News Deeply, in partnership with Sustainable Brands, has produced a series of profiles looking at how brands are tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges. The goal is to examine trends and gather insights from a new wave of corporate citizenship — in an era when the private sector is increasingly expected to play a positive role in improving our lives and societies. This is the 16th article in the series.
Motivated employees are key to the success of any sustainability program. At The North Face, that means building a workspace — and a workday — that keeps workers engaged and invested in the company’s goals and initiatives.
“Our brand and our heritage is about getting outside and having a good time,” said James Rogers, senior sustainability manager at The North Face. “We encourage that for the associates as well. We have professional athletes come and lead them on various trips. We're right on the San Francisco Bay, so at any given day at lunchtime, you'll see a lot of people running.”
“We also do things like show movies about some of these environmental issues, so that our employees are motivated to work on this stuff.”
Rogers also cited the company’s “very environmentally friendly workspace” in Alameda, California, which has lots of natural light, a gym and a cafe that serves healthy meals.
“Our office is something that's really key for us,” he said. “We have a one-megawatt solar system that provides 100 percent of the electricity needs in our office. We also have electric charging stations. When we first moved into that office, we had four electric charging stations, and none of the employees had an electric car.
“This is a perfect example of, if you build that infrastructure and encourage better behavior, it actually then happens. Because within six months, those parking spots were all full, and now we have more than 20 parking spots with electric car charging stations because so many people have bought electric or hybrid cars for our office.”
News Deeply recently spoke to Rogers about The North Face’s culture and the company’s sustainability efforts.
News Deeply: Could you give us an overview of The North Face's sustainability program and your objectives?
Rogers: The North Face was founded by a renowned conservationist, Doug Tompkins. Recently he passed away, and our goal is to continue his legacy of conservation. That's really important to us. We are a founding member of the Conservation Alliance, and more recently, we're very attuned to the necessity to protect public lands. We also look at things like climate change and how we address that.
A few years ago, we performed life-cycle assessments on three products: a pair of shoes, a jacket and a backpack. We learned that between 65 and 85 percent of our environmental impact was in our materials manufacturing stage. That’s where we've focused our efforts recently, looking into our supply chain, where we might have less of an influence, but where we know it's more important. That has guided our strategy. We know that since we outfit people to go outside, it's inherent in who we are as a business that we have to protect those outdoor places.
ND: Those are broad, ambitious objectives. How do you measure your objectives, and could you give us some examples of concrete successes?
Rogers: Currently, we're in the process of updating our overall sustainability strategy, but one area where we've seen great progress is around chemical responsibility in our supply chain. There have been issues around fluorinated chemistry in the durable water repellency we use to repel water and oil in our jackets. About two years ago, we set a goal to remove fluorinated chemistry from our apparel fabrics by 2020. We've been gauging our success in terms of moving in that direction.
Currently, we're on track to accomplish that goal, but it hasn't been without difficulties. Our teams spend a lot of time working with our suppliers to do this. We also have to invent new technologies, so we're working with our innovation team to move the needle on the technology front for these types of activities.
ND: Can you talk about concrete successes in terms of impact you may have had with suppliers or changing customer behaviors?
Rogers: We have a partnership with a program called bluesign Technologies — that's a certification in a mill. They do a full audit of a fabric mill, looking at five key areas including the effects on worker health and safety, the chemistry they're using, the emissions to the air and the emissions to the water. A facility that's gone through that certification is operating much more efficiently and has reduced its impact to the environment. We use our ability to influence our suppliers to get them to adopt a program like that.
We also ask our suppliers to go through a program created by our parent company called Chem IQ — a chemical testing program. When they send in a sample to be tested, it gives a stoplight rating. If it comes out red, we ask them to remove that chemistry from their supply chain. Again, that's where we can have influence. The great thing is once they remove it from use, they're not using that chemical for any of the other brands they're working with, so it impacts the entire industry for good.
ND: We talked a bit about sustainability being a driver of innovation. Can you give us some examples of this at The North Face?
Rogers: We’ve been working on regenerative ranching practices, and in a couple months we will have a wool beanie that uses what we call climate-beneficial wool. It's an example of a product that's part of the solution instead of being part of the problem. The ranchers in the supply chain for this product are in California, and the practices they use actually sequester carbon from the air and put it into the ground. Therefore, by buying this product and encouraging this, we're encouraging better ranching practices.
ND: You developed the Responsible Down Standard in 2014. Why is a company such as The North Face interested in animal welfare?
Rogers: The responsible down standard came about because a couple of animal welfare nonprofits found some issues in the down supply chain. They raised those issues directly with us, and we took their concerns very seriously, and in that process, developed the responsible down standard to ensure that wasn't happening in our supply chain. It was something we didn't actively know was happening. Once we did, we addressed it as quickly as possible.
We partnered with Textile Exchange and Control Union to develop the standard in a way that other brands could adopt it. Once it was created, we gifted it to Textile Exchange, and now they own that standard. The last that I heard, over 80 different brands have adopted it.
ND: When you talk about creating this virtuous cycle between product and purpose, what best-practice advice would you offer other companies in your space to help them improve their cycle?
Rogers: We’ve learned that sometimes you have to start small and get people excited about something. An example of that is our backyard hoodie. Originally, we challenged ourselves to create a garment within a 150-mile radius of our office. We were not able to do that because some of the infrastructure simply didn't exist in California. We had cotton that was grown in California, but it had to be carted and spun in the Carolinas and then sent back here to be cut and sewn. It was a learning process. It was a smaller program, but it got everybody really excited about what we were doing.
The second time we created a new version of that program, it was 15 times more units, so we were able to make it more accessible to our consumers, and we were able to bring the price down by about 30 percent. It's okay to start small and then see if you can scale things.