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Walking the Talk
VF Corp Shows How Science-Based Targets Can Help Measure True Progress on Sustainability

Setting climate targets is one thing, but achieving them has often proven a challenge. According to VF Corp’s VP of Global Sustainability, Jeannie Renne-Malone, part of the reason for the company’s success was due to making sustainability a company-wide effort rather than a niche project.

In a little less than two years, VF Corporation has used science-based targets (SBTs) to make significant, meaningful — and most importantly, measurable — progress on a set of goals aimed at making the company more circular, impactful and sustainable.

The company — which includes many well-known apparel and sports brands such as The North Face, Timberland, Vans, JanSport, and Kipling, among others — released its 2021 Made for Change Sustainability and Responsibility Report last week.

“We're already making notable progress across all areas of our roadmap, which is really exciting,” says Jeannie Renne-Malone, VF Corp’s VP of Global Sustainability, told Sustainable Brands™.

VF Corp initially announced its targets in collaboration with the Science Based Targets Initiative in late 2019. Using this approach wasn’t easy, says Renne-Malone, as it represented, to many within the company, an entirely new way of thinking.

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“’Science-based targets’ is not something that rolls off everyone's tongue — it’s a complex topic for those that aren't deep in the weeds in it,” Renne-Malone says. “So, it took a lot of awareness building and education.”

At its core, SBTs enable ambitious corporate action by providing companies a clearly-defined path to reduce emissions and other environmental impacts, aimed at preventing the worst impacts of climate change.

For VF Corporation, this meant setting goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030, source 100 percent renewable energy by 2025, and eliminate all non-essential single-use plastics from its direct operations and sponsored events by 2023, among others.

Setting targets is one thing. But achieving them has often proven to be a challenge; and there are countless brands that have failed to act quickly, or broadly enough, to achieve their lofty goals. It’s still too soon to tell if VF Corp will hit its targets; but in a short time frame, it has made remarkable progress — reducing emissions by 17 percent, sourcing 29 percent renewable energy, and increasing the use of recycled polyester and other materials.

According to Renne-Malone, part of the reason for this was making sustainability a company-wide effort rather than a niche project.

“We made scientific targets a responsibility of every team within our organization, rather than simply something our sustainability team was striving for,” she says. “As a result, we were able to implement cross-functional programs that are driving real impact in the areas of sustainable materials, factory operations, renewable energy, and others.”

One area that has seen notable — and needed — progress is circularity. The Napapijri brand created one of the industry’s first circular jackets, while SmartWool launched a sock take-back program, which turns the used socks into filling for dog beds. VF Corp is also looking beyond better manufacturing practices to how it can ensure better practices at the sources of many of its raw materials — farms — through regenerative agriculture.

“We have several pilots underway globally across five of our key materials; rubber, cotton, leather, wool and sugar cane,” Renne-Malone says. “This also includes one pilot that will help us build the industry's first fully regenerative rubber supply chain.”

While most of the report focuses on VF Corp’s environmental footprint, the company says it also cares about people, including those working along its supply chain. The apparel industry as a whole is under increasing pressure due to revelations that many suppliers in China — the world’s top producer of world’s cotton, and other raw materials used by major brands around the world — are using forced labor of ethnic Uyghurs in their supply chains.

This comes alongside worrying evidence of massive concentration camps and the destruction of Uyghur religious and cultural sites — to the extent that the United States has declared it a genocide. VF Corporation told Sustainable Brands that it takes these concerns seriously.

“We do not source from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, directly or indirectly, any products nor raw materials, in compliance of course with US laws and sanctions as well as all the other jurisdictions in which we operate,” Peter Higgins, VF’s VP for Global Responsible Sourcing, told SB.

He also expressed full confidence in the company’s auditing system at monitoring forced labor in China, and elsewhere, despite challenges due to the pandemic.

“The inability to travel, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, did represent a challenge ... for many looking to get eyes and ears on factories around the world,” Higgins says. “We were able to successfully pivot our audit program to virtual audits and video training that we conducted rather successfully.”

One way that VF Corp will be able to reduce the risk of forced labor in its sourcing is by ensuring all of its cotton — a crop that is too often grown in countries with widespread labor abusescomes from the US or Australia, is third-party certified, or otherwise meets strict criteria for being regeneratively grown. In fact, it’s already almost there — sourcing 75 percent of its cotton under these standards last year.

Of course, making initial progress is good — but sustaining it is important as the efforts scale up. As big as VF is, it’s still just a single player. That is why the company hopes to expand partnerships to ensure industry-wide — or even cross-industry — change.

“We have to really share our story, share best practices, and partner with others in our industry — and outside — to make the progress that we need to make within this decade of action,” Renne-Malone says.

Science-based targets helped shape the path; now it's up to VF Corporation — and the apparel industry as a whole — to show that circular, socially and environmentally sustainable apparel are the future of fashion.