“It’s a fine line to walk,” Adam Mott tells me over a phone interview. “The idea of sustainability and not being seen as reactive but proactive.”
Mott has been overseeing the Corporate Sustainability program at The North Face since he joined the company in 2007 as the Corporate Sustainability Manager. Soon to be moving on into another sustainability role for The North Face under their VF parent company in Hong Kong, Mott’s #1 responsibility has been to incorporate sustainability into the business practices and corporate culture of the company.
Sounds straightforward, but when you’re working to help develop everything from the creation of environmentally responsible products to working with internal and external stakeholders, it’s a pretty tangled web to navigate.
But what if you could focus on one thing and make it really good, really sustainable. With thousands of products being created for the company, The North Face decided it would explore that one big (good) idea for just one of their products: a hooded sweatshirt.
“We are all starting to realize that people want to know more about where things come from and what resources are being used. I don’t think the new consumer is looking at it as ‘all or nothing’ but they want companies to do something,” says Mott.
Something is right. That hooded sweatshirt. In terms of The North Face looking at traceability, where would the cotton for that sweatshirt come from? Where would it be spun? Could it be naturally dyed? The North Face reached out to Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess, whose business expertise lies in bringing together local artisans, growers, spinners, knitters, ginners, and manufacturers to create bioregional manufacturing.
Her favortie part of the project? “Discussing the details about how to construct the garment while keeping the values of localizing the supply chain, waste reduction, and a modern look,” says Burgess.
Sally Fox cotton used for The Backyard Hoodie
But when it came to keeping it local, could The North Face make this one wardrobe staple in their own backyard, within a 150 mile radius of their San Francisco Bay headquarters? The Backyard Project site says “We nearly met this goal; the yarn had to be spun in the Carolinas versus California. While it didn’t truly meet our 150 mile radius, start-to-finish production hopes, the result is still something worth celebrating.”
And those new collaborations and relationships within the American textile industry that were created now allow The North Face to have resources they didn’t have before. From the farm to the mill to the production lines, The Backyard Project limited edition collection is what the company calls “a wearable success story.”
Rebecca Burgess on her farm in Northern California
“What The North Face did was something that I’d highly suggest other brands do. Launching a micro-line as a means to work within your regional farming community and economy helps build local agricultural communities through empowering regenerative agricultural practices, preferably soil-carbon building farmers,” says Burgess, who adds brands might want to start with something even smaller, like an accessory.
“…And make sure to do some true cost accounting and use that in your marketing— let your marketing team become and education team,” says Burgess.
Mott says that internally, one of the best parts of the Backyard Hoodie Project was that 40 The North Face employees learned from it and took elements of sustainability away to apply towards their jobs.
“It pushed them to look at what the hoodie introduced to them like where cotton is grown and how cut and sew is done. Things they’d once considered old-fashioned became cool,” says Mott, adding that currently The North Face is exploring what the Backyard 2.0 is looking like and once again, how to scale and look at production and momentum to what that apparel production entails.
While they develop new products with traceability, the company is exploring another elephant in the room: textile waste.
The North Face piloted their Clothes the Loop campaign in 2013 with 10 stores logistically looking at how to run it and expanded to 25 stores the following year. In 2015 during Earth Week, the program expanded to all stores. Currently, the program allows consumers to drop off their unwanted clothing and footwear at The North Face retail and outlet stores. It doesn’t matter what condition the clothes are in or what brand they are. The items are sent to a recycling center where they are carefully sorted based on over 400 categories and then repurposed for reuse to extend their life or recycled into raw materials.
As of April 2015, Clothes The Loop had collected more than 14,540 pounds (7.27 tons) of apparel and footwear. The goal is to recycle 100,000 pounds of clothing and footwear by end of year.
As sustainability is becoming more of the speak at North Face headquarters, Mott says all brands have to do business a lot more intelligently.
“You can take a holistic approach with sustainability or a Band Aid solution…and there are so many things you can get criticized on if you walk away which also makes you less of an influencer,” says Mott.
“Again, It’s a fine line to walk” adds Mott, “The North Face is digging deeper though and there are definitely exciting things ahead.”