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Sustainably Attired

VF Corp. Looks to Cut Chemicals in Textile Manufacturing

textile manufacturing

Back in 2011, Letitia Webster, now senior director of global sustainability for VF Corp., was asked to start and lead the company's global sustainability program. This involved creating a framework to align sustainability efforts across the corporation’s 30 brands, including The North Face, Timberland and Vans.

To accomplish this task, Webster looked closely at waste, energy and water issues connected to the production of the brands’ diverse products. During her assessment, she noted the great environmental impact of the chemicals used throughout the manufacturing process. That observation sparked the eventual creation of CHEM-IQ, VF’s new chemical management program launched with pilot factories in 2013 and set to scale across the corporation’s entire supply chain this year.

For a company that produces more than 500 million units a year – many of which are high-performing technical products designed for professional athletes, which require robust chemistry to meet wind-, water- and odor-resistance needs – moving the needle on how VF and all of its suppliers manage chemicals was not a lone undertaking.

The CHEM-IQ program was developed in partnership with University of Leeds and University of Massachusetts, Lowell, with support from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and technical service provider Modern Testing Services. It evaluates chemicals used at the mill level – before they enter the manufacturing process – and identifies toxins present in some dyes, flame retardants, and water, stain and wrinkle repellents that could harm people and the environment.

Many chemicals used to make our favorite T-shirts, jeans and jackets are ultimately discharged as wastewater into bodies of water around the world – once at the manufacturing stage and many times over the product’s lifetime when consumers wash their clothes at home. Some of these chemicals make their way into rivers, seas and oceans and can harm aquatic life, not to mention humans.

“When the industry moved to Asia, water issues went by the wayside,” Webster explained. “[With CHEM-IQ], we’re trying to build a platform that takes into consideration all regulations across the line and create something that becomes a new norm. If we find a chemical that might be an endocrine disrupter, we will eliminate it.”

As an $11 billion global apparel and footwear business with an international portfolio of brands, VF’s chemical management program is not only focused on accelerating the use of safer chemicals throughout its supply chain, but it is also hoping to influence global industries. Taking a cue from The North Face’s “gift” of its Responsible Down Standard to industry group Textile Exchange, VF hopes to gift CHEM-IQ to an external group and spur transformational change in chemical management across sectors.

“It’s a very easy business case: It’s not expensive. The mills pay for the testing, and we got [the testing] down to $50 per chemical, which is really manageable. The benefits far outweigh any costs,” Webster said. “We want to make sure we’re moving down the path of better, smarter, safer chemistry … It does the industry no good if it’s just a VF program.”

Tools to evaluate chemical ingredients in apparel products are not new to the industry. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, released in 2012, includes chemical management components, as does the chemical management guide Chemicals Management Module (CMM). Last year, the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) launched its own Web-based collaboration tool to encourage industry-wide information exchange about chemical management practices.

Beyond providing a mechanism to evaluate chemicals, CHEM-IQ connects suppliers to a low-cost chemical testing system to screen out toxins from supply chains.

Corporate initiatives to target chemicals management, as a part of sustainability strategy, have arisen partly in response to a rising tide in advocacy and consumer concern about the chemical makeup of everyday products. Greenpeace’s ongoing Detox Fashion campaign, for example, has increasingly raised consumer awareness of hazardous chemicals in our clothes. The campaign has challenged big names such as Adidas, Nike and Zara to eliminate hazardous substances from their supply chains and products.

Online and mobile tools, such as GoodGuide, also empower consumers with information about products’ overall health, environmental and social performance -- encouraging the public to vote with their dollars.

With CHEM-IQ, VF is not only turning a potential reputational risk into an innovative opportunity, but it is also reassuring consumers about the company's products and heartening other industry players to do the same.

For more information on the CHEM-IQ program, check out the infographic below.

Image credit: Flickr/marcohk

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Nayelli is the Founder & CEO of CreatorsCircle, a resource hub that connects diverse youth with opportunities to create a life of purpose and impact. A trained journalist with an MBA, she also keeps the pulse on sustainable business and social impact trends and has covered these topics for a variety of publications over the past 15 years. She’s a systems thinker who loves to learn, share knowledge and help others connect the dots. 

Read more stories by Nayelli Gonzalez