The North Face has long been a household name in responsible and durable outdoor wear that appeals to the masses – from urban winter wear to hardcore extreme sports gear – with an impressive commitment to cruelty-free design for which it won the PETA award last year. The brand keeps going from strength to strength in terms of sustainable initiatives and has incorporated green design, local production and ethically-sourced materials into many elements of its work. Its focus on apparel has now been joined by bedding: as pioneers of the the Responsible Down Standard, the brand is committed to the humane treatment of animals in textile production. Ecouterre enjoyed a compelling interview with Director of Sustainability Adam Mott, who dished the dirt on the potential and challenges for local production, collaborations with environmental non-profits, and the impact of its Clothes the Loop project.
Creating the hyper-local “Backyard Hoodie” couldn’t have been easy. What challenges did you face?
We asked ourselves what would happen if we challenged ourselves to source and produce an entire product from seed to final garment within 150 miles of our headquarters in Alameda, Calif. and to inspire a pattern that is not only uniquely modern but effectively designs waste out of the apparel manufacturing process.
What started as a hoodie inspired by a conversation with Fibershed turned into the potential for The North Face to connect back to our roots and strive to make a local, high-quality, beautiful, and unique product.
We were able to source all of the cotton in the Backyard Hoodie from within 150 miles of The North Face headquarters, but during the process of designing it, we discovered cotton spinning and knitting had all but disappeared in California.
Because of this, we had to send the cotton to the Carolinas to be spun, knit, and dyed. Other small trim pieces also had to be sourced from outside of our 150-mile radius due to lack of availability.
Our hope is that through collaborative projects like the Backyard Hoodie, local growers and makers can reinvigorate the local textile production infrastructure.
While we could not truly meet our 150-mile radius start-to-finish production hopes, the result is still something worth celebrating. By using regionally grown cotton and natural dyes, and through tapping local knowledge of the land, the project helped create a positive impact on our environment and community.
How did the Responsible Down Standard come about?
Natural down, one of the lightest, warmest materials used in apparel, bedding, and home goods, is a byproduct of the waterfowl meat industry.
Animal welfare groups have raised awareness about the potential unethical treatment of some of the geese and ducks from which down is sourced. The primary concerns are force-feeding for the production of foie gras and live-plucking, rather than plucking after the animal is slaughtered for its meat.
As a large user of down supply, The North Face recognized the need to lead change in the feather and down industry. We decided that we needed to ensure animals in the down supply chain are being ethically treated and be able to validate this through a traceability system.
The standard can be applied to any waterfowl-based supply chain to help ensure the humane treatment of animals and establish traceability from hatchling to final product.
Upon completing the development of the standard, The North Face gifted the RDS to Textile Exchange to administer and evolve the standard as needed with the hope of encouraging more brands and down suppliers to adopt it.
The goal from the beginning has been to create a scalable tool that can impact the entire down and feather industry, not just outdoor apparel. Through the collective implementation of the RDS, the industry will see improved animal-welfare conditions, better traceability and critical accountability in the down supply chain at a much larger scale than The North Face could accomplish alone.
The RDS is now being implemented with more than 350 farms that are raising more than 100 million birds. As of January 2015, companies including the Adidas Group, Black Diamond, Kathmandu in New Zealand, Nau, REI, and Timberland have been added to the growing roster of global brands committed to the standard, which already includes H&M, Eddie Bauer, Marmot, Helly Hansen, and other leading international fashion, bedding, and outdoor brands.
As the pioneer of the movement, The North Face has committed to using 100 percent certified and responsibly sourced down across all product lines by 2017.
Starting with our Fall 2015 product line, The North Face set a goal of sourcing 30 percent of our total down as RDS-certified. This gradual yet aggressive adoption of responsible down by The North Face makes available an adequate supply of RDS down to other brands to begin incorporating into their supply chains.
As more companies commit to RDS, we hope the forces of supply and demand will push RDS certified down as the new normal for the industry: helping protect countless geese and ducks from unnecessary harm.
How is the initiative working beyond the apparel industry?
The ultimate goal of the RDS has always been to drive change at a larger scale; the opportunity to change the down industry doesn’t stop with just apparel.
The bedding, home goods,and hospitality industries are the biggest users of down in the world.
One of the great things about the RDS is that it is open to any organization and can be applied to any waterfowl-based supply chain, which means companies from beyond the apparel industry can also implement the standard.
More than 20 brands from across fashion, outdoor, sports and bedding have already publicly committed to the RDS. Textile Exchange is working hard to help scale the impact of the RDS by bringing more companies on board with a key focus on the bedding and hospitality industries.
As an open, third-party, scalable certification, the RDS opens opportunity to make changes that improve animal welfare not just in apparel manufacturing, but also for other industries, as well.
How does the North Face plan to reduce water, energy, and chemical use?
Since 2008, The North Face has partnered with Bluesign to address environmental impacts in our supply chain.
Bluesign is a rigorous certification system that focuses on chemical selection and management, resource efficiency, emissions, and worker safety at textile mills.
Through 2014, The North Face has over 38 percent of our fabrics Bluesign-approved. Since 2010, this partnership has accounted for saving the equivalent to 150 tanker trucks of chemicals, over 330 Olympic swimming pools of water, and the equivalent emissions of 4,500 cars off the road.
With the Clean by Design partnership with NRDC, initiated by our parent company, VF Corp, we are seeing excellent results.
We were able to reduce energy use by over 20 percent with some of our key suppliers. We have since taken these learnings and are applying them to other suppliers in Asia which are naturally The North Face suppliers.
NRDC is an extremely valuable partner—it goes beyond just identifying problems by taking the time to understand issues and then collaborating with industry to create solutions and drive change.
What other sustainability initiatives does The North Face have in the pipeline?
We’re focused on improving the environmental impact of our products through design and manufacturing.
We incorporate innovative and eco-preferred materials and manufacturing processes into The North Face products wherever we can. We also take responsibility for our products’ end-of-life through a long-standing commitment to durability through our lifetime warranty and our “Clothes the Loop” take-back program.
In 2012, 70 pounds of textiles per person went to landfills in the United States alone. Clothes the Loop, allows consumers to drop off apparel or footwear from any brand in any condition at more than 27 The North Face retail stores across the U.S.
We then send these items to a recycling center where they are carefully sorted based on over 400 categories. They are then repurposed, reused, or recycled into materials for use in products like insulation, carpet padding, stuffing for toys, and fibers for new clothing.
This results in less use of new, raw materials and keeps items out of landfills. Keep an eye out for additional news on this program in the coming month.