In spite of its abrupt CEO departure on December 9, and its resulting lowered outlook for full-year 2022 revenue, apparel company VF Corp is not pulling back on its sustainability efforts. Staying values-driven, competitive and relevant is becoming ever more important for its brands as Gen Z becomes the dominant shopping demographic. VF Corp owns Timberland, The North Face, Supreme and Vans.
The company released its sustainability report, Made for Change, in November, and has used this year to move away from linear production and closer to circularity. Going beyond marketing and avoiding greenwashing, its focus is on operations. To fund its sustainability initiatives, the group closed a €500 million green bond in 2020. The fund supports initiatives like material sourcing, with the group aiming to source 100% of its nine most-used materials from regenerative, responsible, recycled or renewable sources by 2030. The company is addressing circularity across different parts of its business to make sure that all brands are are doing the most to accelerate the shift.
Material development and regenerative agriculture
For now, material development in the industry is still in a testing stage, but it’s a crucial element in transitioning to a circular business model. In 2021, 79% of cotton purchased by VF was grown in the U.S., in Australia, or by a third-party cotton growing company promoting environmental or social sustainability improvements. More than a third (36%) of the company’s polyester now originates from recycled materials.
Regenerative agriculture allows for a re-use of land when growing materials, contributing to circularity. In collaboration with its brands, VF has launched multiple regenerative agriculture pilots across the globe. They are focused on several key materials used in its products, including wool, cotton, leather, natural rubber and sugarcane. Because VF has an extensive shared supply chain across its brands, it is able to wield more influence with suppliers and encourage them to shift to circularity and regenerative practices.
VF is also focusing on supply chain traceability to better understand challenges that may come up in the transition to circularity and insulate the brands against shortages. This year, the company published a traceability map for 100 of the brands’ most well-known products, and it’s working toward the capability of tracing five of VF’s key materials through 100% of its supply chain by 2028. “By using our insights from our traceability program, we can better identify where we can make a positive impact and focus our efforts,” said Jeannie Renne-Malone, vp of global sustainability at the VF Corporation.
In addition, the company has worked since 2016 to reduce the number of non-preferred chemicals in its supply chain. This issue was recently raised in the broader industry when fashion brand Shein was found to have twice the regulated EU limit of chemicals in its clothes. There is still a lack of chemical use regulation in the industry.
Francois Souchet, global head of sustainability and impact at PR agency BPCM, said, “VF Corp stands out as a leader in the fashion industry, from a sustainability standpoint. However, to fully meet the ambitions of the Paris Agreement, more will be needed from the company, especially to reduce scope 3 emissions and to progress toward further decoupling of revenues from new product manufacturing.”
Communicating circularity to the customer
Among VF Corp’s biggest challenges has been communication with the customer around sustainability and circularity, and explaining scientific concepts in an easy way. “It’s incumbent upon us, as brands, to find a way to make sustainability relatable for customers, in their language,” said Susie Mulder, global brand president at Timberland. “That’s the unlock: when you can present the problem in a clear, simple and maybe even entertaining manner, and then invite your consumers to join you and be part of the solution.”
For example, its Vans VR3 products are clearly labeled with the Vans checkerboard and VR3 details, granting consumers a clear understanding of the steps the brand is taking to minimize its overall footprint. Vans VR3 is a collection in which 30% of the product is renewable, recycled or regenerative. The brands across VF also don’t crowd their social media with information on sustainability, preferring to provide outlines on their brand websites. Annual sustainability reports are available on the VF site.
Circularity launches in 2022
This year, VF Corp also created two initiatives focused on circularity: Vans unveiled the new VR3 product line. It also launched a labeling system called the Sustainability Hub that will be rolled out more widely in coming years. The latter signifies to consumers that one or a combination of regenerative, responsibly sourced renewable and/or recycled materials make up at least 30% of the product.
For its part, in January 2022, Timberland launched Timberloop, a takeback program and corresponding resale website launched in the US. Products returned are refurbished and put for sale on a dedicated website. Items that are beyond repair are disassembled so that usable components can be recycled into new materials.
“Circularity is a crucial component of our environmental sustainability strategy,” said Renne-Malone. “It requires an enterprise-wide approach that impacts how products are designed, what materials are used, how materials are processed, how products are manufactured and assembled, and how products are managed at the end of their life cycle.”
Implementing circularity across the business
To ensure circular strategy success, designers across the company’s portfolio of brands have been trained in circular design. What’s more, the company is minimizing virgin, non-renewable and fossil-based inputs, as well as reusing materials and products for as long as possible, and reducing the waste going to the landfill stream. It’s also providing technical and financial resources to suppliers, in order to identify and implement energy efficiency, renewable energy projects and wastewater improvements in its factories.
“It’s important to point out that it’s not just the sustainability team driving Timberland’s agenda,” said Mulder. “Sustainability is woven into every department at Timberland: product design, employee engagement, marketing, strategy, even finance.” The sustainability team at Timberland has a dual reporting structure into VF Sustainability and the Timberland Strategy department.
2023 circular strategies
Now, the focus is on increasing circularity and the use of better materials going into 2023. “2023 will be a big year for Vans as we look to expand our VR3 product collection to multiple footwear and apparel categories, including Vans Classics,” said Alyse Russel, senior manager of sustainability at Vans. “We will also start incorporating regeneratively grown materials, starting with regenerative rubber. And we’re identifying key recycling partners who will help us reach our 2030 goal of creating and scaling circular product.”
For Timberland, the focus will be on extending its current circularity efforts and replacing materials. “Beyond enabling circular design, we will continue increasing the use of regenerative natural materials in 2023, ultimately aiming to not only minimize waste and impact, but actually restore the land we all rely upon,” said Mulder. “It’s a lofty vision, but one we have in mind with every product we make.”
To drive home the importance of circularity among customers “VF should provide more quantified benefits on the adoption of regenerative materials, compared with conventional, and more information on progress in their adoption,” said Souchet. “This could be complemented by testing and potentially adopting innovative man-made alternatives for leather or protein fibers.”