Retail in Asia

In People

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: VF Group and sustainability, a science-based target approach


VF Corporation is one of the world’s largest apparel, footwear and accessories companies with its headquarters in the U.S. and a global retail presence. Its brands, including Vans®, The North Face®, Timberland®, Dickies®, and Kipling®, are leaders in outdoor sportswear and lifestyle apparel and have engaged generations of consumers throughout VF’s 120 years of history.

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In 2016, VF Corporation released their Made for Change strategy, which focuses on both environmental and social issues. In 2020, the strategy remains the same, with three key areas of focus: creating new circular business models, leveraging the company’s resources to positively impact the world, and empowering associates to be create movements of positive change.

“Our workforce of 50,000 performance-driven people share a commitment to be more than just an apparel and footwear company. We strive to be a purpose-led enterprise that leverages the strength of our business to deliver positive impacts for people and the planet we share,” said Steve Rendle, VF’s Chairman, President and CEO.

“We are proud of our progress but know there is so much more we can do. Our Made for Change strategy outlines our forward-looking priorities and provides us with a renewed focus to push ourselves harder and farther as we address some of our industry’s most challenging issues,” continued Steve Rendle.

Recently, Retail in Asia has visited VF’s new regional offices in Hong Kong, and discussed sustainability with Sara Stefanski, Director of Global Sustainability & Responsible Strategy at VF.

Sara Headshot
Source: VF

Sara shared with us that, “VF Group has turned sustainability into an essential part of the business – not an accessory. This is a shared understanding from the CEO down.”

“Sustainability is about change and transformation and whilst most organizations are afraid of ‘subvertising’ processes, this is the case for VF,” said Sara.

During our interview, she explained how VF Corporation has adopted a positive attitude towards change throughout the years.

According to Sara, this idea of change as a positive evolution comes from the 120-year history of VF Corporation, which went through many changes and challenges while also developing a spirit of adaptation to transform crises into opportunities. There is no fear of change because this is what VF Corporation has been doing since day one.

RiA: What is your science-based target approach?

Sara: Our goal is to reduce our greenhouse gas emission by 55% by 2030 against a 2017 baseline. We also aim at reducing 30% of our supply chain emissions by 2030, also against a 2017 baseline.

Science-based targets are important because they provide industry alignment regarding goals and targets and bring a common a language to the data. We deploy technology and forecast how projects can be accelerated based on new tools and new information and we optimize our resources to drive toward achieving our goals. This is done across all parts of the business with the aim to engage all our suppliers.

That is where we have to work together with other companies that have shared objectives and shared targets. Innovation comes from collaboration.

One way VF is approaching our Science Based Targets is through our new sustainable materials vision. Extraction, production and manufacturing of raw materials account for the largest portion of VF’s carbon emissions globally.

In 2019, we set a goal – 100% of the top 9 materials used at VF, which accounts for around 90% of our material-related carbon emissions, will come from either regenerative, responsibly sourced renewable or recycled sources by 2030. It may seem ambitious, but we need to think big and take bold steps.

RiA: What are the main pillars you are working on and what concrete actions are you running across the region?

Sara: Our Made for Change strategy includes three main areas: Circular Business Models, Scale for Good, and Movement Makers.

Circular Business Models is about maximizing the life span of our products, and using materials and processes that enable products to be deconstructed and fed back into the production cycle. We want to use materials to create products that can be reused, repurposed, recycled, and rented. This is our opportunity to explore new ways of doing business, new ways of generating revenues, as well as reducing our environmental impact because the more you reuse the product and the materials, the less you have to rely on new resources and virgin materials to create your products.

Scale for Good. When you talk about sustainability, the first thought is that the bigger you are the more you pollute. But if you are big, your positive impact can be big as well. At VF, we see our scale as a positive element. Our global scale can actually be a force for good. Every choice we make in relation to reducing energy emissions, cleaning up water discharge from factories, ensuring that our corporate offices or distribution centers have a low environmental impact, making sure the workers in our supply chain are safe and have access to proper health, nutrition and child care, can result in huge positive impacts.

