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Sean Cady headshot

Could Closing the Loop in Business Protect the Planet and People?

"'Circularity' may sound like the latest enviro fad and buzzword. To make it meaningful, scale circularity, and make it the business norm of the future, we need greater industry commitment across the board," argues this VF Corp. executive.
By Sean Cady
VF Corporation responsibility circularity

Editor's Note: This article is sponsored by VF Corporation. 

Imagine if your favorite hiking boots, T-shirts and other clothing items could give back to the world more than they took. 

And what if the wool, leather, rubber or cotton in your boots and T-shirts were farmed through regenerative agriculture that captures atmospheric carbon dioxide, while the manufacturing met greenhouse gas emission targets aligned with the Paris Agreement? How about if all the materials in your products originated from regenerative, renewable or recycled materials? And every person across the global supply chain — from the farmers and factory workers and their communities, to workers at the suppliers, distribution centers and stores — were treated with dignity, equality, and respect for human rights and diversity?

As the apparel industry strives to ease our impact, these boots envision how we should expand our pursuit of sustainability to safeguard and support both our planet and the people we depend on for our products. 

We’re all aware that sustainability is the future. We recognize the pitfalls of fast fashion. Consumers are more conscious of the products they buy. Investors, shareholders, analysts, and regulators are more concerned about the environmental and social risks of public companies. 

Smart apparel makers are responding. Many are transitioning from the traditional, linear, unsustainable “take, make and waste” business model to sustainable circular design. 

For example, consider the opportunity of designing products to be made from recycled materials with fewer virgin raw materials, to last longer, to be recycled, and perhaps to be refurbished for resale.  Rather than simply disposed, businesses are looking at the end-life of products, how they would be dismantled and reincarnated into new products to buy or rent. 

“Circularity” may sound like the latest enviro fad and buzzword. To make it meaningful, scale circularity, and make it the business norm of the future, we need greater industry commitment across the board, leading with purpose and values, and demonstrated with greater investment in training, testing and innovation.  

Like those visionary boots illustrate, a true sustainability strategy goes beyond circularity to take a systemic approach considering the impact on every person and place in a company’s sourcing, operations and supply chain, the world over.  That means every step of the way finding opportunities to make a positive impact and add value.

Timberland ReBOTL boots recycled materials regenerative leather circularity
Timberland's lineup of boots now include recycled plastic and regenerative leather, among other circular materials. 

For apparel to become truly sustainable, we must focus on people, planet and product in an interconnected way. That starts with ensuring worker safety and health, prevention of gender-based violence and other human abuses, freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and fair wages, and strict intolerance for child and forced labor.

By embracing a broader circularity that protects both planet and people, the apparel industry can unlock new revenue streams while working to minimize its environmental impact — and model actions and results for other industries through leveraging our scale for good.

All in all, sustainability boils down to responsibility — putting people and planet over irresponsible profits. Purpose and profit aren’t mutually exclusive.  Quite the contrary: The cycle of purpose and profit can create ongoing opportunities to leverage business success that fuels and fulfills purpose, leading to responsible — and sustainable — profits.  

Given how “greenwashing” can undermine public trust, sustainability also demands putting proof over promotion — doing first and talking later — and being publicly transparent and real about impact. For a few VF examples: 

  • This year VF teamed with the nonprofit WaterAid to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to support the Cambodian government’s pandemic response plan, which helped vaccinate more than 20,000 factory workers and 300,000 citizens while delivering vital hygiene supplies to over 100,000 people across five provinces.  
  • In 2020, the Timberland brand introduced its first pair of boots made of regenerative leather.
  • An elevated partnership with Soles4Souls allowed the Timberland and The North Face brands to divert 13 million tons of shoes and apparel from the landfill and recycle the equivalent of more than 380 million plastic bottles into Timberland footwear in our FY2020. 
  • The North Face  brand’s re-commerce platform allows customers to buy high-quality, lightly worn, second-life apparel which saved 37,000 pounds of clothing from the landfill in its first year alone.  
  • The Napapijri brand’s Circular Series Infinity Jacket — Cradle to Cradle Certified Gold — uses nylon yarn made from discarded fishing nets and other waste.  
  • The Smartwool brand converted nearly seven tons of wool scrap into insulation for its Smartloft jackets. In the summer 2021, Smartwool teamed up with The New Zealand Merino Company and sister brand, Icebreaker launched the world’s first regenerative wool platform, ZQRX
  • Just this year, The Timberland, Vans, and The North Face brands established a partnership with Terra Genesis International in Thailand to build the industry’s first regenerative rubber supply system. This supply system will grow to support other brands across and outside the industry.

VF’s recent sustainability and responsibility report, Made for Change, details its progress against its commitments, and recognizes that large global companies have greater ability and responsibility to do more, and lead by example.  To that end, the report demonstrates how the apparel industry can put safeguarding people and planet into a virtuous cycle with profitability. 

The new sustainability and circularity business models the apparel industry needs may be disruptive.  But we all also know disruption—however painful—drives creativity and innovation, which fuels success and growth. Which in this case, not only meets the urgent demand for climate action and human rights, but also today’s consumer market that cares deeply about people and the planet.  

Those visionary boots have miles to go. But the destination clearly is worth the journey. 

This article is sponsored by VF Corporation.

Images courtesy of VF Corporation

Sean Cady headshot

Sean Cady is Vice President, Global Sustainability, Responsibility and Trade at VF Corporation, a global leader in branded lifestyle apparel, footwear and accessories. VF is owner of iconic brands, including The North Face, Vans, Timberland, and Dickies. Under Cady’s direction, VF has built an industry-leading global organization of experts that leads product stewardship initiatives across all VF brands, accelerates factory social and environmental leadership throughout the global supply chain, invests in community development programs that directly improves workers’ lives, advances VF’s sustainability strategy across all aspects of VF’s business and supply chain, and builds global trade strategies to maximize value through global product flows. Cady holds an M.B.A. in International Business and a B.S. in Chemical Engineering, and he is a licensed Professional Engineer in the State of California. He also serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

Read more stories by Sean Cady