New tools drive sustainable design.
We strive to provide our product design, development, materials and sourcing teams with cutting-edge tools to allow them to evaluate sustainability considerations in the earliest phases of the design process before inferior choices are deeply embedded. We use our internal Product Rating Tool as well as the results of the life cycle assessment (LCA) studies we completed in 2010 to guide the design process. We are also actively participating with other outdoor and apparel peer companies to develop the Outdoor Industry Association Eco Index, an environmental assessment tool that will define sustainable products for our industry.
Life Cycle Assessments. In 2010, we conducted LCA studies in our outerwear, equipment and footwear categories to better understand the environmental hot spots that present the best opportunities for improvement. This holistic process evaluates the effects a product has on multiple environmental endpoints throughout its life cycle from material production all the way through end-of-life. The examination of our Surge backpack, Plasma Thermal jacket, and Hedgehog shoe confirmed that our biggest environmental impacts occur in the materials production and manufacturing stages of the product life cycle. This validated our strategy of working with bluesign technologies in our supply chain.
Global Warming Potential Impacts for Surge Backpack
Focusing on issues regarding water, energy use and global warming potential, the LCA studies identified six key strategies for achieving the greatest sustainability improvements in our products:
- Decrease product material.
- Select lower impact materials.
- Reduce impacts of dyeing.
- Improve performance of Tier 1 Suppliers.
- Improve retail resource efficiency.
- Minimize washing and drying requirements during consumer use.
All material choices come with trade-offs. Organic cotton can be water-intensive, readily available bamboo requires a chemically-intensive process to turn it into usable fibers, and using merino wool raises questions about animal welfare. To help our designers make informed choices, we are developing an interactive “Sustainable Materials Landscape” tool for all VF brands to use. It will provide the environmental profile for a wide range of materials used in our industry. Work began in 2010 and will be completed in 2011.
Internal Product Rating Tool and TNF Sustainability Goals
In 2009, we developed our internal Product Rating Tool with binary metrics for bluesign® approved, recycled and organic content. Every product style gets a “yes” or “no” based on whether it meets the thresholds established for each parameter. No credit is given for recycled content, for example, until a 50% threshold is reached. Our Action Sports Product team recently designed cycling shorts with only 49% recycled content — then worked to redesign them until they achieved the 50% threshold. We set the bar for these metrics higher each season.
“This tool has been a crucial catalyst in fostering sustainable material development. With every product team responsible for hitting progressive goals each season, the tool encourages collaboration on challenging issues and potential opportunities. When teams have difficulty meeting goals, they engage other associates, partners and vendors on sustainability issues around materials and sourcing to develop solutions.”
— Corporate Sustainability Manager Adam Mott
In the following video, Philip Hamilton, VP of Global Product, discusses our internal product rating tool in the context of our overall efforts to address product environmental impacts.
“Until this point it has been ‘my sustainable is more sustainable than your sustainable.’ This is not a win-win scenario. It should be about conservation and the environment. It should be about deeply rooted corporate responsibility not market positioning. Once we have a robust set of brand and corporate standards in place, it will drive the whole industry forward.”
— Philip Hamilton, VP of Global Product
Outdoor Industry Association Eco Index
No company alone can create groundbreaking change across the industry’s supply chain. That's why we joined with over 200 companies globally to advance sustainability in the outdoor industry by collaborating to develop the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) Eco Index. This pioneering environmental assessment tool provides companies with a way to measure and benchmark their products’ environmental footprints and identify areas for improvement. The tool informs product design and sourcing decisions addressing the entire length of the supply chain. The framework is broken into product life cycle phases and covers seven critical impact areas: water, waste, biodiversity, energy use/greenhouse gas emissions, land use intensity, and chemistry/toxicity regarding both people and the environment.
The Eco Index was spearheaded by the OIA Eco Working Group and the European Outdoor Group (EOG) Sustainability Working Group, which TNF EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) chaired from its inception in 2008 until spring, 2011. The non-profit organization Zero Waste Alliance was also a valuable partner.
The North Face piloted the beta version of the Eco Index in 2010 for three different products (Men’s Paramount Peak Pants, Men’s Short Sleeve Easy Tee, and 100 Glacier 1/4 Zip). Our designers found the framework and content to be robust and helpful in focusing attention on opportunities for improvement they had not considered before.
The Eco Index has caught the eye of others in the apparel industry outside of the outdoor sector and was recently combined with Nike’s Material Assessment Tool to create a comprehensive product sustainability evaluation tool for the apparel industry under the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). VF joined the SAC in mid-2010, piloting a number of programs across its brands in 2011 to test the SAC’s version of the upgraded tool.