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Adidas, North Face, Levi's on what's next for sustainable apparel

Fashions change from season to season. It takes far longer to make over the business behind a $1.7 trillion industry.

The good news is that sustainability is more in style than ever, and on its way to becoming a perennial wardrobe staple.

“There’s more collaboration, more focus, more businesses are tuning in,” said Letitia Webster, senior director of corporate responsibility for North Face and Timberland parent company VF. “There’s heightened awareness. … Things are starting to congeal.”

In researching that thesis, I uncovered plenty of evidence. And the source of most of the action? Expansive global supply chains that traditionally entail large amounts of energy and water use, carbon emissions, chemicals and controversial labor practices.

To get at some of these entrenched challenges — often directly controlled by suppliers over which apparel companies themselves wield varying amounts of influence — VF is assisting with energy efficiency improvements for willing suppliers, using work at its own factories as the foundation. In Cambodia, for example, it is helping owners with solar installations. Now, Vietnam is getting new attention.

Levi Strauss & Co. and Puma are among companies that support financing for factories and suppliers that don’t have the wherewithal to invest in best practices for sustainable resource management or worker well-being.

Both companies support a program offered through the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, that lends working capital to suppliers based on receivables. Levi Strauss is the first, however, to arrange for suppliers that are upgrading their environmental, health and safety (EHS) standards to receive lower cost loans.

IFC has been considering this approach for some time, based on evidence that suppliers working on these processes are usually a better risk. Levi Strauss was fast-tracked because of its ability to track compliance.

“They have a very well-developed EHS management system, both in how they apply and measure,” said Farzin Mirmotahari, an IFC supply chain specialist.

Liz O’Neill, senior vice president of product development and sourcing for Levi Strauss, said the next step is parlaying behind-the-scenes sustainability work into consumer-friendly messaging.

“By the time the customer wants to hear about these things, we want to have made so much progress that there are good stories to tell,” O'Neill said.

It starts at the source

The jeans’ company’s work with factories, especially on water conservation, is well documented. It is also doubling down this year on efforts to reduce the impact related to cotton crops, primarily through work with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Right now, Levi Strauss sources 6 percent of its cotton through BCI-trained farmers. By 2020, it’s aiming for 75 percent, according to its latest sustainability progress report (PDF).

As of last year, more than 1 million farmers were growing cotton to BCI’s standard, according to metrics supplied by the organization in response to my request for an update.

Licensed BCI farms accounted for 8.8 percent of global production last year, up from 3.7 percent in 2013. (The 2014 figure accounts for “licensed” production and isn’t yet final, according to BCI’s spokeswoman.)

Other mainstream apparel companies that have committed to using more sustainable cotton include:

  • adidas Group – 100 percent by 2018
  • H&M – 100 percent by 2020
  • IKEA – 100 percent by the end of this year
  • M&S – 50 percent by 2020
  • Nike – 100 percent by 2020


BCI has more than 500 members, but those are the most notable names. One of its goals for this year includes “mainstreaming” its work with consumers.

“We’re now well into the process of exploring and defining the characteristics of ‘mainstreaming’ in detail," the BCI spokeswoman told GreenBiz. "We’re hoping to share this later in 2015 publicly and will continue working with our members to deliver real change."

Proceed with caution

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), the organization behind the Higg Index 2.0 industry benchmarking platform, is also making slow but steady progress.

About 16 months after its rollout, almost 80 percent of SAC’s member companies use the tool, especially the module meant for sharing facilities and factory information, according to Jason Kibbey, CEO of the organization.

“We’re seeing brands comparing notes. They often talk to each other about dealing with common concerns. … We’re also seeing companies that have similar chains starting to work together to collaborate to improve them,” Kibbey said.

In coming months, SAC’s member will focus on establishing best approaches for independent verification of information submitted to the Higg Index. The intent is to encourage the best ways to communicate scores to stakeholders, while addressing sensitivities over audits. That’s partially in response to developments in Europe, where consumers are demanding far more transparency about fashion industry labor practices.

“We’re seeing far more interested in product assessment along environment and social criteria,” Kibbey said.

Transparency on toxics

Thanks to ongoing scrutiny by the Greenpeace Detox campaign, chemicals management also continues to be major priority across the apparel supply chain.

According to the latest update released in mid-March, 16 of the top fashion companies are in the process of eliminating some of the most widely used toxic pollutants, including hormone-disruptors such as nonylphenols, phthalates and PFCs. Leaders include adidas, Benetton, Levi Strauss and Puma.

To make chemicals management simpler for suppliers, adidas forged a partnership with bluesign technologies that entitles them to access information in the software company’s assessment tool.

By the end of 2015, the company is requiring that 50 percent of all dyes used in its apparel and 10 percent of “auxiliary” chemicals carry a bluesign approval. These targets will be increased each year. Last year, adidas completed 143 audits, including screens for chemicals.

“This is done via our active collaborations with groups such as the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC),” the company wrote in response to my inquiry about supply chain initiatives. “This will result in less workload and more efficient processes for our suppliers, as they will have to perform processes just once, rather than for each brand separately.”

While VF isn’t ranked as part of the Greenpeace evaluation, its two-year-old Chem-IQ initiative is devoted to reducing dangerous substances. After pilots in Turkey, Mexico and Los Angeles, the program got up and running last year with major suppliers in China. It requires factories to submit inventories and to agree to ongoing screenings related to required phase-outs.

This year, VF is sharing information about its approach with other brands. Ultimately, it hopes to “gift” the program to the industry so other companies can use it, Webster said.

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