Green Gear or Green Washing?

Sustainability is a hot topic which many outdoor gear companies are addressing by changing and improving upon their ways of doing business. Unfortunately there are also many companies which share a beautiful sustainability story without providing the data to back it up.

To illustrate what I mean let’s have a look at a brand we are all familiar with: The North Face.

On the responsibility section of their website the North Face pledges to ‘protect the places where we live, play, and operate’ and to ‘evolve the way we make our products by improving our environmental performance and social responsibility in the supply chain’. Further exploration of their responsibility section shows that the North Face is involved in some great initiatives such as:

  • Clothes-the-loop system in which they offer to recycle old gear
  • recycled materials and sourcing of responsible cotton
  • protecting the climate as a climate advocate
  • social responsibility towards the men and women producing their products

From looking at their website I became very enthusiastic about the North Face and their effort to reduce the environmental impact of their gear and to protect decent working conditions throughout the supply chain, especially because of the size of the company and its potential impact. I was therefore surprised and disappointed to see that the North Face has an E-label on Rank a Brand (scoring positive on only 5 out of 36 questions).

So, why is this company scoring so low? Looking at the score card it turns out that most questions could not be answered due to a lack of publicly available information. But, didn’t the North Face just get us excited about some of their actions? Time to go back to their website to take a closer look at their statements.

On recycled materials the website says ‘.. we work to increase our usage of recycled fabric ..’ and on responsible cotton it says ‘.. we try to source it responsibly ..’. But what do these statements mean? How much of their products are currently produced with recycled materials and responsible cotton? And how can we track their efforts to increase these percentages?

The North Face seems to be an active advocate to protect the climate, by taking part in several initiatives and supporting the Paris Climate Agreement. The website mentions that the North Face offsets 100%  of the carbon emissions from business travel and employee commuting, as well as offsetting e-commerce shipping. However, this seems to be mainly restricted to the U.S. operations. Regarding their efforts to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions the only reported numbers are date from 2013 are concern their U.S. facilities. Which unfortunately makes it impossible to track their reduction efforts. Additionally, clear goals also seem to be lacking.

What does this mean? How is the performance audited? And are these results published? The North Face is a daughter company of VF Corporation. VF Corporation requires all its partners to adhere to the ‘Terms Of Engagement’. After reading the terms it can be concluded that they do not go much beyond legal compliance. The compliance is audited annually, by VF corporation. The results of these audits are not published. Again, this makes it very difficult to track their actions an progress.

This general lack of transparency makes some of their sustainability claims questionable. At the very least it makes it impossible for us to follow and track their efforts.

So, no more the North Face gear? Well, of course that is completely up to you. This post is not meant to start a boycott, but to raise awareness for the difference between telling a nice story which does well from a marketing perspective, and providing the data to show that a company is actually putting its money where its mouth is.

Feel free to comment below in case you agree / disagree with the performance analysis of the North Face. Or if you want to share anything else related to greenwashing in the outdoor industry. Together we learn!

5 thoughts on “Green Gear or Green Washing?”

  1. Thanks for sharing! Nice blog. (Unfortunately) I just bought a north face backpack. I thought about sustainability before buying the backpack. But I just didn’t saw another – maybe more sustainable- backpack brand with the same quality and looks in the stores. What brand do you recommend? Thanks again for sharing, it all starts with awareness and knowledge about sustainability and that’s what a blog like this provides!

    • Hi Peter, thanks for your question. To be honest it is quite difficult to recommend a specific brand, not just due to the wide variety of specifications and the personal preference of design, but also because backpacks (and other hardware products) seem to be more challenging to be produced sustainably than apparel products. In this case, I would therefore focus more on a company’s overall attitude towards sustainability (Rank a Brand can be a good tool for this).

      There are some brands of which I am aware that offer backpacks made from recycled and PFC-free materials like Fjällräven, Vaude, and Haglöfs. Definitely worth checking them out!

  2. The founder Douglas Tompkins did a lot of good work in Argentina and Chili. They bought bought and conserved more than 2 million acres wilderness. A shame the new owners of the brand don’t follow his legacy and environmental activism.

  3. I love the concept of paying attention to how the manufacturing of gear affects the environment! Thanks. Whoever starts a truly green outdoor company, yet manages to make practical, lightweight gear, should do really well!

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