Featured in MiND’s latest edition of ‘Get Back to Nature’, is none other than The North Face – the very brand that inspired our outdoor project and equally, fueled the world to explore and ignite a love for adventure.
Since its original founding in 1966, The North Face has been the first choice for consumers in need of athletic apparel, equipment or footwear performance. They offer an unlimited supply of merchandise to suit your adventure needs and surpass yourself in exploration, living up to their company mantra, “Never Stop Exploring”.
The North Face is a brand that pushes the boundaries of innovation as for them, it’s about creating something to improve the industry as a whole, but with that comes, responsibility and a need for action. In our exclusive interview with James Rogers, Senior Sustainability Manager at The North Face, he reveals why the environment has always been a passion for the brand and how they are going to continue helping citizens in exploring the planet and unravel its beauty.
What does it mean to be ethical?
James Rogers: To be an ethical brand means to consider the welfare of people and the planet alongside profit. It also means to have a well-defined set of principles that guides your everyday business decisions, and sticking to them… no matter what.
What started your interest in eco design and sustainability?
James Rogers: In 1966, Doug Tompkins co-founded The North Face to better prepare both those taking their “first halting steps” toward the unknown of the outdoors and those seeking best in class equipment. We have been committed to protecting and conserving outdoor spaces from day one. Decades later, through our CSR initiatives, we remain devoted to the people and places we serve – our true north – which we see as our highest level of environmental and social duty. This includes designing and producing our products in the most responsible way possible.
We believe exploration creates an indelible bond with the outdoors, inspiring people to protect our land and pass these beliefs down to the next generation. To ensure that we continue to have places to explore, we believe it is our fundamental responsibility to preserve the outdoors. We do this by investing in conservation to make our products and processes more sustainable, and advancing social and environmental causes. We fund and partner with hundreds of organizations to motivate explorers to become stewards of our natural world. We also need the help of the rising generation. If a child falls in love with the outdoors today, nature has gained a guardian for decades.
How have you introduced ethical procedures into your business? Via the physical store, charity sponsorships, production and/or material.
James Rogers: We have done this on a variety of levels in sourcing and manufacturing as well as in retail environments. We focus on three key areas including manufacturing, chemical responsibility and animal welfare.
In terms of manufacturing, we performed a life cyle assessment and found that between 65 and 85 percent of the environmental impact occurs at the manufacturing level; therefore, we concentrate those efforts because we know this can have the greatest impact on improving high volume products and materials. For example, The North Face Denali fleece has been made of 100% post-consumer plastic bottles since 2014.
We also have a very robust chemical responsibility program in our supply chain. Through partnership with our parent company, VF Corp, we use the ChemIQ screening program to identify and eliminate potentially harmful chemicals before they enter the manufacturing process. In addition, we work with the industry-leading experts at bluesign technologies to help our mills reduce their impact by using water and energy more efficiently and by addressing harmful chemicals used on fabrics. The bluesign® system provides a sophisticated, independent approach to reducing supply chain impacts in five key areas: resource productivity; air emissions; worker health and safety; water emissions; and consumer safety.
Another example, after nearly two years in development, in 2014 we announced that our global Responsible Down Standard (RDS) was complete. Thanks to our partners in this process, which included Control Union Certification, an accredited third-party certification body, and Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit dedicated to sustainability in the apparel and textile industry, we created an industry standard that is now in all down products.
Working closely with both organizations, we developed standards that outline a process to effectively certify the source of down, ensuring it does not come from animals that have been subject to any unnecessary harm, such as force-feeding or live-plucking. It also provides a traceability system to validate the original source of down used in The North Face products, essentially following the product from ‘gosling to jacket’.
What are your future targets in terms ethical responsibility? What do you hope to gain by going ECO?
James Rogers: Most recently, we hit our goal of 100% Responsible Down Standard (RDS) Certified down one year early. As mentioned, RDS ensures that inhumane practices such as force-feeding and live-plucking are absent from, or addressed, in the supply chain, and provides strict requirements on key issues such as food and water quality, housing, stock density, outdoor access, animal health, hygiene and pest and predator control, among others, supported with traceability from hatchling to final product. It aims to encourage best practices in animal welfare and enable consumers to make informed choices based on accurate labeling. The North Face initiated and funded the standard, ultimately gifting it to the global non-profit organization Textile Exchange and accredited third-party certification body Control Union Certifications.
In terms of what we hope to gain I’d say that, across all initiatives at The North Face that you might refer to as eco, we don’t believe this means you have to sacrifice the value of the business – we always look to offer new and innovative products that have a lighter impact on the environment. We are proud of our achievements to-date and we look forward to sharing more updates later this year.
How have you incorporated your brand identity within your products? Do you feel like you are sacrificing anything to remain ethical?
James Rogers: The North Face strives to create premium products that push the limits of technical capability while preparing athletes for the rigors of the world’s harshest climates. When it comes to creating sustainable products with mindful design, technical performance will always be a priority.
Did changing towards a more ethical business nature prove challenging? How did you overcome these obstacles?
James Rogers: The North Face was built on a love for the outdoors and the desire to protect the places where we play is part of our DNA. There will always be challenges when making a transition and our Backyard Project Hoodie is a great example. In 2014, we set out to design and craft a unique collection within a 150-mile radius of our San Francisco Bay Area Headquarters. We were not able to accomplish this goal – some of the production processes had to occur in the Carolinas because the infrastructure was not available in California. While we didn’t meet our 150-mile goal, we did successfully collaborate with local farmers, producers and craftsmen to create something truly worth celebrating.
With the ethical nature in business becoming increasingly more popular, how else do you remain competitive in a rivalled industry / make yourself stand out?
James Rogers: The North Face creates products for its consumers across all aspects of their lives – from their time on the mountain to their time around the campfire and beyond. From our infancy as a single store front through today, we’ve kept our mission in mind – get outside and never stop exploring. This mission, along with technical innovation, we’ve articulated our value to consumers. Whether through gear, expeditions, or access, we have – together – enabled generations of explorers to connect with the outdoors. The passion for exploring, dedication to preservation and commitment to technical gear that our leaders poured into a small thriving business remains the bedrock of our company’s culture today.
At what moment did you realize/feel like your business was really making an impact? Do you feel like your implementations to go ethical are making a difference?
James Rogers: Again, the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) comes to mind as it has made a shift in the industry and beyond when non-outdoors companies signed on to also only use responsibly sourced down. It’s truly making an impact in the feather and down industry.
We’ve taken this approach to other areas such as homegrown apparel with our Backyard Collections, and Textile Exchange has gone on to begin developing similar standards for wool.
The Backyard Hoodie began as an experiment in 2013 when we connected with Fibershed – an organization that supports local textile production in California. As previously mentioned, we asked ourselves what would happen if we challenged our designers to use fibers grown within 150 miles of our headquarters in Alameda, California to design a product that is not only uniquely modern but effectively eliminates waste from the apparel manufacturing process. What started as a hoodie inspired by Fibershed’s innovative business model concept, has turned into the potential for The North Face to connect back to our roots and explore making responsible, high quality, beautiful, and unique products.