How The North Face is reshaping its supply chain through chemical responsibility

For the best part of a decade, outdoor wear giant North Face has been committed to a responsible chemistry programme which aims to create significant environmental savings that go beyond compliance, to identify environmentally preferable chemicals and to reduce overall chemical use in its supply chain.

By taking a holistic approach to chemistry which focuses on helping its mills to reduce their impact by using water and energy more efficiently and by addressing harmful chemicals at the fabric level, the company has been able to create products that safeguard the environment while maintaining high-performance clothing and equipment.

In a conversation with edie, the company’s senior sustainability manager James Rogers insisted that environmental concerns lie at the heart of the programme’s agenda.

“For us the main driver is the environmental impact of the chemistry,” Rogers explained. “The main benefit is that we’re reducing our own impact. It was not financially driven but rather from an environmental perspective that we decided it was the right thing to do.”

Long-term approach

Since 2008, North Face has been partnered with industry-leading experts at Bluesign Technologies, a third-party organisation that audits mills and have their own approved chemical list.

The Bluesign system has resulted in significant increase in efficiency at mills engaged in the programme, removing potentially harmful process chemicals that are used in the manufacturing of the garment. The programme has served to reduce supply chain impacts in numerous areas such as resource productivity, air emissions, worker health and safety and water emissions.

Rogers believes that the transition has been made significantly easier by the proactive engagement of its supply chain partners, most of whom have responded positively to the North Face’s long-term approach by participating voluntarily with the programme.

He continued: “I think the key is proper partnerships and really working with your supply chain and making sure they understand why you’re making the transition. It’s important to think holistically about making the transition in a way that you’re not acting too quickly.

“If you just try and force it upon your supply chain and play the card of telling them that they’ll lose business if they don’t do it and just walk away, it’s not going to be helpful because you run into a lot of issues, production issues and issues of people maybe applying the chemicals incorrectly.

“It really does take direct partnership with your supply chain in order to make something like this successful.”

Technical challenges

Last year, North Face shared its concerns about perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) found in some Durable Water Repellency (DWR) treatments and the potential threat they pose to the environment in high concentrations.

The company phased out long-chain PFCs in its technical apparel beginning with the Spring 2015 line and transitioned all apparel products to more environmentally friendly short-chain fluorinated compounds by the end of 2015. 

By 2020, The North Face aims to move completely away from fluorinated chemistry in apparel products. Rogers revealed that the company are on track to hit that goal but insisted that the process has been made more difficult due to a variance of supplier machinery.

Rogers said: “There is a technology difference between our suppliers so some are a little bit more advanced in terms of their technology, and we have learned that makes the transition easier based on what types of technology they have in their fabric mill, so that’s one issue we have to address.

“In learning from that we’re working with our chemical suppliers and having them work directly with the fabric mill to apply the proper instruction in the way to use the chemistry so that they don’t have to just use more of it.

“The technical side of how they have to change their process is probably one of the biggest challenges and that’s why we’re partnering with them so closely in this transition.”

Chemical testing programme

To facilitate this transition, The North Face is proceeding to pre-screen all DWR treatments with its chemical management programme, CHEM-IQ, to ensure that they don’t contain other potentially harmful chemicals and meet the firm’s requirements for chemical responsibility.

Rogers explains that some fabric mills have gone a step further and submitted their entire chemical inventory for a CHEM-IQ screening, which has resulted in significant environmental savings. Each sample is screened for more than 430 substances and each chemical formulation is given a rating of preferred, allowed, due diligence required, or prohibited. Due to these efforts, there are 230 tonnes of non-preferred chemicals being phased out of The North Face’s supply chain.

The responsible chemistry programme could prove extremely beneficial for the entire outdoor retail industry, says Rogers, as other brands begin to eliminate non-preferred chemicals.

“If we drive this change, which admittedly we can do because we’re one of the largest companies in the industry so we have the ability to partner with our mills and influence them to move in that positive direction – I think one of the benefits not just for us but for the entire industry is that any of the other brands using the mill now are benefitting from the mills using responsible chemistry and eliminating all of the non-preferred chemicals,” Rogers said.

“They’re not just going to have a separate set of chemistry for those brands; we’re actually making sure that they use the chemicals for everybody.”

‘No silver bullet’

Rogers conceded that some performance differences exist when companies move from fluorinated chemistry, as some of the stain and oil repellancy characteristics are inevitably lost.

Nevertheless, he vowed that The North Face would continue to work diligently to incorporate sustainable solutions and share best practices with other brands to ensure that the company meets its goal of transitioning to 100% non-fluorinated DWR used on apparel by 2020 and potentially go beyond the target to adopt the programme on other products.

“Right now there’s no silver bullet,” Rogers concluded. “There’s no easy switch out with non-flourinated chemistry that has all of the same benefits and so we have said we won’t sacrifice technical performance and transition everything tomorrow which is a process we have to look at all of our products and specific for the product.

“We have to make an educated decision on where we can make this transition now and where we have to work with our mills to develop technology to the level that we feel comfortable with for maybe some of our other products.”

George Ogleby

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