To enjoy much of the outdoors, one needs the proper clothing and equipment, but those very products have their own environmental impact — from petroleum-based polyester to the shipping required to move products from factories to stores. To that end, The North Face says it is making headway on its sustainability goals, according to its most recent corporate responsibility report.
The North Face is keeping up with outdoor gear companies such as its fellow VF Corp. brand, Timberland, and Patagonia in ensuring the messages it sends to its customers are reflected in how company operations perform.
So, following on its previous report, in which the company committed to more sustainable fabric and renewable energy, what exactly has The North Face accomplished and what are its future goals?
Clean energy is a large facet of The North Face’s commitment to reduce its environmental impact. Its new American headquarters in Alameda, California, which opened last year, generates more than enough electricity for the building’s requirements. The LEED Platinum-certified building also uses an evaporating cooling system that nixes any use of emissions-heavy coolants. Other regional headquarters and distribution centers also incorporate solar or water-saving features — and while leasing stores in malls limit the green building features a company can install, The North Face claims it will adopt as many LEED-Commercial features as possible. Those retrofits have helped the company continue its incremental drop in greenhouse gas emissions the past few years. While those efforts fell short of the 2013 target, The North Face is correct in focusing where most of a company’s impacts occur: within manufacturing.
And in manufacturing, the company is also making progress. It has a goal to use polyester from 100 percent recycled content by 2016. Considering the effects that will have throughout its supply chain, and that polyester comprises 80 percent of its total clothing line, two years is not much time. But the company is on its way with some of its popular Denali jackets, which use the equivalent of 51 plastic bottles. But the company is not just about recycling or using more sustainable and ethical materials. In an era where fast fashion has become the exasperating norm, the company’s lifetime warranty on its apparel and outdoors gear has led to more than 80,000 products being repaired and returned to customers annually; the rest are donated or downcycled.
Far too many clothes end up in landfill, the result of cheap manufacturing and the lack of systems to churn textiles into something other than garbage. But companies including The North Face are taking leadership on this enormous challenge. It’s an uphill fight, considering consumers’ preferences for quantity over the quality of clothes, but it is a fight other clothing companies, in the name of “responsibility,” are wise to follow.