing underutilization and the lack of recycling, “there is money to be made” if brands and retailers choose to take bold action.

“On the stick side, relying on sourcing virgin materials in a resource-strained planet is a risk when raw material prices yo-yo,” Dean added. “So a big challenge for brands is steering their business into more circular models, which require all the players—collection, sorting, recycling, spinning to digitization improvements—to be on the stage and ready to sing at the same time.”