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After Fossil Fuel Attacks, North Face Signs With Circular Startup

First there was Marimekko. Then H&M came calling, and Adidas opened its checkbook to help bankroll an upcoming IPO. Now, The North Face is the latest boldface name betting that a promising textiles startup will further its stated ambition to “build more circular products.”

On Wednesday, Spinnova unveiled a new partnership with the VF Corp-owned brand, which will be among the first to get its hands on “commercial volumes” of the producer’s microplastics-free fiber made from wood, textile scraps or food waste. In May, Spinnova and wood pulp producer Suzano broke ground on a joint venture smart factory that will help the former produce 1 million tons of fiber annually within the next decade.

Oliver Lang, global vice president of product development for the Denver-based outdoor label, described Spinnova as the “ideal partner” for the brand’s “over-arching goal to build more circular products, constantly develop innovative materials and to further reduce the environmental impacts of our products.” Textile Exchange’s “Material Change Insights Report,” published in May, named The North Face as one of just nine companies achieving a Leading Level 4 ranking in circularity, along with C&A, H&M Group, Knickey, Mud Jeans, Nudie Jeans, Outerknown, Patagonia and prAna.

The fiber news comes after The North Face recently found itself embroiled in a fossil-fuel fracas. The brouhaha erupted over its decision to decline a corporate order from a Texas oil & gas company. Adam Anderson, CEO of Houston-based Innovex Downhole Solutions, described the apparel maker’s rejection of his firm’s business as “counterproductive virtue signaling.” Then, Chris Wright, CEO of Denver-based Liberty Oilfield Services, further piled on, paying for billboards near the adventure-minded brand’s Denver offices reading “That North Face puffer looks great on you. And it was made from fossil fuels. – Your friends in Oil & Gas.” A URL on the billboard directed viewers to a three-and-a-half-minute video of Wright singing the oil and gas sector’s praises.

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Decoupling from petrochemical-derived raw materials remains an uphill battle for brands accustomed to cheap, easy and established supply chains. The North Face acknowledged as much in its response to the oil & gas opprobrium, saying it’s “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 also applauded “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.”

Indeed, with climate change an increasingly growing threat, it’s time for brands to stop equivocating and start equating sustainability talk with meaningful action. Though The North Face has grown its recycled synthetics usage from 6 percent to 57 percent over the past decade, adding Spinnova’s output to its material matrix will advance its 2025 goal to have all of its “most used apparel” components be recycled, renewable or regenerative.

For Spinnova, signing a “leader in sustainable outdoor apparel” marks a “great opportunity for us to continue pushing the limits of our material together with The North Face,” Janne Poranen, co-founding CEO of the Finnish firm, said. “Our goal is to set a new standard for the industry in sustainability and high performance.”

The partners’ announcement came just two days after Lululemon reported a new equity investment in Genomatica, giving the yoga apparel maker access to the San Diego bioengineering firm’s plant-based nylon. Replacing conventional nylon with a bio-based alternative will supplant half of the synthetics in Lululemon’s supply chain, according vice president of raw materials Patty Stapp.

Biomaterials are quickly becoming a “key option” for sustainably minded brands, added Lux Research analyst Kristin Marshall. However, “[w]hile economies of scale should help in the long-term, premiums will limit these materials to higher-end brands and products for now,” she said.