The McKinsey group predicts China’s consumption growth will rise USD 10 trillion between 2021 and 2030 as income rises. The pandemic has also prompted consumers to place an increased emphasis on sustainable and responsible clothing, partly due to increased awareness of well-being. As consumers become more aware of environmental degradation and climate change, they have a higher urge to purchase products that align with their values and goals.
Thus, companies must rethink their fundamental business models and their underpinning systems to adapt to the consumer behavioural change – one of the most common solutions we’re seeing these days is the inevitable move to sustainability. As one of the longest standing American global apparel and footwear companies, VF Corporation, is also agile to the shift. From publishing the annual Made for Change Sustainability Report, to partnering with The North Face on a feasibility study called, “The Green Machine,” VF Corporation is at the forefront of the sustainable fashion scene.
Retail in Asia had the pleasure to interview Sara Stefanski, VP of Global Responsible Sourcing at VF Corporation, together we discussed the future initiatives in sustainability for the company, the relationship between fashion and sustainability, and the measures VF Corporation has taken to educate consumers and designers on responsible fashion.
RIA: How is VF Corporation looking to drive sustainability forward through responsible sourcing? What kind of changes can we expect to see from the company?
Stefanski: Sustainability initiatives require collaboration from every participant in the value chain, because the concept of sustainability is a lot broader than what most people would imagine. It’s about how we design products, the raw materials we source, the processing and preparation of those materials, our associates and supply chain workers who come together to manufacture them into products, how we market and communicate about those products, the logistics that bring the products to your doorstep, and what you do with the products when you’re done using them. These are some of the many areas where we have an impact, and with that, opportunities for improvements to be made.
Take material sourcing, for example. Guided by the data assessed from baselining work to develop our science based targets, we set a goal in 2019 that 100% of the top 9 materials used at VF, which account for around 90% of our material-related carbon emissions, will come from regenerative, responsibly sourced renewable or recycled sources by 2030.
RiA: Is there a roadmap for VF Corporation to roll out its plan on sustainability in the next 5 years? Apart from sourcing, can we expect to see other departments from VF Corporation to follow suit?
Stefanski: Our annual Made for Change Sustainability Report highlights VF’s progress toward achieving our commitments to better both people and the planet, including progress toward our science-based targets. At VF we take a holistic view of our impacts across the value chain and what our role is in making those impacts more positive. We focus on creating a more sustainable and equitable supply chain, while leveraging best practices in our industry to offer our consumers more sustainable, high-performance products.
Many of the world’s most vulnerable populations are those who were the most impacted by COVID-19 and who will be the most impacted by climate change. We have robust programs in place to protect supply chain worker and VF associate safety at their workplaces, uphold their basic human rights, and promote a culture of inclusivity and equity. We also have programs to reduce the carbon footprint in our supply chain and our direct operations, enable access to clean water in our supply chain, use safer chemicals for manufacturing, and even regenerate the environments that we source raw materials from, amongst others. The intersection of environmental and social issues has never been greater, and so we look at our strategies and program development with that intersection in mind.
While most of our impacts are in the supply chain from an environmental and social standpoint, these types of programs and activities require much more than the sourcing department’s participation. We engage cross-functionally across our business to ensure the work we are doing is impactful, efficient, inclusive, and touches upon as much of our value chain as possible. Embedding sustainability and responsible sourcing into every aspect of our business takes time, but we are working toward that vision via internal awareness building initiatives and collaborative planning and projects. We are also increasing the accountability of our VF leaders across all functions for meeting certain sustainability KPIs on annual performance reviews.
VF’s fourth sustainability and responsibility report, Made for Change, describes what we’ve achieved and where we’re headed, and has three primary areas of focus: People, Planet and Product.
- Workforce Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Action (IDEA): At end of FY2020, 375+ leaders have been trained to foster inclusion and address unconscious bias.
- Community Impact: In fiscal year 2020, the VF Foundation donated $6.2M+ to 72 community partners, including toward COVID-19 relief efforts.
- Sustainable Materials: 75% of all cotton purchased by VF was grown in the U.S., Australia or under a third-party sustainability scheme. VF’s goal is to reach 100% by 2025.
- Traceability: VF set a new goal of tracing five of VF’s key materials through 100% of the supply chain by 2027. The company has already completed the mapping of all leather and cotton sourced by VF brands.
- Sustainable Packaging: VF is progressing toward the elimination of single-use plastic packaging by 2025.
We’re proud of our achievements so far but know there is so much more we can do. We’re committed to leading the change required to truly transform our industry into a more sustainable and equitable one.
RiA: Will the increase in consumption growth, especially in China, hinder the company’s effort in sustainability in any way?
Stefanski: In China, rising incomes will contribute to an anticipated increase of US$10 trillion in consumption growth between 2021 and 2030, according to McKinsey. Yet consumers are also increasingly demanding more responsible and sustainable clothing, partly as a result of the pandemic which has provided them a greater awareness of the importance of well-being. With first-hand experience of environmental degradation and climate change, consumers are wanting to purchase products that align with their values.
