Instead of outsourcing all production, North Face is owned by a parent company, VF, that does all the manufacturing. Although this can have problems, it eliminates having a third party that must comply to a random, foreign code of conduct.
VF has over 58,000 employees and owns over a dozen companies including Smart Wool, Timberland, Jansport, and Vans. Because of their size and worldwide presence they have a lot of leverage to do harm or do good. It is also a set of messy relationships, making it difficult to tie VF down and label them “good” or “bad” as a whole. It is possible to see a list of every factory, but Tier 2 sources for VF are a little harder to find. Although VF owns each company, each company is not equal in the manufacturing chain. Each company has highlights that the company decided to clean up and improve, but sadly they all have their down falls as well.
North Face has created a program to clean up their down supply chain. In 2015 they realized the potential for the animals to be mistreated in production of down material, so they began the RDS program to certify ‘clean down’. Their goal is to have 100% certification of down supply by Fall of 2017.
Along with down supply, North Face has been seeking to use recycled materials, cutting down 50% water use, 50% less chemicals, and 25% less energy. North face is working to use more eco-friendly chemicals. They have also started to work with BlueSign Technologies to for less water and energy usage. North face creates products for a lifetime, ensured with a lifetime guarantee, to cut down materialism and waste as well.
‘VF has established a robust set of social, environmental and ethical standards throughout the entire supply chain,’ these standards, from the VF code of conduct, are not just words that fall to the ground. They are supported and enforced by annual third party and business audits.
The biggest question in VF manufacturing is their support and use of factories in Bangladesh. 12% of their products are manufactured in Bangladesh. But, Bangladesh factories have numerous human rights violations and notoriously bad working conditions all topped off by the Rana Plaza fire in 2013. VF was not a part of the factory fire but they are supporting factories that have similar conditions. Fortunately, they have begun to work in Bangladesh to stop these abuses. VF did join the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker safety which is a $50 million investment in creating workers rights in Bangladesh. The Alliance is providing worker empowerment, training, fire safety training, and finances for repairs.
Having been in a VF factory in Honduras, I have seen a good example of a factory that has fair treatment of workers and phenomenal working conditions, as well as a relationship between workers and management. Specifically, I saw workers who had dignity and who could smile as we walked by. It was very encouraging, but we still need to ask if all factories are equal. This factory was in Central America where VF does over 40% of production, which is an encouraging statistic having seen a positive example.
Overall, North Face, under VF, is making efforts to become more sustainable and to treat workers fairly. Their supply chain is probably not perfect, but we need to encourage their improvement. At this point, the question is not ‘Should we buy North Face?’ but ‘Should we buy products made in Bangladesh?’
Written By: Katelynn Behrens