Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, many of us remember the popularity of The North Face jackets. Not only were they the go-to gear for cold winter days, but they were also a status symbol worn by celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, music artists such as Biggie Smalls, and our stylish classmates alike. Many recall pleading with our parents for a coveted North Face jacket – emphasizing its practicality, of course.
Thanks to celebrities and high-profile couture collaborations with brands like Gucci, Vans, Supreme, Timberland, Comme Des Garcons, and Maison Margiela, the iconic puffers were catapulted into a “must-have” status and remain a staple to this day, with The North Face down jackets being the most popular item sold on the resale site, Depop in 2020.
As sustainable and eco-friendly fashion rose to the mainstream, many outdoor recreation clothing brands have built a reputation for being socially responsible companies, as well as exceptional in quality, durability, and innovation. Combining fashion with function, these brands have become synonymous with the nature-loving and adventure-seeking lifestyle. Heavily popularized in the 1990s, legacy companies like REI, Columbia, The North Face and Patagonia, have cultivated a sense of trust and credibility among their growing customer base through their longstanding presence in the market.
However, while an appreciation for the natural world and performance gear might go hand in hand, are these beloved brands truly as eco-friendly as they are often assumed to be? Brands like Patagonia and The North Face tout breathtaking landscapes and a reverence for Mother Earth in their marketing, but with 4% of global carbon emissions arising from the clothing industry, one has to dig deeper than ads to determine whether these presumed eco-friendly brands have measurable data to back up a responsible approach to environmental impact or are merely a sustainability mirage.
The environmental footprint of apparel companies also has a significant impact on worker rights and wages. Due to the rising demand for fast fashion, North American companies are outsourcing garment production to other countries, including Bangladesh, China and India, which have the largest living wage gap in the world. Without access to living wages and resources, many garment workers are risking their health, safety and lives everyday. Coming from marginalized communities, they bear the brunt of climate change and environmental degradation, such as pollution, poor air quality and other health issues. Therefore, workers rights and living wages are an essential part of the conversation as we discern between the brand’s intentions and actions to right the wrongs of the industry.
Columbia Sportswear – encompassing Columbia, Sorel, prAna and Mountain Hardwear – has made public commitments to support the people within their supply chains and to preserve the environment.
On the people front, the brand’s impact report boasts of employee training and education programs, as well as Aqua tower building projects to make clean drinking water accessible for the communities within its supply chains. However, there is no mention of wages and labor conditions that directly impact the workers.
The Oregon-founded company has made some headway in the transparency of its supply chains. The brand’s transparency map displays Tier 1 and 2 suppliers; however, there is no information on Tier 3 suppliers that are responsible for producing raw materials, such as cotton, for its garments.
Columbia also introduced the ReThreads take back program in 2017 to help people recycle used clothing and footwear, but there has been little information on how the recycled pieces make their way back into the chain. There is also no evidence of designing new products with circularity in mind. In the industry, take back programs without tangible reports can become part of a greenwashing marketing tactic.
When it comes to carbon emissions, Columbia has set a climate target of a 30% reduction in manufacturing emissions by 2030, as compared to a 2019 baseline. However, this is not remotely enough to halt the effects of climate change. According to the UN climate report, at least 43% reduction is required to limit global warming to 1.5C.
While there is commitment and some transparency from Columbia, there is clearly room for improvement in all areas of traceability, human rights, and climate action.
As a popular eco-friendly outdoor brand, Patagonia differentiates itself from others by centering environmental advocacy and the use of unconventional marketing strategies, such as posting an ad asking customers not to buy its products out of care for the planet.
A pioneer in the outdoor apparel industry, the brand is also known for offering one of the first free repair services, the Worn Wear program, and for its history of environmental activism. It’s also the first outdoor apparel company to make polyester from used soda bottles, incorporating the use of recycled products since 1993.
Despite the brand’s radical approaches, the company has yet to display full transparency of its supply chains, except for the virgin down used in its sleeping bags. However, compared to other brands, Patagonia has publicized information on living wages, which is a rarity in the industry. In 2020, 39% of its apparel assembly factories are paying workers a living wage on average.
The level of transparency is extended to the brand’s complete breakdown of the company’s carbon emissions. Unlike other companies, Patagonia is setting its sights on reducing carbon emissions, by going beyond merely purchasing carbon offsets to cancel out emissions as an attempt to distract consumers from the real problem. In order to reverse the effects of climate change, society needs to drastically reduce the amount of carbon emissions from going into the atmosphere.
While Patagonia’s commitments are on the right track, there has been no further details on its plans of action.
When it comes to “eco-friendly” materials, Patagonia doesn’t just use generic terms. Instead, it educates its customers on the specific materials it uses to make its clothing, like NetPlus® and Yulex® natural rubber. Currently, the brand is making strides in the way of circularity with its innovative recycled polyester Infinna™ Fiber. Through its takeback program, old Patagonia T-shirts are transformed into the brand’s Tee-Cycle collection, which uses recycled fiber.