The issue at hand is matching this increasing demand for clothing, with the increasing demand for sustainability. Ultimately, consumers must work with us to help get the apparel industry where it needs to be. As our consumption patterns shift—in part due to the need to protect our planet and the people that live in it, in part due to a need to re-evaluate what we buy— consumers now have an opportunity to drive the industry toward sustainable fashion via their purchasing behaviors.
At VF, we will continue to put Purpose on par with profit. We always filter our business decisions through the lens of our Purpose while also ensuring we are delivering value to shareholders and stakeholders alike.
RiA: How can sustainability and fashion go hand in hand in your opinion?
Stefanski: Sustainability and fashion can absolutely go hand in hand, although creating sustainable fashion can be tougher than expected and requires a collaborative effort from the entire value chain. One way to work toward sustainable fashion is to reconsider the ‘take-make-waste’ approach that many in the apparel and footwear industry follow, leading to a substantial amount of textile waste. Blended fabrics such as cotton-polyester – the most popular fabric blend in the world – have historically not been able to be recycled and fed back into the supply chain as part of a closed-loop recycling system. The technology for this simply has not existed in a way that is cost effective or scalable.
Despite this challenge, VF is exploring innovative ways to recycle blended fabrics. VF and The North Face have partnered with an international consortium on a feasibility study called, “The Green Machine,” the world’s first recycling technology that has proven to separate cotton from polyester in blended fabrics. Our vision is that we can design and build made-to-last products that can be repaired, reused, resold, or deconstructed and fed back into the production cycle, time and time again. This type of circular system can only be accomplished with innovative recycling technology, efficient and global reverse logistics, upskilling and reskilling of the workforce, and industry and government level collaboration. It might seem like a tall order, but we believe it is worth every bit of effort.
Another example of where sustainability and fashion go hand in hand is Napapijri’s Circular Series. This collection of fully recyclable garments combines design, sustainability, and innovation to inspire, through circularity, a change in the role our industry can play to do good for people, planet, and business. Napapijri’s trailblazing Circular Series of fully recyclable jackets has been recognised with the prestigious CRADLE TO CRADLE CERTIFIED® Gold certification, the World’s most advanced standard for safe, circular and responsible materials and products.
RiA: How exactly will the VF Corporation brands educate consumers on the concept on sustainability?
Stefanski: It is crucial to educate consumers on the importance of sustainability and their ability to vote with their wallet. This can be done through our brands’ messaging in-store, online, and on products. Messaging needs to be clear, relevant, and easy to understand for consumers, and importantly needs to be substantiated with data and evidence to back up claims. This will only become more important as consumers rethink what they buy in our current era of record inflation and supply chain disruptions. Rather than have consumers flee to cheaper clothing, we want to encourage consumers to choose better value clothing that lasts longer and is created more sustainably.
Through their purchasing decisions, consumers can generate their own movements to empower brands to pursue more sustainable business models that are in line with circular, fair, and responsible practices. However, it is not only consumers that we focus on educating, but also designers, other brands and industry leaders as we aim to encourage them to join us in advocating for a more sustainable apparel and footwear industry.
Educating designers is also an important part of reducing fashion’s waste. We are promoting this by collaborating with an environmental charity organization called Redress, to innovate and foster the next generation of forward-thinking, environmentally conscious designers in the industry. In fact, the winner of the Redress Design Awards last year, Jessica Chang, was able to apply her circular design concept by working with our Timberland team, and her product will be launched in the market during CNY next year.
RiA: In your experience, does the level of knowledge on sustainability differ for consumers from different regions?
Stefanski: Having lived on three continents and in 5 countries, I can say with some level of certainty that awareness of and interest in sustainability differs by region and country, just as culture, language, and food does.
In Asia, where historically interest in sustainability topics was lagging behind Europe and the U.S., a report from Kantar’s “Sustainability: The Asia Story”, shows that among almost 10,000 consumers surveyed in nine countries across Asia, there is a general eagerness to see real change when it comes to sustainable transformation. Clearly, the global trend toward sustainability, whilst only nascent until recently, is now growing fast in this region.
We also see from Bain & Company’s report, “Unpacking Asia”, that the region’s fast-growing markets – China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – are more conscious of environmental and social factors than those in the more mature markets of Australia, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea. In fact, consumer segments in the APAC region are now at the same level as Europe and the U.S. in terms of their concern about environmental and social issues.
As a global leader in branded lifestyle apparel, footwear and accessories, it is our responsibility to educate our customers from all markets and regions across the world on the concept of sustainability. Our mission at VF is to collaborate and innovate to drive new growth, and to do our part to protect the planet and the people and ecosystems it contains, so that future generations can do the same. From connecting our consumers to active lifestyles to connecting our associates with rewarding careers, we’re engaging with diverse groups, finding common values and weaving together an interconnected movement for the betterment of people and planet.