The North Face Remains Committed to Creating Products Responsibly
We’ve Set a Goal to Transition Apparel to Non-Fluorinated DWR by 2020
During these rainy, colder months, many of us are grabbing a trusty raincoat to keep warm and dry. On the surface, an insulated, waterproof jacket might appear a simple garment – however many of its comforts and features are made possible by sophisticated chemistry.
Weatherproofing outerwear dates back as far as the 13th century, beginning with latex. More recently, the development of synthetic polymers in the 1920s introduced a porous micro plastic coating that revolutionized outdoor apparel (and other industries) by providing previously unattainable performance characteristics.
Today, perfluorinated compounds (sometimes referred to as ‘PFCs’) are some of the most advanced developments in these polymers and have imparted the best performance in the areas of water, stain and oil repellency, as well as durability. However, high concentrations of PFCs can potentially have harmful effects on the environment.
Low levels of fluorinated chemistry are used in a wide range of industries and products, from food packaging to textiles. Outdoor apparel adds a negligible amount of PFCs into our environment; however, as we highlighted in our blog post last year, we are committed to environmental and social responsibility and have been hard at work to eliminate them from our apparel.
Where we are now
Responsible chemistry has always been a priority for The North Face. We have reduced our impacts over the years, led industry improvement and continue to test ideas that further reduce the use of potentially harmful elements while also maintaining the superior technical performance of our products.
As of our Spring 2015 line, we no longer use any long-chain PFCs in our technical apparel. For the time being, we are using short-chain PFC-based Durable Water Repellency (DWR) treatments, which offer identical performance characteristics. Although these treatments contain fluorinated chemistry, short-chain DWR is currently the best available viable alternative to long-chain PFCs. This change represents an intermediary step in our shift away from PFCs, and just one piece of our overall responsible chemistry program.
Additionally, for the Fall 2015 season, we transitioned a handful of our apparel products to non-fluorinated DWR treatments after significant development and testing with one of our key suppliers. In this pilot program, we proved that we could obtain performance characteristics equal to our short-chain DWR treatments with the exception of retaining the same level of stain resistance. We’ve also learned it’s not a quick and smooth swap. Not all of our suppliers offer the same technology, and the transition is different for each product, each having a unique construction and intended end-use.
Our goal to go non-fluorinated
For Spring 2017, nearly 30% of our newly developed DWR treated apparel materials will be non-fluorinated. While this may not seem like much, it’s actually a significant shift in our supply chain that requires major stakeholder engagement and commitment. In addition, we have set a goal to transition to 100% non-fluorinated DWR in our apparel by 2020. Our non-fluorinated DWR strategy starts with apparel because that is where we have the highest volume of materials and can create the most change. We know that once our suppliers convert to non-fluorinated DWR, they will be able to provide that option to other brands, and together, we can help advance the industry in the right direction.
While our technical apparel has been our primary focus for these changes, it won’t stop there. We will apply our key learnings to our footwear and equipment categories. To get there, we have engaged with key vendors and begun testing materials. We do not have as much influence on the supply chain in these product categories compared to apparel, it might take more time, research and development. We believe it’s critical to approach these categories with the same rigor as our apparel transition and we are not deterred by the challenge.
How we will get there
The path a textile takes from concept to a finished product on store shelves involves many steps and partners. As mentioned already, we are working closely our supply chain to find acceptable non-fluorinated alternatives that still meet the high performance standards we believe in. Over the course of this Spring we will be reviewing our Fall 2017 commercialization process and will have a clearer line of sight into how our partners and suppliers can potentially move forward with non-fluorinated alternatives. We remain committed to our promise to our customers to not accept substitutions that lead to lower quality or performance.
As part of our holistic approach to attain our goal for non-fluorinated DWR apparel, we’re carrying out the following initiatives:
1. Continued partnership with bluesign® technologies – The bluesign® system provides a sophisticated, independent approach to reducing supply chain impacts in five key areas: resource productivity, air emissions, worker health and safety, water emissions, and consumer safety. The North Face has worked with bluesign® since 2008 to influence more than 70% of our fabric mills to engage voluntarily in this program. This means the mills are improving to meet our safety requirements across a broad and comprehensive panel of chemicals, including DWR applications.
2. Screening through newly implemented CHEM-IQ, best-in-class chemical management program – We are happy to announce that we are now using the chemical management program, CHEM-IQ, to test and analyze all new DWR chemistry before incorporation into our products. CHEM-IQ was developed by our parent company, VF, in collaboration with an advisory group comprising experts from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), University of Massachusetts – Lowell, University of Leeds and Modern Testing Services (MTS). By testing with CHEM-IQ before we approve the DWR application, we eliminate formulations that may contain traces of unwanted substances before they even enter the supply chain. We work with chemistry suppliers to test their non-fluorinated DWR, and then we test again once the chemistry is received on-site at the fabric mill. This dual testing ensures there are no contamination or formulation issues in the transition from the chemistry supplier to the fabric mill. Suppliers, chemical partners and others have praised the program’s effectiveness and ease of use.
3. Testing rigorously – In addition to the CHEM-IQ screening, we are testing fabrics internally according to our established performance standards. This will help us understand how well non-fluorinated compounds perform in product applications and identify any negative implications that could arise from use of these alternative compounds. All of the analytical third-party testing will help us to identify any potential cross-contamination issues; while we partner with fabric mills to use non-fluorinated DWR on our products, we can’t guarantee that they also eliminate long-chain PFCs from their facility as they may be using them for other customers. We are hopeful this work will encourage our partners to offer non-fluorinated DWR to other brands as well.
4. Ensuring quality – The North Face has one of the most robust materials testing labs and return and warranty departments in the apparel industry. Due to the technical nature of our product which our customers trust in some of the world’s harshest environments, our lab tests for product durability to keep the product functioning for its lifetime. This includes durability of all claimed attributes of the product such as breathability, water repellency, windproofing and color fastness. In addition, with the goal of quality service to our customers, we also analyze warranty repairs and returns for quality improvement and product development feedback. Our North America warranty and returns department processes thousands of units each year which provides direct feedback to our product design and development teams if they notice any trends or specific issues. As we transition to non-fluorinated DWR, we are tracking any uptick in returns or warranty claims; as of the date of this blog post, we have not seen any issues with the products that we have already converted.
5. Collaborating with the industry to create sustainable change: We also realize that we cannot address this issue alone. Spurred by our belief in the power of collaboration to develop solutions, we are working closely with our industry peers as members of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) Chemical Management Working Group (CMWG). The group is focused on establishing shared approaches and tools for chemistry assessment and management. As a founding member of the OIA Sustainability Working Group, we contributed to the Eco Index – which was the foundation of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index – providing a standard tool for measuring the environmental and social performance of apparel and footwear products.
Our latest efforts represent our dedication to responsible chemistry and a continuation of our longstanding work to optimize the integrity of our supply chain. From thread to finished product, our goal is to ensure that every step of that process is done responsibly. We will continue to work diligently to incorporate sustainable solutions that meet the performance demands of our customers while also being environmentally and socially responsible. Check back here for more updates in the future.