Patagonia is raising the bar by providing statistics on living wages and specifics on how materials from its take-back program will be recycled into its production chain. To become truly sustainable and ethical, we would like to see a list of the brand’s Tier 3 suppliers and learn about how it will be cutting carbon emissions throughout its supply chain.
REI has a history of advocating for environmental responsibility and extending product life cycles through repair, rental, and resale. However, it is falling short of providing transparency of its supply chains as well as worker’s rights. According to the 2022 Remake Fashion Accountability Report, “REI’s disclosures do not even meet the minimum standard of supply chain transparency that has become commonplace in the industry.”
In REI’s impact report, its goal is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55%, compared to a 2019 baseline. However, the brand has been dependent on the purchase of carbon credits to offset its emissions. This can be problematic as it does not actually reduce the carbon emissions being released into the air, but rather a greenwashing tactic which allows companies to buy their way out of taking full responsibility. Instead, REI is shifting the focus and responsibility to their brand partners – non-REI products sold in-store – by ensuring at least 55% of their annual sales volume will come from brands with a science-aligned emissions reduction target by 2025.
To address a petition led by Toxic-free Future signed by its members and customers, REI is currently aiming to remove polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from all of its products by Fall 2024, including all their private-label and brand-name products it sells. Often found in water-resistant products, PFAS are a group of toxic chemicals that do not break down in the environment and can pollute water sources while harming wildlife.
The ban of toxic chemicals is a major step to prevent further environmental pollution, but REI still lacks in taking ownership and making any tangible commitments to reducing its own carbon footprint. Furthermore, transparency of its supply chain and labor conditions are also lacking.
The North Face is part of the VF Corp, which is a global company with a large environmental footprint. Unlike fellow outdoor companies, the brand’s marketing campaigns focus on the innovative, quality materials used in its products. Furthermore, The North Face makes a point to educate its customers about the cutting-edge technology used to create garments that last a lifetime.
With The North Face, Timberland and Supreme under its wing, VF is making some progress in sustainable sourcing, by working towards a goal of 50% recycled polyester by fiscal year 2026. Since Fall 2022, The North Face has replaced more than 85% of its polyester and 75% of its nylon with recycled content. In an effort to reduce the impact of chemicals on the environment under VF, the brand is also experimenting with regenerative materials and bio-based materials in order to phase out per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) by 2025.
The launch of The North Face Renewed Takeback Program in 2022 seems promising, as the brand makes recycling more accessible. Other than incentivizing consumers to recycle its garments, North Face is implementing circular designs, such as its first Alpine Polartec performance fleece collection, which can be disassembled and recycled by the company into raw materials for a second generation of products.
However, as makers of the iconic jackets, The North Face has yet to warm up to the practice of full transparency when it comes to its supply chain and worker wages. At first glance, the source map on The North Face’s website seems like a thoughtful visualization of its global supplier network, but the information is limited to mainly Tier 1 and 2. Although the brand prides itself on its durable, high-tech materials, it has failed to disclose sufficient details at the foundational, raw material production level.
In terms of climate action, VF Corp utilizes science-based targets to inform its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 55% by 2030. As of 2022, the company has achieved 66% of its target.
The VF Corp is on the right track to sourcing more sustainably and designing for longevity in mind. As a global company, Remake hopes to see the company fill the gaps of transparency and become active in directly supporting worker well-being through upholding workplace safety and health standards and paying them living wages.
Being Authentically Eco-Friendly Goes Beyond Optics
So, are these beloved outdoor brands really eco-friendly? Whether or not a brand is eco-friendly is only meaningful if these claims are backed up with concrete action and details on progress.
Given their long history, Columbia, Patagonia, REI and The North Face’s parent company VF Corp, have all taken thoughtful steps towards becoming more sustainable and ethical. However, public commitments and product life extension programs are now considered a baseline. Meeting the status quo is not enough to drive radical transformation. In fact, it is easy to jump on the bandwagon of climate conversations, but how does one know if companies are truly making an impact? The answer is simple: greater transparency and accountability.
With brand’s openly providing information about suppliers and how products are made, further transparency will level the playing field by allowing consumers and public stakeholders to hold brands accountable for their actions. By calling out issues around human and environmental exploitation, we can implore brands to take responsibility over its people and the planet by enhancing ethical and sustainable practices throughout the industry.
Based on the Remake accountability criteria, Patagonia comes out on top when compared to the other outdoor clothing brands. Its disclosure of tangible benchmarks for providing living wages to its workers and detailed carbon emissions breakdown within its supply chain is refreshing to see in the fashion industry. On the other hand, how the brand will be cutting emissions and supporting its workers through labor unionizations remain to be seen.
It is encouraging to see that The North Face, under The VF, has started to embed circularity into its designs and are aligning its goals with climate science while disclosing the brand’s carbon reduction statistics publicly.
However, to date, REI is the only company that has signed the International Accord, a legally binding agreement that ensures the safety and health of workers in garment factories. While much of the attention has been placed on carbon emission reduction and environmental preservation, the livelihood of people, especially in marginalized communities disproportionately impacted by climate change, are often left out of the conversation.
Update: The story has been corrected on 9/19/23 to reflect updated information to provide further clarity.