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The GreenBiz Interview

VF Corp leans in to the circular economy and regenerative ag

The apparel and footwear giant says its scale requires it to address textile waste and to design out waste from the beginning.

VF Corp logo embedded on image of a roundabout in the middle of a forest in Belgium.

With about 20 brands such as The North Face, Vans and Timberland under its umbrella — including its recent acquisition of popular streetwear brand Supreme — VF Corporation is big. The company had about 48,000 employees at the end of its 2020 fiscal year, which ended March 28, according to its most recent annual report, and revenue during that year was $10.5 billion. 

With that much reach, VF Corp has the opportunity — and responsibility — to be intentional about how it manages the lifecycle of the garments it designs, produces and sells.

"Because of our scale, we know it's our responsibility to address textile waste and then overall be thinking about how to keep products in use for the long term, and to design out waste from the beginning," said Jeannie Renne-Malone, who has served as the vice president of global sustainability at VF Corp since September 2019.

In November, I met up with Renne-Malone on Zoom to chat about how the apparel and footwear giant works with all its brands to zero in on opportunities to deepen their work toward the collective sustainability goals, how VF Corp is thinking about its 2030 science-based targets and its focus on improving how it sources its materials. For example, back in May, Timberland announced that it planned to introduce a collection of boots using regenerative leather sourced from Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed ranches, which have 600,000 acres that have been transitioned to regenerative practices.

"One of our biggest opportunities is regenerative agriculture," Renne-Malone said. "We're really looking at regenerative agriculture as a way to scale opportunities across all our brands, and then possibly partnerships with other industries as we move forward."

Following is a transcript of our conversation. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Deonna Anderson: I want to talk about your science-based targets at VF Corp. You set those about a year ago now. Can you share some insights about the process of setting the targets and if there's been any progress working towards those in the last year?

Jeannie Renne-Malone: It's been a full year since we announced them. We took a couple of years to develop a really in-depth baseline. Our baseline is from 2017, and that covers our entire value chain. We collected data from across our Scope 1 and Scope 2 sources, all of our energy consumption and so forth. And then, for our Scope 3 emissions, which is our largest impact, we collected data from our contracted factories, from logistics and across our entire value chain. We worked [with] the consultant, the Carbon Trust, to develop our baseline and to develop the modeling used to help us set up the targets themselves.

Because of our scale, we know it's our responsibility to address textile waste and then overall be thinking about how to keep products in use for the long term, and to design out waste from the beginning.

Since last December, we’ve continued to develop our roadmaps across all of our emission sources, and some of them, our Scope 1 and Scope 2, are really a small percentage of our overall impact, really only 1 percent. And we have clear roadmaps to how we will meet all of those targets for Scope 1 and 2. Those are easier, just generally speaking, across all sectors, all industries.

Ninety-nine percent of our impact is in our Scope 3 emissions, and of that, we've identified that 42 percent comes from raw material extraction, production and manufacturing. And so that's really where our focus has been over the past year: developing a vision around sustainable materials. At the time that we announced our science-based targets we also announced a bold new sustainable materials vision that by 2030, 100 percent of our top nine materials will originate from recycled, responsibly sourced renewable or regenerative sources. So that's really where we've been collaborating with the brands to identify some of the long-term innovations, short-term investments that we can make [and] what kind of partnerships and collaborations we need to invest in to really move us towards that goal.

We've looked quite a bit at regenerative agriculture... We're looking at advanced recycling and just to find recycled polyester and different recycled materials. Across all of these different material types, we are working on developing a roadmap that will outline, first in the next two to three years, what we can do in the near term that will really move the needle to get us to that 2030 goal. 

Thinking from an apparel perspective, we really only have 20 seasons until 2030... So we're thinking about it from that perspective — what material substitutions do we need to make in the next two to three years that will truly start moving that needle that we need to move towards 2030?

Anderson: How does VF Corp work with its brands to work toward the collective sustainability goals? It sounds like you touch base with one another and figure out where the opportunities are. 

Renne-Malone: Absolutely. Each brand has a sustainability lead, and we collaborate as we are developing both the enterprise-wide initiatives to make sure that the work that is being done at the brands and the strategies and initiatives and goals of the brands ladders up to the overall enterprise-wide strategy. We see VF as really enabling the brands to succeed with their sustainability strategies. 

What we're doing now is leaning in on sustainable raw materials. We're also really focusing on circularity as one of our major opportunities, and one of our major strategic initiatives. When we think about take-back programs, or recycling infrastructure that needs to be in place to advance us towards our goals, we think about it collectively, of how we can create scalable, enabling opportunities for our brands to succeed in our individual goals.

Anderson: Can share about the importance of VF Corp leaning into the circular economy, and why it's important for an apparel brand, or a company that has a bunch of different apparel-related brands, to be doing that kind of work? 

Renne-Malone: I think there's a couple of reasons. Because of our scale, we know it's our responsibility to address textile waste and then overall be thinking about how to keep products in use for the long term, and to design out waste to the beginning. From a responsibility perspective, we know that that's part of our long-term sustainability goal and vision. 

We also think about the emerging conscious consumer that not only wants to know where products are made, what was the environmental impact along the way, who made those products, but also what will be done with those products at the end of the day. So when we think about circularity, we think about it in terms of the materials that go into the product initially, the design of the product, designing out waste, and then what will happen to that product at the end of its life. Will it be put back into a re-commerce type of business model? That's something that we're testing out with some of our brands. Or can it be designed fully for recyclability? 

