The North Face sustainability manager James Rogers

The North Face sustainability manager James Rogers

With pressure mounting on the outdoor apparel industry to eliminate hazardous chemicals from products and production processes, The North Face is using tools developed by parent company VF Corp to help it work towards its goals. And for sustainability manager James Rogers, the key to reducing overall chemical use is to take a holistic view of the entire supply chain.

As the largest brand in VF Corp's outdoor and action sports group – and one of the biggest in the industry – The North Face has both the scale and influence to drive change, not only in its own business, but across the sector as a whole.

And for sustainability manager James Rogers, the key to reducing overall chemical use is to take a holistic view of the entire supply chain, moving beyond simply specifying the fabric for a particular garment, but partnering directly with fabric mills and chemical companies as it evaluates different alternatives.

"We look at chemistry in our supply chain from a holistic standpoint and not just trying to concentrate on one specific issue," he tells just-style.

Like many others, the US$2bn brand is working towards removing perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) from its Durable Water Repellency (DWR) treatments for apparel by 2020, "and we're heads-down concentrating on making that transition happen, and happen in a responsible manner," he explains.

In particular, care is being taken "to make sure we're moving towards more responsible chemistry," rather than "regrettable substitutions," or unintentionally swapping out one problem for another.

"There's a lot of focus in the industry on moving away from PFCs, but there hasn't been a lot of research on what the new chemistry is, and we don't want to move to a substitute chemistry which is potentially just as harmful." 

Chemical screening tools

Among the tools at its disposal to help achieve this goal is the Chem-IQ chemical testing programme, which was launched by VF Corp's responsible sourcing team two years ago to identify and eliminate potentially harmful chemicals before they enter the manufacturing process.

"We take a sample of an individual chemical and we test it for 430 chemicals," Rogers explains. It's then given a stoplight rating. Green is the best available chemistry and good to go; yellow is acceptable to use now but maybe not in the future; orange is acceptable given specific handling requirements; and red is considered non-preferred chemistry that needs to be phased out.

The system is currently being rolled out across VF's entire supply chain, with the process repeatedly screening and, if necessary, replacing chemicals to achieve continuous improvement. Not only is it scalable, but for factories tasked with buying and mixing the approved chemicals yet not necessarily knowledgeable about the chemical substances they are purchasing, it helps simplify the day-to-day chemical management process.

"We at The North Face have partnered with the Chem-IQ team to use this screening tool to ensure that as we work with our mills and they start working with the new chemical suppliers of non-fluorinated DWR, we [can make sure we] are moving towards more responsible chemistry."

The brand also works closely with Bluesign Technologies, which audits textile mills with a view to reducing supply chain impacts in five key areas – resource productivity, air emissions, worker health and safety, water emissions, and consumer safety – as well as recommending alternatives to harmful chemicals or processes.

Its 'Bluesign Bluefinder' chemical database lists around 5,600 approved chemicals, while the BlueXpert tool helps mills cut water, energy and chemicals consumption during their wet processing operations.

Partnering directly with the mills and the chemical suppliers as it evaluates different chemicals is another way of trying to avoid mistakes of the past.

The transition from long-chain PFCs (C8) to less harmful short-chain (C6) chemistry "did create some technical issues in the manufacturing process and the application process, so we're trying to avoid those upfront.

"We also had heard about some suppliers in the industry using more of the chemistry because they were worried that there was less efficacy, and that negates the moving away from chemistry if you're just going to use more.

"So if there's any production issues we're making sure that the chemical supplier has an available person or team that can go on site and work through any of those production issues before it gets too late in our seasonal calendar."

Non-fluorinated DWR targets

The North Face has set a target for 30% of its newly-developed DWR treated apparel materials for spring 2017 to be non-fluorinated, "and right now it looks like we're on track to hit that," he adds.

Progress might be slow, but as Rogers explains, "there's no silver bullet. You can't just flip the switch and swap out your entire line tomorrow for a chemistry that has all of the same performance characteristics and significantly lower environmental impact. If that were the case then everyone in the industry would have done it."

Instead, most non-fluorinated alternatives currently involve some kind of compromise, be it reduced performance, undesirable effects on colour or fabric properties, or changes in the application process.

"You have to adjust for that from individual fabric to individual fabric, so you can't just figure it out once and replicate that across your entire supply chain. And each type of fabric has to be evaluated individually; that's what makes it really hard to scale this process."

While the brand released a jacket last year with a new construction that did away with the need for DWR chemistry by putting the laminate on the outside, such options "are not at the stage where they can be scaled away.

"I think for now the current option is replacing the chemistry itself. But we are looking at whether there are different ways of creating the same type of garment that has the same effect and has the same performance benefits for the end consumer.

"We won't sacrifice our technical ability or high level of performance as we go through this transition."

Rogers also explains that while it's "obviously something we want to do and we think it's the right thing to do, we have to make sure we're doing it in a way that's feasible as a business."

He also believes the industry has a "huge" role to play in driving responsible chemistry programmes. "We really are the ones driving the partnership between the chemical suppliers in the supply chain and the mills."

Part of this is undoubtedly to do with the outdoor industry's desire to protect the environment where users spend so much of their time. "We make products so people can go outside and enjoy the outdoors, so it's inherent in our DNA to protect our outdoor playground."

He adds: "I definitely feel that the entire outdoor industry wants to move in this direction, and I think we're all working towards the same goal. I can see it and feel it when I meet my counterparts at other brands that we're all working together with the same goal in mind."

What next for The North Face?

As for what's next on The North Face's agenda, "flame retardant chemistry is an issue that still needs to be tackled by the industry. Right now in the US there are seven states whose flame retardant standards were originally made for large canvas tents that have a very different type of construction than outdoor backpacking tents, so that's something we want to address."

As is moving towards a more circular economy. Last year the company expanded its 'Clothes The Loop' programme to all of its stores in the US, enabling customers to return clothing and footwear which is then re-used or recycled and kept out of landfill. And this year it is expanding the initiative to stores in Germany and Canada.

"Recycled content is also something that's important to us and also ties in to the circular economy and making sure we're not just using inputs from fossil fuels going in to our products," Rogers adds.

But there's still work to do on the Chem-IQ front too.

Between one-third to one-half of The North Face fabric suppliers have been involved in the programme at this point, and "we're looking holistically at how our relationship with Bluesign and Chem-IQ can complement each other, and if we can set public goals around the combined programme with the two organisations."

There's no doubt their efforts have already yielded impressive results. Thanks to the Chem-IQ programme, 230 tons of non-preferred chemicals are being phased out of the brand's supply chain, while the equivalent of 212 tanker trucks of chemicals and 470 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water have been removed through the Bluesign system.

Rogers also believes The North Face's scale and influence is helping move the entire industry towards more responsible chemistry and environmental savings.

"When we do a screening at a fabric mill and they remove that chemistry, they have to remove it completely; they can't just compartmentalise it and use it for other brands. So all the brands that work with that supplier are benefiting from those improvements."

The same goes for implementation of Bluesign. "If we have enough volume that we can work with and influence our mills to do a full Bluesign screening and become a Bluesign system partner, any other brand that's working with that mill is also benefiting.

"So we believe our efforts do have a lasting and notable industry effect in the right direction."