How VF Corp trims harmful chemicals in its apparel supply chain

How VF Corp trims harmful chemicals in its apparel supply chain

Jansport
Jansport/VF Corp

When it comes to reporting about chemicals used in manufacturing, apparel producers typically have been asked to get their liquid waste tested and fill out forms to declare whether they have been compliant with regulations.

But VF Corp. plans to upend that process. If that name doesn't ring a bell, it's the parent company of popular brands Timberland, North Face, Nautica, Lee and Wrangler jeans and Jansport and Eastpak backpacks.

The $11 billion apparel and footwear company released its first global sustainability report at the end of October and announced a chemical management program that focuses on identifying and eliminating harmful chemicals before they enter the manufacturing stream.

That’s a tall order for a company that sources from more than 15 countries and works with about 2,000 suppliers across all its brands.

But it says starting small helped get the program rolling and now it’s ready to scale up and launch CHEM-IQ across all of its suppliers and brands in 2015, and share the secrets of this cost-effective, scalable program with partners and competitors.

“We recognize that chemical hazards are becoming more and more complex and we wanted to simplify it in our supply chain,” said Sean Cady, vice president of product stewardship and sustainability with VF Corp, who is based in Hong Kong.

With the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council and green chemistry programs at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the University of Leeds in the U.K., the company put together a screening process for 400 hazardous chemicals, such as formaldehyde and chlorinated solvents. VF began testing for them at factories in Turkey, Mexico and Los Angeles where it has either company-owned factories or a close rapport with suppliers.

After circling back with its program partners to fine tune it, VF rolled out the program across its entire supply chain in China, where it has suppliers with factories at 100 locations.

“China has been a hotbed in this field, so as we developed the program and finalized it, we rolled it out to all of our suppliers in China that use chemicals such as the dye houses, laundry and printing facilities,” Cady said.

The screening process involves requesting a small vial of each and every chemical used at a location, and the samples are then sent to a designated lab approved by VF’s partners. The small sample size has been key to the success of the program, because it costs less than $50 to extract and screen a chemical using this method.

“Instead of filling out compliance forms, we asked suppliers to give us a small sample, so we can level the playing field across the board for all our suppliers,” Cady said.

When the company found “red rated” harmful chemicals present, it worked with the supplier to eliminate it from the manufacturing process and substitute it with green rated chemicals that were on VF’s preferred list.

For example, if a soap used to wash denim jeans was found to have a red-rated chemical, the company worked to find an alternative detergent made with preferred ingredients.

As a continuous improvement program, it’s also shifting to a proactive approach.

“At first we screened the chemicals being used. Now we’re working on screening chemicals before they enter our supply chain stream,” Cady said.

Surprisingly, instead of protesting change, he said suppliers have cooperated and been grateful to receive clear direction, which was lacking before. Often times, suppliers also have been surprised to discover a particular chemical was present in their manufacturing stream, either because they were not chemical experts or because it was present in such small quantities that it had not been reported.

Cady believes the program has brought value to the table, because it’s the first time the industry has received guidance on what to use and what not to use. “We’re seeing amazing interest from the chemical industry itself, they’ve asked to use our program in order to understand what’s in their products before we try to screen it.”

In China, which has a long history of apparel manufacturing, VF found that the apparel factories it sourced from followed tradition by buying their supplies from the same suppliers for generations. When the screening program found undesirable chemicals in those supplies, often times, VF was able to locate and procure preferred chemicals from local suppliers, thereby adhering to tradition.

The company is planning to roll the chemical management program across its supply chain in Vietnam, Bangladesh and India soon and intends to open it up to the industry at large next year.

In some countries where it does not currently have designated labs for screening, samples are shipped across international borders for testing, a practice that VF believes will change as more apparel companies jump on the bandwagon, leading to a comprehensive infrastructure for testing locally.

Linda Greer, director of the NRDC’s environment and health program, said the work undertaken by VF to collect, screen and eliminate harmful chemicals is solid, basic foundational information that every company serious about eliminating toxic constituents would need to develop as a phase-out program.

“It provides answers to the most basic unanswered question out there: What chemicals are in the formulations used in the textile industry and how frequently do they show up?” Greer said via email. “Clearly VF needs to continue to sample more, and in more countries, but this is already a very meaningful effort."

In working with the company, she found that it required significant resources and a long attention span, as well as patience to deal with the complex details that arose during its design and launch.

“In my mind, this work clearly positions VF as genuinely interested in fixing the chemical problem in the industry rather than doing a project for the PR value of being seen as a 'leader' in the field,” she said.

Greer also cautioned that the program has some limitations and that NRDC questioned some of the cut-off levels and has strongly recommended a supplementary “green screen” to augment current methods.

“NRDC made the decision to participate in this project because we felt it had enormous potential to begin to resolve the chemical use problem in the textile industry,” she said.