Our size does not limit us, it empowers us. Our operations are also scalable as we are able to partner with other organizations within our industry, outside of our industry, and collectively, we can make an even bigger impact.

Movement Makers. This is where we believe that every individual in our company has the ability to make their own personal contribution to sustainability issues. Individually, each of us is empowered to think about the choices we make on a day-to-day basis in our work, in our personal life that would impact the environment and society as well. In Asia, we launched Purpose Day that happens each year at the end of March. During this day, each and every employee at VF is called to contribute to her/his community in a meaningful way.

In Asia, one of our key efforts is the Worker and Community Development Program. This program looks after the people who make our products and the communities in which they live. We look at things such as access to clean water and sanitation, proper healthcare and nutrition and, childcare options. This program collects data through surveys at factories and communities to identify those key areas of need and tailor programs and partnerships with local organizations to  resolve those issues.

In Asia, programs are currently active in countries such as Bangladesh, India, and Cambodia.

Source: VF

RiA: How do you convey your sustainability message through your brands in Asia?

Sara: Consumers across different markets see sustainability in different ways in the sense that they prioritize one aspect or the other based on their own experience. At VF, we run consumer insights research that informs us about how consumers perceive sustainable actions differently across the region. We recognize that consumer perceptions of sustainability are also partially influenced by the public sector’s narrative about sustainability, how it is conveyed, media exposure, and the resources people have access to. Our goal is to offer products that speak to consumers in a language that resonates with them.

We have our group narrative, but of course, each brand is empowered to develop its own sustainability narrative and story.

RiA: Can you provide us with examples from your brands?

Sara: Each brand is unique and has its own strengths. Timberland®, for example, is very advanced in terms of regenerative materials and will continue in this direction.

The North Face® recently launched a new program in the US called Renewed, which allows customers to bring back products to be repaired.

Napapijri has the first fully recyclable circular jacket. Other brands like Smartwool and Icebreaker have been using ethically sourced Merino wool known as ZQ for a very long time.

Each brand has a slightly different focus depending on the products and on the materials they use. We want to encourage an independent approach because what one brand learns, the others can benefit from and we can use that at scale as well.

Renewal Workshop
Source: VF

RiA: There are a lot of narratives about the younger generation in having huge concerns for sustainability issues and prefer brands that actually do something for the environment or for people. Can you share some of your consumer insights?

Sara: Based on our consumer insights and research, our consumers are becoming more interested in sustainability topics in general. People want to know where their products are made, how they are made, who is involved and what materials are used.

Through our traceability program, for example, we can identify where certain materials come from, where certain products come from, all the way to the point of origin in many cases – allowing us to provide this important information to our consumers.

Through all of our programs, we always work to make sure that we are not just addressing what is right in front of us but also what we may not be able to see behind the scenes. We are focused on building transparency, engaging with our supply chain and building stronger relationships so that we can identify and regulate any environmental or social issues that we can find.

RiA: How do you manage to monitor the supply chain? This seems to be the main challenge for businesses.

Sara: Our audit system is the first filter. Before entering any agreement with a supplier, we go through a very comprehensive audit, which includes every aspect of the business from critical life safety to social conditions and environmental conditions.

As we start doing business with the factory, we continuously monitor ongoing activities to make sure our guidelines are being upheld. Sometimes we run into those issues where there could be pushbacks, so we work with our suppliers and assist them to adhere to our standards and values, our sustainability efforts, our science-based targets and other goals.

These efforts are progressed through collaboration and communication. This is more of a partnership to accomplish a purpose-led supply chain.

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We communicate regularly through our sourcing teams, through our audit teams, through our sustainable operations teams. We make sure that our factory partners feel like they are working with us versus working for us.

Even in times of crisis like the one we are all living, VF Corporation, The VF Foundation, and the VF family of brands have kept their targets and goals towards sustainability, and providing support to the communities they operate in globally with donations and medical equipment.