In this Our Changing Climate environmental video essay, I look at the environmental actions of The North Face clothing. Specifically, I look at how The North Face seems to be torn between environmental actions and sustainability on the one hand and appeasing shareholders on the other. Ultimately, The North Face seems to follow the example of Patagonia and Fjällräven rather than challenging the outdoor industry to be environmentally ethical and sustainable leaders in their field.
Transcript provided by YouTube:
In the mid-1960s, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins met over a business deal.
These two young men both shared a love for adventure and a passion for all things outdoors.
But they also had one more thing in common.
They would each found two outdoor gear companies that would become juggernauts in the field.
For Chouinard it was Patagonia, and for Tompkins it was The North Face.
Both companies were born from a love of exploration and a passion for trustworthy gear, but their
paths quickly diverged.
Chouinard kept Patagonia private and incrementally grew the company into a brand that is passionate
not only about good gear but about the environment and ethical practices.
Tompkins, on the other hand, sold The North Face in 1966 for $50,000 dollars and the company
transformed into a $2 billion publicly traded corporation over the next 50 years, and it
constantly straddles the line between a hunt for profits and staying true to its outdoor
Considering these two diverging paths, I’ve always wondered whether The North Face has
retained the same attention to the environment and ethical production as other sustainable
leaders in the outdoor industry like Patagonia or Cotopaxi, and, if you’re looking to buy
new gear, is it worth it to buy The North Face over other similar brands?
The best way to understand The North Face’s environmental approach is through its manufacturing
and production processes.
That’s where, according to the company itself, 85% of their apparel’s environmental impact
The North Face produces a wide range of clothing lines from streetwear and t-shirts to full-body
Everest-tested snow suits that look like a wearable sleeping bags.
But The North Face never seems to be a leader in the field of sustainability.
Rather than pushing the boundaries of what a for-profit company can do in terms of environmentalism
and ethics, they follow in the footsteps of those that do.
For example, in 2000, Patagonia became the first brand to start using textile manufacturers
certified by bluesign, which seeks to minimize the harmful environmental effects of clothing
10 years later, The North Face then began to partner with bluesign certified manufacturers.
And in 2013, Patagonia and Fjallraven announced their transition to only using cruelty-free
down for their jackets, and a year later in October 2014, The North Face followed suit.
So while The North Face’s environmental practices are improving, they aren’t necessarily
innovating and discovering new ways to lessen their impact, and part of this might be driven
by a need to keep profits high in order to appease shareholders, because the costs of
environmental ethical actions in the eyes of a multi-billion dollar company often outweigh
This is also present in dealing with waste after their apparel leaves their store.
The North Face has started to ramp up initiatives to prevent unnecessary textile waste in the
landfill like in-store clothing receptacles for used North Face gear or the recently launched
pilot of a program called The North Face Renewed, which takes used gear, refurbishes it, and
then sells them at a high price point.
They even have a lifetime guarantee for their product, but that guarantee quickly falls
apart when you look at the fine print.
Their warranty only really protects against factory defects and not general wear and tear.
So, once again, The North Face does have some solid environmental practices and initiatives,
but unfortunately, they still are caught between two interests: making sure their quarterly
profits are on the up and up, and making sure they are creating environmentally ethical
So, is The North Face worth your money?
For me, no.
Honestly, the most environmentally conscious purchase is nothing at all or buying something
used if anything, but if I had to choose a sustainable brand it wouldn’t be The North
They seemed to be held back by a constant need to boost profits and expand their brand,
in ways that brand like Patagonia or Fjallraven might not be.
Ultimately, for an outdoor retail brand that commands a large chunk of the industry, The
North Face has the opportunity to challenge its competitors to excel as much as a for-profit
company can in terms of sustainability.
But just looking at the company’s actions in the last couple of years, The North Face
only seems to be waiting for the tide to drag them along.
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This post was previously published on YouTube.
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