The North Face: An Alpine Outfitter in a Warmer World

How an outdoor retailer, named after the rock faces it encourages people to explore, is trying to preserve snow for sport.

The North Face is in the business of keeping people warm in the coldest conditions; and unfortunately, rising global temperatures are making it challenging for the company to keep its cool. Founded 50 years ago by seasoned mountain climbers, The North Face was made for those taking their “searching for the finest in alpine equipment” [1]. Though his mission seemed clear in 1966, Doug Tompkins could not have anticipated that the snow capped terrains he had built a brand around would be in jeopardy just a few decades later. Now, however, a U.S. Climate Risk Assessment states, “when looking at climate change, it’s particularly important to consider…the ‘outlier’ 1-in-100 year event today will become the 1-in-10 year event as the Earth continues to warm” [2].

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In 2007, realizing the environment in which its consumers thrived and products excelled was at risk, The North Face began purchasing offsets for the greenhouse gas emissions from its production and shipping [3]. Soon after, President Todd Spaletto expanded the company’s mission statement: “to ensure we continue to have places to explore, we believe it is our fundamental responsibility to preserve the outdoors” [4]. Having tied the brand to protecting the landscape in its logo, The North Face has since pursued emission reductions, offsets, education, and innovation as avenues for change. The question, now, is how far this global brand should be going to ensure that there is a world for us all to explore moving forward?

A Climbing Company Aims for New Lows

In 2008, The North Face declared its emission reduction goals and was similarly transparent when it failed to meet them. In 2013, the company had reduced its overall emissions by 21%, just missing its 25% goal as shown below [5].

chart

Although the emissions reductions are significant, the graphic also highlights a concerning increase in retail emissions. While competitive brands like Patagonia decided to reuse buildings and retrofit existing stores to avoid new retail construction, The North Face simply outfitted its stores with LED lighting and stated “we needed greater reductions at these facilities to meet our goal but this is difficult at our leased stores”–communicating a confusing message to consumers [6, 7, 8].

The outfitter continued to purchase offsets and was able to successfully reduce all emissions related to business travel by 2007. All commuting emissions had been offset through a partnership with the Conservation Fund’s Go Zero program, which planted enough trees to absorb an equivalent carbon output [9]. Again, the brand boasted a net decrease in emissions while obfuscating the purchase of offsets.

When Flashy Programs Fall Short: Hot Planet/Cool Athletes and The Backyard Project

In order to address the next generation of activists, the company established “Hot Planet / Cool Athletes.” This program uses snow sport athletes to teach middle and high school students what climate change is, why it’s happening, and what they can do to prevent or reverse its effects. Though this initiative, which accepts donations from consumers through a nonprofit known as Protect Our Winters (POW), communicates the brand’s social responsibility–it notably reaches just 7,000 students a year in the U.S. and Canada; critically ignoring other geographies and climates [10].

The company’s education focus also fails to acknowledge developing countries–even those that are popular sport and expedition destinations. The World Bank notes, “developing countries will need about $100 billion of new investments per year over the next 40 years to build resilience to the effects of climate change…This enormous burden cannot be carried out by national governments…they will need the buy-in and participation of the private sector” [11].

In addition to its education efforts, the company pursued change through product innovation. In 2014, The North Face launched “The Backyard Project,” to design and create apparel wholly within the 150-mile radius from the company’s Bay Area headquarters. Their website states, “while we didn’t meet our strict start-to-finish production goal, we did successfully collaborate with local farmers, producers and craftsmen to create something truly worth celebrating…There were challenges in garment dyeing the products due to the fiber pretreatment but working with the fabric was a valuable learning experience” [12].

Where to Climb From Here

As a large commercial retailer, the breadth of The North Face’s commitment to climate change alleviation is commendable. That said, as a retailer with such close ties to environmental appreciation and cold weather climates–we should expect more. The future of The North Face should include more rigor in its existing programs as well as internal product quality scorecards–like those at Patagonia–to assess durability of products, requirements for sustainable or recycled materials, and perhaps a b-corp certification to create external accountability around environmentally safe practices. Perhaps these changes will better hold their feet to the fire [13, 14].

Words: 792

Works Cited:

[1] The North Face Company, “Our Story,”https://www.thenorthface.com/about-us/our-story.html, accessed November 2016.

