Smartwool is a brand mainly manufacturing products from merino wool. The company is a subsidiary of VF Corporation, one of the world’s largest apparel companies. It’s unfortunate that VF Corporation publishes a single sustainability report that covers all of its brands and leaves us without specific information per brand. This makes it significantly harder to judge their individual performances. That being said, the company does offer a relatively elaborate sustainability report, which shows that it’s definitely open to change and wants to improve.
The corporation was founded over a century ago and has kept creating and acquiring new brands, which resulted into a portfolio of over thirty well-known brands. With its acquisitions of Timberland in 2011, through a two billion USD deal, and athletic brand Altra in 2018, the company is still growing. VF Corporation states that it directly employs over 68,000 people globally, and nearly a million earn their income by making VF products. With such a portfolio, it’s no surprise that the materials for the products originate in nearly sixty different countries. Considering all these big numbers, it's interesting to see how the company is tackling sustainable development for its operations. Change comes slowly for a giant like VF. In terms of material sourcing, it still uses uncertified leather and a large chunk of polyester and nylon are virgin materials. Outdoor apparel is not yet PFC-free and there’s a lot of room for improvement concerning sustainable cotton. There are targets for improving these statistics though. By 2025, the company wants to source 100% more sustainable cotton and in that same year at least 50% of their nylon and polyester has to be recycled. These targets logically indicate that currently there’s a large percentage of unsustainable materials being used for their products.
VF’s supply chain is relatively transparent. The company has done a pilot in which it published traceability maps for some of its products. We can also find its facilities on the Open Apparel Index, which offers us insight into where its garments are produced. VF Corporation states that it’s working on publishing source maps for its full supply chain, which can be the stepping stone towards full transparency concerning their scope 3 emissions. These currently exclude production and material emissions, which are generally the biggest chunk of emissions for clothing companies. But even though not everything is tracked and measured yet, the multinational corporation is taking climate action. Currently, it’s working with the Higg Index to measure environmental performance in its own facilities to improve water efficiency and waste. VF Corporation has also put Science Based Targets in place, which aim to reduce Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 55% and Scope 3 emissions by 30% by 2030. There’s a commitment to purchasing 100% renewable energy across owned and operated facilities by 2025, which is currently 14%.
Workers’ rights are a very complex element for a company with such a huge number of factories and people who work on its products. Production takes place in a lot of risk-prone countries where malpractice is always lurking around the corner. To tackle this issue, VF drew up a Code of Conduct that covers basic workers’ rights, such as workplace safety and maximum weekly working hours. But defining standards in a Code of Conduct is the first step to take. What matters more, is actually upholding these standards. VF Corporation states that it audited 95% of factories in 2018 (2,319 audits). These are conducted either by the company itself or by a third party. Audits conducted by companies themselves carry the risk of being less transparent about actual performance and that’s why an audit by a renowned third party is generally more trustworthy. While it’s great that VF Corporation conducts a large number of audits, the quality of these audits and transparency concerning who actually conducts them needs to be improved. Besides that, there is no proof that VF Corporation pays workers a living wage.
With great power comes great responsibility. As one of the leaders in the fashion industry, VF has the possibility to show the entire industry that change is possible and raise the bar for everyone involved. The corporation is absolutely changing for the better and, with some serious targets in place, the possible impact it can make is pretty huge. But, as it stands, this is still a company that has produced in a very unsustainable manner for many years and has inherited a lot of systems from previous eras. So, while change is definitely coming, it's a long road ahead.