Inside VF's new sustainability direction

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ShutterstockGuru 3Ds
The company behind some of the biggest names in your wardrobe just made these forward-thinking moves.

VF Corp has 25 brands in nearly everyone’s closet, including Timberland, Vans, Wrangler, Lee, Nautica, the North Face, Eastpak, Jansport and a handful of others. The company's new strategy, "Made for Change," affects how products from these brands are made and sold, and how the materials are sourced.

The apparel and footwear industry is a tough one. We all want gear that meets our needs and makes us look good, but we also want to feel as if our stuff causes no human or environmental harm. VF’s new strategy aims to move consumers closer to that goal by focusing on circular business models, using its vast scale to drive positive change.

Over the past year, I worked closely with VF on this strategy. Although I’m invested in it, I’m also intimately familiar with its breadth and nuance.

The strategy drives business value. Its commitment to fighting climate change and ethically sourcing materials will have a big positive impact, given the volume of materials it sources. It also gives more everyday consumers a role in supporting good business practices through their purchases. This is where we really will begin to see change. 

Here are some of the exciting implications in each area:

1. Circular business models 

The strategy's focus on circular business models captures new business value. VF hasn’t put forth a mere sustainability strategy, but a new business strategy.

We’ve moved away from a world where sustainability can be just a philanthropic add-on and towards where human rights and natural resource limitations become drivers that push us to find better ways to do things. Corporate efforts to increase sustainability that also maximize business value are the Holy Grail. VF’s pursuit of circular business models is a bold initiative that combines business sense with responsibility.

Fast fashion exponentially has increased how quickly people turn over their wardrobes. Millions of tons of clothes wind up in landfills every year. It doesn’t take much to realize how many natural resources this uses and how much waste it creates.

To slow or even reverse this trend, many apparel brands have begun exploring circular business strategies, which means moving away from the linear "take, make, use, waste" model and towards a circular model where articles of clothing and even zippers or fibers are kept in use. Patagonia has led the way on repair, Houdini has explored rental, Eileen Fisher has been upcycling and H&M has been working on materials recycling, for example. 

VF is one of the first mainstream brands to tackle rental and resale (known as recommerce) as a way to vastly decrease resource use and waste. In this pursuit, VF is also developing a new business opportunity.

Apparel rental and resale is commonly a third-party business, not usually done by a brand itself. But VF is making a big move to capture these markets — turning around more products, without having to make more goods. Where Patagonia said, "Don’t buy this Jacket," VF is saying, "Buy the pre-owned version from us, for cheaper."

This also benefits quality control; by renting and reselling its own products, VF gains data about how products wear, which will lead to products that last longer.

2. Scale for Good

With "Scale for Good," VF aims to lead by example, particularly on tackling climate change and by reducing the impact of materials. 

In general, VF’s focus on sustainable materials is inspiring for two reasons. Materials are one of the biggest sources of the company’s environmental impacts. According to VF’s calculations, materials could make up as much as 90 percent of its environmental impact, not to mention the human impact that runs alongside the process of turning fibers into fabric and then into clothes. The commitment starts at the very beginning of its supply chain — which often means the plant or the animal (or discarded material such as plastic bottles and tires). And it ends with clearly stated targets that back it up. Nearly half of the 20 time-bound goals and targets relate to materials.

According to calculations by World Wildlife Foundation and partners, only a handful of companies in the world source more cotton than VF. In one innovative pilot project, Wrangler is working with cotton farmers to improve farming practices and develop natural carbon sinks.

In addition to taking an activist stance on climate change, VF is joining the ranks of big companies setting science-based targets. This is a build on its previous commitment to power all its owned and operated facilities with 100-percent renewable energy by 2025 (by the way, VF owns and operates 30 manufacturing facilities, unusual for an apparel company).

3. Movement Makers

VF's "Movement Makers" target kicks the ball forward on positioning consumers, associates and its brands as protagonists in the change needed in apparel and footwear.

More consumers and associates want products that align with their values. Movement Makers is VF’s way of challenging people to do just that. Every one of VF’s brands has its own identity, history and subset of consumers that connect around environmental and social values. As initiatives continue to unfold, these will take many forms. On one end of the spectrum, brands such as Wrangler are making responsibly sourced products affordable, while Vans is investing in skate parks to foster social inclusion. 

It's not yet clear to what extent VF will "empower [its] consumers to live more active and sustainable lives by 2030." Similarly, "impactful interventions" that support thriving lifestyles and contribute to achieving the SDGs have yet to be announced.

In 2019, VF's science-based targets will be set and "impactful interventions" will be unveiled. There is still an opportunity for going further to ensure growth and wellbeing for 1 million workers across the entire supply chain.

The industry still has a long way to go if it is to achieve real social and environmental responsibility. And all companies have a part to play. Kering broke ground with its environmental profit and loss calculations. H&M has been working hard to find new ways to reuse and recycle textiles. C&A and its foundation have launched Fashion for Good, a multi-stakeholder platform to improve the industry. Now VF adds itself to the mix of circular innovators with rental and recommerce, and aims to raise the bar for apparel.

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