[2] Michael R. Bloomberg et al., “The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States,” The Risky Business Project (June 2014), p. 11, http://riskybusiness.org/site/assets/uploads/2015/09/RiskyBusiness_Report_WEB_09_08_14.pdf, accessed November 2016.

[3] The North Face Company, “Climate Change,” https://www.thenorthface.com/about-us/responsibility/operations/climate-change.html, accessed November 2016.

[4] The North Face Company, “Our Story,” https://www.thenorthface.com/about-us/our-story.html, accessed November 2016.

[5] The North Face Company, “Climate Change,” https://www.thenorthface.com/about-us/responsibility/operations/climate-change.html, accessed November 2016.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Patagonia, “Climate Change,” https://www.patagonia.com/climate-change.html, accessed November 2016.

[8] The North Face Company, “Facilities,” https://www.thenorthface.com/about-us/responsibility/operations/facilities.html, accessed November 2016.

[9] Conservation Fund, “Legacy of Go Zero,” http://www.conservationfund.org/carbon-and-climate/legacy-of-go-zero, accessed November 2016.

[10] Protect Our Winters, “About Us,” http://protectourwinters.org/about-us/, accessed November 2016.

[11] Dimitris Tsitsiragos, “Climate change is a threat – and an opportunity – for the private sector,” http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/opinion/2016/01/13/climate-change-is-a-threat—and-an-opportunity—for-the-private-sector, accessed November 2016.

[12] The North Face Company, “The Backyard Project,” https://www.thenorthface.com/about-us/responsibility/product/backyard.html, accessed November 2016.

[13] Patagonia, “Climate Change,” https://www.patagonia.com/climate-change.html, accessed November 2016.

[14] Certified B Corporations, “What Are B Corps,” https://www.bcorporation.net/what-are-b-corps, accessed November 2016.

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4 thoughts on “The North Face: An Alpine Outfitter in a Warmer World

  1. Interesting article! Their efforts to expand sustainability education are great, but I agree that much more can be done. For example, H&M introduced a clothes recycling program where customers can recycle their used clothes and H&M uses these recycled clothes in their clothing production. Efforts such as these would both improve North Face’s brand image and also provide a direct way of reducing its environmental impact.

  2. As a fan of North Face, I really enjoyed this look into their emissions offsets. However, I wonder how climate change would impact the company from a product manufacturing perspective. What changes to suppliers or even fundamental fibers and materials could they make to lessen their environmental impact? Additionally, The North Face sponsors many outdoor teams (The North Face Climbing Team comes to mind). Are there local organizations or projects that they could sponsor to help raise awareness?

  3. As SL436, I’m also a fan of North Face and surprised to learn that their climate change/ global warming efforts are falling short. I agree with mrp that they could and should do more. What North Face is missing I believe is a clear focus. With so many different initiatives such as “Hot Planet / Cool Athletes”, “The Backyard Project” and others, it’s hard to deliver significant impact. Other fashion companies have focused on clear initiatives and have succeeded. For example, Stella McCartney has branded itself as a vegetarian fashion brand and has tied global warming initiatives to this goal. The company has founded, together with others, “Meat Free Mondays” in an effort to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions (see http://www.stellamccartney.com/experience/us/press-room/paul-mary-stella-mccartney-join-forces-greg-barker-mp-launch-meat-free-monday-climate-pledge-campaign-2/ ). North Face should choose one of its initiatives and double down on it.

  4. I’m a big friend of the brand and a customer who believes business and sustainable practices should be aligned. I like this article because it portrays the difficult decisions business face when they adopt “go-green” value propositions.

    The example of retail emissions for North Face stores is a good picture of the hard balance the company ought to achieve: maximize returns for shareholders while achieving its own goals for sustainability. I have never realized that Patagonia reuse buildings ad retrofit existing stores. This is not only a smart and commercial way to build new stores but is also visual appetitive: our generation seems to enjoy the contrast between the old and new, especially in interior design. North Face should also adopt this approach; LED lighting is a good strategy but, as numbers show, not enough.

    I was also impressed by the “Hot Planet/Cool Athletes” educational program. Even though US and Canada are important markets for the company and US the second largest CO2 emission in the world, I do believe that the program should also aim emerging countries such as Brazil and India. On these countries, climate change is still an undervalued topic. Hence, giving North Face willingness to impact and raise attention on the issues we are facing, I would strongly recommend the brand to expand the program and focus on what young students can do to decrease the alarming change in climate.

    Good job, great article!

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