The following comes from Apparel magazine, based in the USA.
Apparel’s third annual Sustainability All Stars program finds five companies determined to drive difference for people and planet — bringing profits along for the ride.
Winners were chosen based not on specific criteria in particular categories, such as use of organic materials, energy policy, wastewater management, recycling initiatives or social issues, but for demonstrating a commitment toward making their businesses more sustainable in specific ways, and a plan to continue down that path.
In terms of outdoor gear, one brand stands out as being of interest amongst the 5 companies selected this year in the Apparel awards.
The North Face
For The North Face, a leading supplier of technically innovative outdoor gear, sustainability is deeply intertwined with innovation. Philip Hamilton, vice president for global product, says, “Through innovation, sustainability and profitability can actually go hand in hand.”
The North Face works extensively with independent organizations to guide and verify its sustainability efforts. One of these organizations is bluesign, which is dedicated to understanding and improving product manufacturing. Bluesign audits The North Face’s fabric suppliers and mills to evaluate and improve their use of chemicals, energy and water. Currently, 30 percent of The North Face’s material volume is bluesign-certified. The North Face began the bluesign audit process with its highest-volume mills, but 10 years from now it hopes to have 100 percent of its fabrics bluesign-certified.
Hamilton says, “What I personally love about our focus on bluesign is that … due to the size of our business now, we can really help bluesign get into more mills — which, in turn, helps us push the entire industry toward this upstream focus.” As a result of its efforts, smaller apparel companies that deal with the same mills can now specify bluesign-certified materials — something they might not otherwise have had the clout to achieve.
Adam Mott, The North Face’s sustainability manager, explains that suppliers must pay for the bluesign audits themselves and must spend six to nine months working toward certification. Not surprisingly, many mills have exhibited what Mott calls “a slight resistance to change.” However, he says the process ultimately saves money for the mills through improved resource efficiency. In the long run, the process benefits all parties. In addition to sustainable processes, occupational health and safety in the mills is also a focus of The North Face’s program.
To improve product sustainability, The North Face uses recycled material content wherever possible. Currently, about 15 percent of total material volume is recycled — accounting for about $150 million of product sold. Another strategy is to substitute natural for synthetic materials. Because the company wants its efforts to have the largest impact possible, it focuses on reformulating its highest-volume products. One of these is the popular Venture jacket, still The North Face’s best-selling rainwear after 10 years. Beginning in spring 2011, the Venture is being constructed from HyVent DT Eco fabric, made with natural castor oil. This change — which does not make the jacket any less waterproof — will eliminate, at a conservative estimate, the use of more than 50,000 pounds of petroleum-based materials per year.
Though revamping the Venture jacket was an obvious win, Mott says that not all benefits are easy to communicate. For example, incorporating recycled materials into a fleece fabric that is used in 30 popular styles may have an enormous impact — but telling people about it is difficult. “We can’t talk about a product being 35 percent certified,” Mott says.
A recent greenhouse-gas emissions inventory of the company’s operations and facilities indicated great opportunities for improvement in the distribution center and retail stores. In response to that assessment, The North Face installed a solar array in its distribution center that powers 25 percent of the facility. It is now working with an outside engineering team to identify additional ways to improve the DC’s energy efficiency.
The plastic bags used to protect products during shipping also add significantly to the company’s carbon footprint. Mott says, “We looked at renewable options, but they tended to melt or to color the product. We’ve decreased the thickness of the bag, but we haven’t figured out a way to make it 100 percent sustainable.” To keep the bags out of the landfill, The North Face is partnering with a recycling organization to collect them and make them into products such as plastic lumber and reusable shopping bags. “We’re going to divert at least 2 million bags from the landfill this year,” Mott says.
Education is another important facet of the sustainability program. Working with the advocacy groups Protect Our Winters and Alliance for Climate Education, The North Face created an educational program — Hot Planet, Cool Athletes — to teach schoolchildren about climate change. “We partnered to include our athletes,” Mott says. “It makes it more relevant and exciting for kids. We’ll show them snowboarding, and then talk about how climate change affects winter sports. … The goal is to get kids to commit to doing something to reduce their impact on the environment.”
The North Face also supports James Balog, the photographer whose time-lapse photography of glacial retreat has galvanized public awareness of climate change. A new project involves tracking glacial recession at Mt. Everest; because placing cameras there required technical climbing beyond Balog’s capabilities, The North Face sponsored athletes to install the cameras used in the project.
Even more ambitious projects are in store for the future. Mott says the company is beginning to investigate green chemistry (chemical processes that reduce hazardous substances), biomimicry (innovation inspired by nature) and other disciplines, looking for ways to create “disruptive changes” to decades-old practices. “We don’t want sustainability to be an add-on,” he says. “It’s being built into how we innovate and how we look at product development overall.”