Adam Mott, director of sustainability at The North Face

Adam Mott, director of sustainability at The North Face

Outdoor wear behemoth The North Face has secured its position as a leader in the field since its inception 50 years ago. While "ahead of the game" on sustainability, the US2$bn brand is also just "scratching the surface," according to Adam Mott, the group's director of sustainability. Here he tells just-style how the company is re-evaluating and rethinking everything it does based on what's right for the worker, the environment, and the consumer.

One of the next steps in The North Face's goal of creating responsible products comes at the end of the supply chain. Indeed, Mott tells just-style a main aim for the year ahead is to try to close the loop on clothing and footwear production and create a "continuous cycle of products" that will ultimately prevent unwanted items from going to landfill.

Last month the company said it had set its sights on recycling more than 100,000 lbs of apparel and footwear in 2015, after announcing plans to expand its 'Clothes The Loop' programme to all of its stores in the US in a bid to reuse items or revert them to basic materials used for new product manufacturing.

Since piloting the programme in ten stores in 2013, The North Face has recycled some 7.3 tons of apparel and footwear, and now wants to aggressively scale that number by expanding it to all 83 of its retail and outlet stores in the US.

"It's simple step in reducing [our] overall impact," Mott says, and is based on an estimated 5lbs of collections at each store every day through to the end of the year.

Textile recycling has a major impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water usage, he explains, noting that if 300m US consumers recycle just one T-shirt, up to 210bn gallons of water and 1m lbs of carbon dioxide would be saved in the process.

Importantly, The North Face is trying to create an infrastructure where it is able to start making products that can ultimately be turned into new products. "We don't have the solution, but we're very mindful of it in trying to work within those boundaries," Mott explains.

Integrating sustainability into design
Another sea change has seen VF Corp's largest brand build start to build sustainability into its products from the start of the process.

"We've been around for almost 50 years and we've been doing it the same way for 47 of those," Mott says. Through lifecycle assessments of its apparel and footwear, the company has found that most environmental impact comes from materials processing and product manufacturing - which is where its focus now lies.

While making great strides in areas such as chemical responsibility at the fabric mill level, new technologies to reduce water in dyeing, as well as sourcing eco-preferred cotton and polyester - including plans to push the Denali jacket programme, which uses recycled polyester and is one of the brand's best selling ranges, into other materials and products - the company has also realised over the last couple of years that it needs to take sustainability a step further up into a process.

"We work a lot now with our design team, so rather than letting it get to a materials level where we say we've got this product idea in mind and here's the general material, now let's choose a smarter one, we're trying to incorporate sustainability into the design process so it's a filter from conception," he notes.

The innovation team, too, is encouraged to make sure every new innovation is "looked at through a sustainability lens". But Mott stresses it's not about undoing what's been done before, but re-evaluating and rethinking what the brand does based on what's right for the worker, the environment, and the consumer.

Collaboration key to success
As well as integrating sustainability into the design process, another solution is collaboration. With a global sourcing base, the outdoor wear brand works directly with a lot of its two-tier fabric suppliers, which is "relatively unique" in the apparel industry, according to Mott. It also has a direct relationship with its tier one garment manufacturers throughout Southeast Asia, China, Central America and the US.

When a company starts to work with partners that are experts in specific areas of product development or design, Mott says, "you start to realise that you need to nurture those relationships and let them become partnerships rather than vendor-client relationships to be successful".

With that in mind, The North Face is looking at how its products are made from a supply chain perspective. "It's not just signing a contract to say make it this way; it's 'let's work together to find a solution that's more environmentally responsible'," he explains.

For suppliers, the message is that "if you want to be a partner of The North Face, you need to join us on this journey to make things more responsibly".

And it's not just collaboration with its suppliers. The company believes there is an opportunity to make sustainable initiatives, such as the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), open source so they benefit the environment as a whole rather than just one brand.

Officially launched in January last year, the RDS was developed as part of a joint effort by The North Face, Textile Exchange and Control Union Certifications, to evaluate and trace the original source of down used in any down-based product. In its first year, the brand completed more than 350 audits, and the standard now covers around 100m geese from various farms, with more than 20 brands committed to it.

"Pretty soon, hopefully everybody will be asking for it, and it'll just be the way you raise animals and the way you track material through the supply chain," Mott says.

The idea of open source initiatives such as the RDS has, according to Mott, "triggered the same mindset" in other activities "where we don't necessarily want sustainability to be a competitive advantage".

He also stresses that sustainability should not shape products in a way that would make them deficient. "It has to meet the price demands of the consumers, the aesthetics, the performance."

Another new challenge is making it work seamlessly across the whole supply chain.

"The exciting opportunity, and it's the holy grail for us in sustainability, is when a more responsible practice or material, or whatever it might be, actually enhances the performance or the aesthetic of a product. That's what we're really excited about for the future."

"Scratching the surface"
Not surprisingly, The North Face would rather be "ahead of the game" when it comes to sustainability, although Mott also believes the textile and clothing industry is "just scratching the surface" on the issue. "We have to treat it the same way we treat the performance of our products - if we're going to be an innovator and a leader in performance and technology, we should be the same in sustainability."

Although "there is so much more to do", the opportunities are also exciting, especially since the next generation of consumers is inevitably going to demand more. "There's a lot more we can do around transparency, around sourcing responsible materials, how we make our products, who makes them."