How VF Corporation is leveraging sustainability to remain relevant at a consumer and market level

The North Face, one of the brands owned by VF Corporation, recently launched a new concept that has gained the praise of consumers and fashion experts alike The North Face Renewed collection. What makes this collection so unique? Rather than consisting of new products or designs, the collection features second-hand apparel which has been refurbished for resale. Following a thorough inspection, each item in the collection has been cleaned and repaired according to the North Face’s standards.

Although the Renewed line is currently only available online as it is part of a pilot programme, it a key example of one of the many initiatives that VF Corporation is set to introduce among its brands in order to achieve its goal of shifting from a linear business model to a circular one. However, in order to achieve this ambitious goal, VF Corporation has to ensure that sustainability is part of its wider business strategy, which is why it launched a new strategy six months ago under the name Made for Change.

FashionUnited spoke with Anna Maria Rugarli, VF Corporation’s Sustainability & Responsibility Senior Director EMEA to learn more about why VF is going circular and how aims to achieve this.

How VF Corporation is aligning its sustainability strategy among its brands

“We launched our new strategy 6 months ago, it is a strategy we are integrating at a business level,” explained Rugarli to FashionUnited over the phone. “Before that, we spent 7 years really setting the sustainability strategy at a corporate level because we needed to do our homework to really build the infrastructure for the new strategy, which we have rolled out across our brands over the world.” During that time VF Corporation also examined how it could ensure that its sustainability strategy was more 'future-looking.' "We looked at how we could better engage with our consumers, how to address the issues they are interested in and how to make sure our businesses would stay relevant while working on sustainability."

How VF Corporation is leveraging sustainability to remain relevant at a consumer and market level

The end result was a strategy that involves key members of VF Corporation's senior leadership team, as well as brand's individual sustainability teams while encompassing all the needs the company aims to address to ensure VF Corporation offers sustainable solutions for the future of the industry. The company’s new sustainability strategy tackles some of the main issues faced by fashion companies, such taking on a circular business model, how to reduce their overall impact on the planet and improve the lives of their workers. VF Corporation has divided these main issues into three different pillars to make it easier for them to solve these issues at an industry level.

“The first pillar is circular business models. Basically, we are trying to shift from a linear economy to a circular one, which is a huge undertaking. But we need to do it to decrease our impact on the environment and to address the increasing scarcity of resources.” VF Corporation has started looking into developing new business models, such as recommerce, as seen with The North Face’s Renewed Collection, and rental models, where consumers can rent items they need, rather than buying new items. The company is also increasing its takeback clothing and shoe programmes at The North Face and Timberland, to encourage consumers to recycle their unwanted fashion. In addition, VF is also teaching its designers on how they can incorporate circularity into their products from the design phase up as part of its circular efforts.

How VF Corporation is leveraging sustainability to remain relevant at a consumer and market level

The second pillar, Scale for Good, sees the company working to leverage its size and scale as a positive catalyst for the industry and environment. “Because we are such a large company, when we do something it impacts the whole industry.” In particular, VF Corporation is focusing on climate change and material usage, as the raw materials they use to make their products have one of the largest environmental impacts. For example, VF pledged to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2025 at all its owned and operated facilities by 2025 and to reduce the average impact of its key materials by 35 percent by 2025 by scaling the Materials Sustainability Index in order to halve its environmental impact in the long-term. The company is currently working to develop scientific-based sustainability targets by the end of 2019 as well to contribute to its commitment to the Paris Agreement.

“Made for Change is a strategy that keeps us relevant at a consumer level, market level and sustainability level”

The third pillar of VF Corporation's new sustainability strategy is called Movement Maker and of its main targets is ensuring that all its employees do more volunteer work where they live and actively help give back to their local communities. Under this pillar, VF Corporation hopes to improve the lives of 1 million workers and their communities by 2025. For example, Timberland, one of VF Corporations leading outdoor lifestyle bands, teamed up with the King Baudouin Foundation to support the creation, maintenance and improvement of green spaces in 5 European cities over 5 years through a grant scheme called My PlayGreen. “We are literally trying to create positive movement among our workers and customers in addressing social issues,” pointed out Rugarli.

How VF Corporation is leveraging sustainability to remain relevant at a consumer and market level

Innovation plays a key part in VF Corporation's Made For Change sustainability strategy

Innovation plays a main role in VF Corporation’s sustainability strategy, as the company aims to use new ideas to help support its shift to a circular system. As it is clear there is no one-stop solution to sustainability, the company is currently testing out other new business models. “We are currently looking into the recommerce and rental of our products to ensure that we extend the lifespan of our products. Durability is one of the main attributes of sustainability within our products and we are very proud to have brands who have developed high quality, durable products.” As VF Corporation brands, such as The North Face, Timberland, and Vans have garnered a strong, loyal following of brands, in part thanks to their quality product assortment, Rugarli is confident that their new services and products, like The North Face’s Renewed line, will ensure its brands remain appealing and relevant to consumers in the years to come.

