The way clothes are designed and manufactured, and what happens to them once consumers no longer want them, is taking its toll on the environment. Multiple studies conclude tens of millions of tons of clothes are landfilled or incinerated annually, often after short lives, and after a lot of energy and other resources went into creating them. Overall, textile production churns out 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year—more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
And the carbon footprint of the apparels industry only appears to be widening, especially as “fast fashion” continues to drive a linear, make-take-toss economy model. VF Corporation is among a few large outfits in its industry trying to disrupt this linear model. The plan is to bring circularity to the forefront, where clothes last longer and retain their highest value, whether they are made more durably, refurbished and reused, recycled or upcycled.
While VF with its family of 12 brands works to improve its own sustainability story, it’s banking on being able to leverage its scalability, as well as to pull in the supply chain—from farms to factories— to reach for a taller ambition: pushing for change beyond its own operations.
Internally the global, Colorado-based apparel and footwear business is working toward several public-facing goals; has established roadmaps; and is tracking progress.
In 2021, VF hit one of those goals: zero waste at its 18 distribution centers, which it defines as 95% waste diversion through recycling, compost, and reuse. VF has diverted more than 86,000 tons of waste generated at its warehouses since 2016.
Some other targets it’s aiming for are:
- Sourcing 100% renewable energy at all its facilities by 2025;
- eliminating all single-use packaging by 2025;
- 100% material from renewable or recyclables by 2030;
- 100% of the top nine materials will originate from regenerative, renewable, or recycled sources by 2030.
Some of the goals, and much of the strategy moving forward, are intended to address a recent discovery.
“We did a deep dive into data collected across our value chain and realized raw material extraction, processing, and production are half of our carbon impact,” says Jeannie Renne-Malone, VF Corporation’s vice president of Global Sustainability.
“One major way we are trying to reduce that impact is through product design to grow a circular economy where we design out waste and keep products in use longer,” Malone says.
The North Face is among VF brands actively engaged in this sustainability work. The outdoor clothing and footwear brand, which currently makes 75% of its synthetic fabrics with recycled content, has set up workshops to train its designers on circularity principals to expand on its recycling work. The idea is to offer consumers new product types and buying options, says Carol Shu, senior manager, Global Sustainability at The North Face.
In April 2021, North Face launched a strategy with several focus areas and initiatives, with a key initiative being a re-commerce business to take back, refurbish, and resell clothing.
Some of what can’t be repaired becomes scrap to make unique pieces for its REMADE collection—which may include garments like a new shirt that incorporates patches from a patterned raincoat.
“This is a great way to reuse material, but also offers a one-of-a-kind piece. Both refurbished and one-of-a-kind garments are quite popular, especially among young people who are looking for something different and who see thrifting as cool,” says Carol Shu, senior manager, Global Sustainability at The North Face.
At the corporate level, VF is working toward other new ways to shrink its environmental footprint, especially interested in regenerative, agriculture-sourced materials. Regenerative farming practices enable land to pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the ground, cutting carbon emissions, improving soil health, and ultimately helping to mitigate climate change impacts.
Among projects, VF brands Smartwool and Icebreaker, in collaboration with Allbirds, have partnered with The New Zealand Merino Company to create a regenerative wool platform. And VF brand Timberland launched a collection of boots made with leather from verified regenerative ranches.
The VF Foundation has made several monetary investments in this space, including to support the Forum for the Future: Growing our Future, a multi-stakeholder initiative to accelerate regenerative agriculture; and also backs Arizona State University’s Carbon Cowboys Project, which explores regenerative cattle ranching practices such as a grazing method to speed grass growth, boosting resilience to climate change.
Within its own operations much of the focus is around cutting Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions; while they only make up 1% of VF’s total emissions, management pays attention because they can control them, with renewables as one means to make inroads; 30% of VF’s direct operation buildings (corporate offices, distribution centers, retail stores) are powered with solar, which has been key to working toward its commitment to reduce Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 55% by 2030 (from a 2017 baseline). By the end of FY2020, VF was at a 17% reduction.
While business has grown substantially over the last couple of years, emissions have stayed relatively flat.
“As we invest more in sustainable raw materials like recycled polyester and organic cotton and, as we move into regenerative agriculture- sourced materials, we know we are trending in the right direction to continue to reduce our emissions,” Malone says.
Engaging with supply chain partners has been part of the strategy to make a bigger dent. An example is a training program VF facilitates to share environmental management best practices. Since 2018, the corporation’s supply chain sustainability team has trained 1,000-plus factory representatives on implementing energy efficiency and resource management strategies.
“Collective action” is key to making more headway, Malone says, whether through engaging its own staff; helping suppliers minimize their environmental impact at the factory level; or connecting with farmers to advance more sustainable materials sourcing.
“It’s a big achievement to work together and engage our designers, distribution center team, and other staff, as well as people across the supply chain. Through collaboration we will be able to have a ripple effect and move the needle,” she says.