Like our brand Napapijri was the first apparel brand to get Cradle to Cradle Certified Gold recognition for its circular jacket series.

Some of our research shows that 67 percent of Gen Z and Millennials are already making purchasing decisions based on climate change, and that generation of consumers will comprise, I think, two-thirds of the apparel and footwear consumers by 2027. That’s only six years away, so we know that we need to be thinking about the materials, again, that go into our products and designing for circularity from beginning to end to really meet this emerging consumer need. 

And there's also the conscious consumer that is really buying less stuff. We want to make sure that we're designing with durability and also with providing options to sell on the re-commerce market such as our North Face Renewed platform.


Designers from The North Face at a workshop at the Renewal Workshop in October 2019.

Anderson: Pivoting a bit, I know you were on the 2020 GreenBiz Badass Women's List earlier this year. The mini-profile about you mentions the circular economy experiments that your brands are doing, your public policy efforts and the science-based targets, which we've already talked about. But I'm curious about what VF Corp's public policy approach looks like.

Renne-Malone: Our brands have been engaged with policymakers for some time. The North Face has been doing quite a bit around policy. And what's exciting is more recently we've developed a set of guardrails at the VF level to really think through what kind of policies are under development or that we would like developed that we can use our voice to encourage that they move forward. And we've identified those that really align with our publicly stated goals.

We're thinking about policies around sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, circularity, recycling infrastructure ... what we would see as incentives to advance our programs across not just the U.S. but also in Europe. We see the EU New Green Deal as an opportunity to really see incentives for many of the programs that we're advancing globally. And then, of course, there's the side benefits of job creation and reduced greenhouse gas emissions ... 

We have an established government affairs program that engages with us to identify those opportunities for direct engagement but also to kind of keep tabs on what policies are emerging, and where we can lean in and we'll use our voice to help hopefully this even come to fruition. 

I would just add that overall what we're really trying to do is help advocate for a climate-resilient recovery from COVID and just, moving forward, it's so important in that we think that our advocacy efforts could really lend to that effort. 

Anderson: That is a good segue to my next question, which is about the pandemic. How has the pandemic made an impact on VF Corp's sustainability strategy?

Renne-Malone: If anything, we see that it's almost helped us accelerate our strategy, and we're really doubling down on our commitment during and after the pandemic. And this is a result of a couple of things. One, we're a people-first company, or a purpose-led company, and we've had a people-first approach to addressing COVID. And that's actually caught the attention of investors. 

There was a Barron's most sustainable corporations list that was released in February, and we were 21 on the original list. And then they reissued it based on social factors. And then we ended up No. 1 on the list after they reevaluated their criteria and their weighting. We were super excited about that, and I think it really lends to the fact that from a sustainability and ESG perspective our investors are really listening to us. That's one stakeholder that I think has really caught the attention of what we've been doing through the pandemic.

Anderson: You mentioned that VF Corp has a people-first approach. What does that look like in practice when it comes to your stewardship and social responsibility efforts?

Renne-Malone: A couple of different things — we have a deep tie to the environment because of the nature of our brand. Having a set of outdoor, activewear brands really gives us that deep connection to the environment. And I think that's really evident with our brands like The North Face and Timberland, for example, that all of them have a deep connection to ensure a sustainable future for next generations.

And then I'll add that we're purpose-led and performance-driven, and what I mean by that is the better we perform as a company, the more resources we'll have to activate our purpose, which creates value for our stakeholders. So I start there to kind of paint the picture that performance is super important to us too, and it all ties together. 

We have a foundation that, over the course of the pandemic, has donated over $10 million to different organizations [focused on the] outdoors.

We have a deep tie to the environment because of the nature of our brand. Having a set of outdoor, activewear brands really gives us that deep connection to the environment.

And then we also have a program that's primarily focused on our supply chain. It's called the Worker and Community Development Program, where one of our colleagues leads an effort to identify projects that will benefit the workers and the communities around our contracted factories. 

And so one example — which I love this one — it's called Vision Spring. And it's a program in India where we've identified a nonprofit that will give eye exams to factory workers and then provide eyeglasses if needed. And so that's a real benefit improving a quality of life, not only for their work within the factory, but also overall when your vision is improved, it just improves your quality of life overall.

So we really look at different opportunities to invest in our communities.

Anderson: What do you feel is your most important priority as the vice president of global sustainability right now? 

Renne-Malone: My scope of my work is really focused on environmental sustainability ... but there is such a connection between people and planet that everything we do to address climate change and environmental stewardship really ties to creating benefits for people. And I just feel this sense of urgency — not to get on my soapbox, but we can't ignore what's happening around us in the middle of this climate crisis and an ecosystem crisis and a health crisis. I really think this is our opportunity and our responsibility to continue to amplify the work that we're doing in an even more focused way, and to really look for opportunities for partnership, collaboration, innovation, not only within our own industry but across other industries. 

I do think now it's even more important to think about the intersection of the climate crisis, environmental justice, social equity, racial equality and health. I think the solutions we've identified will really address those issues as we are also trying to reduce our impacts. So as we're thinking about circular economy, waste, regenerative agriculture, renewable energy, we know there are all these ancillary benefits to people along the way. 

I guess overall I'm very passionate and focused on our action around climate change, and really it's my own personal purpose to look at those intersections between the social responsibility and environmental stewardship. And so super-proud to work for a company that has a purpose of betterment of people and the planet.

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