“In the past, we carried out consumer research and what came out was that consumers, especially millennials, are not interested in owning things, they are more interested in experiences and services, such as renting goods,” explained Rugarli. This is why VF Corporation is investing in new services, such as its introducing its take-back programmes in Europe at The North Face, Vans, and Timberland. VF Corporation. Together with I:CO, the company collects second-hand clothing and footwear from consumers and recycles or downcycles them to help meet its target of increasing the number of unwanted textiles it reuses by 10 percent by 2020, as part of their goal for the 2020 Circular Fashion Commitment. “We also committed to training our designers on the circular business principles.”

“The great thing about this new strategy is having these types of targets that need us to elevate the level of collaboration that we have internally to make sure we all contribute consciously”

While some companies may fear that introducing new retail formats, such as clothing rental systems or the selling of secondhand products may cause unintentional harm to its other brands, VF Corporation feels like the business models will complement and supplement each other on a broader scale. “We look at this as an integration, in a way a type of complimentary model for our consumers. The idea is that these models will not cannibalize our current retail models at all, but see this as an extra service. We also hope we will be able to reach new consumers through these services and connect to a new generation of people who are interested in trying new brands, or who are happy to buy second-hand apparel.”

How VF Corporation is leveraging sustainability to remain relevant at a consumer and market level

VF Corporation is currently setting up more pilots to test various resale and rental services under its numerous brands to see what is the best combination for its consumers. “We are going to start testing these models with our brands and then adapt them where they don’t work, to see how they work in the longer term.” Although Rugarli is unable to provide us with more details concerning these pilots, she is adamant that recommerce and rental concepts will be an integral part of the brands' future strategies. In addition to this, VF Corporation is also investing in using more recycled materials in its brands' collections as a way to start introducing more circular economy principles into its business.

“Innovation is playing a big role both in inspiring the test of new consumption models as well as in the design of new products meant to live more than one life”

“We want to make sure that 50 percent of our PET and nylon material comes from recycled sources by 2025. This is a VF global target because we are aware that recycling resources is not the only key to a circular economy but it is one of the ways we can achieve it.” Timberland, for example, has been using recycled PET in its footwear since 2009, recycling millions of PET bottles since then. The North Face has also been using recycled polyester in its Denali jackets since 2015 and currently, 100 percent of the jacket model is made from recycled materials. VF Corporation has also set a number of sustainability targets concerning the other materials its brands use, such as only sourcing 100 percent responsible down under The North Face Responsible Down Standard by 2019, ensuring 100 percent of its outdoor apparel is PFC-free by 2025 and that all cotton purchased by VF which is not from the US or Australia grown via a sustainability scheme by 2025.

How VF Corporation is leveraging sustainability to remain relevant at a consumer and market level

Another way VF Corporation is bringing together sustainability and innovation is through investing in new forms of manufacturing. For example, its high-end Italian label Napapijri used a new form of digital manufacturing known as Ze-Knit to create a collection of denim for autumn/winter 2018. Unveiled at Milan Design Week, the collection was made using computer-controlled knitting technology, similar to 3D printing, to knit out the collection from a single yarn rather than an entire piece of fabric, thereby cutting down on waste and speeding up the production process without increasing the cost of production. “Innovation will be the key to designing for circularity - it is a process we will have to rethink.”

Innovation will be VF Corporation key to designing for circularity

It is clear that VF Corporation needs to focus on innovation in numerous areas to reach its sustainability targets, which is why the company working together with all the brands to realise them. “It is a collaboration, it’s a partnership that we developed internally to make sure we set our goals together and to see how much a brand can do individually to reach this target. We work at a corporate level, together with the brand team, so that we develop something that is meaningful for the whole of VF,” said VF’s Senior Director EMEA for Sustainability & Responsibility.

“We want to work on our sustainability goals on a group level”

“It is a process that we are going through right now and it is a process that we need undergo to achieve all of the other sustainability targets as well.” While VF Corporation brands are working hard to achieve the company’s sustainability goals, some of its brands do find some of the targets set more challenging, due to their size. But Rugarli is positive that all of the company’s brands will be able to achieve the goals, whether they scale up or not. “For some of our smaller brands, perhaps they may not have done as much in terms of sustainability as the largest ones. However, because of their smaller size, it is much easier for them to scale up any new initiatives as well.”

In addition to aligning its sustainability strategy among its brands, VF Corporation is also collaborating with other key players, such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Global Fashion Agenda, to accelerate circular textile development and circular economy. “We are part of a number of core initiatives focusing on accelerating circularity within the fashion industry because even though we are a big company, we cannot do everything on our own,” said Rugarli. “Collaboration is key.” As the circular economy is still a new concept, it needs a lot of development and innovation to become the norm, but it is a vital part of VF Corporation sustainability strategy, as it marks the next progression in environmental sustainability.

“The transition from a linear system of production to a circular one will take time as we need to rethink our current way of doing business. This is why at VF we are taking a step by step approach, thanks to which we are working to set up several pilots related to recommerce and rental to discover which is the best way to serve our consumers and to attract new ones.”

Photos: Anna Maria Rugarli, Timberland, The North Face Renewed and Napapijri Zeknit, courtesy of VF Corporation

 

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