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Phil Covington headshot

Circular Design is Key to The North Face’s Strategy to Make Clothing More Sustainable

The North Face uses circular design to make its products long-lasting and easily recyclable in an effort to reduce environmental impact. We spoke with Carol Shu, senior manager of global sustainability at the North Face, to learn more about how it's designing with circularity in mind.
By Phil Covington
A bin at a retail location where The North Face customers can return their used gear to be refurbished or recycled - circular design and reuse in apparel

The apparel industry rightly comes in for criticism for being unsustainable. The so-called “fast-fashion” trend means cheap clothing is designed for short-term seasonal use with subsequent disposal in a very rapid cradle-to-grave cycle. 

Between 2000 and 2014, clothing got cheaper, and fast fashion became the norm. The average person purchased 60 percent more clothing than they did in the 1990s and held onto it for half as long, according to an analysis from McKinsey Sustainability. This rapid clothing production requires a lot of energy — more than what the aviation and shipping sectors use combined, according to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. As a result, the fashion industry is responsible for almost 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

The outdoor recreation products company the North Face is one of a growing number of apparel makers aiming to reduce the damaging effects of the clothing industry by changing the way they design their products.

TriplePundit spoke to Carol Shu, senior manager of global sustainability at the North Face, about the company’s efforts to reduce environmental impact. 

Designing products that last 

The company’s sustainability efforts center around circular design — a process that considers durability, ease of recycling, minimizing waste and use of responsibly sourced materials. For the North Face, the first step is ensuring product longevity.

“We take materials selection very seriously,” Shu said. “Materials are selected for performance and durability to extend the life of the products, and to keep them in use.” 

Extending product life is part of the the North Face’s DNA. The company introduced a limited lifetime warranty in 1968, shortly after its founding. Three years later, it opened a department to repair customers’ garments at the original factory in Berkeley, California.

Fast forward to the present: The North Face repaired more than 41,000 items in the last fiscal quarter. On average, the products repaired are about seven years old, Shu said. “We always want to think about next best use. If someone has something that is broken, we want them to send it in for repair first.” 

When customers inevitably outgrow their gear, some of it is refurbished and re-sold, and others are donated.

Circular design: Starting with end-of-use in mind

The North Face is rethinking the entire design process to be more sustainable when an item finally reaches the end of its useful life. “With circular design coming into play, the products are unique because it’s the first time we’ve intentionally designed them with end-of-life in mind,” Shu said.  

This process starts with avoiding materials that cannot be recycled. Blended fabrics composed of multiple materials, for example, cannot be reprocessed and are therefore destined for landfills. 

The North Face’s circular design product line uses mono-material fabrics that are easy to recycle. An important fabric suitable for a second life is polyester. The company’s industry partners deconstruct old garments and rework the material back into yarn that can be spun into new clothing.

To recycle polyester efficiently, designers must consider how to make the products easy to take apart. They think about how to manage trims like zippers and buttons. Where possible, trims should be 100 percent polyester, Shu said. When that’s not an option, designers focus on making the trims as easy to remove as possible.  

A clothing tag on The North Face's circular design line encouraging consumers to return the product when they're done using it.
A clothing tag on the North Face's circular design line encourages consumers to return the product when they're done using it.

The company runs tests with its recycling partners to make sure the design considerations for end-of-life deconstruction work as intended. “The best designed style for circularity took about five seconds to disassemble,” Shu said. “This is very important because, in recycling, everything has to be so fast to make the economics of it work.”

The circular design focus also applies to other materials like cotton and cotton-polyester blends. When recovered, the fibers are sent to manufacturing sites for reuse, predominantly in Asia and Central America where most apparel manufacturing takes place. 

These recycled materials won’t necessarily be used for new pieces from the North Face, though there may be opportunities for that in the future, Shu said. But the materials are recycled and reused, thereby reducing waste streams, which globally constitute tens of millions of metric tons of discarded clothing every year.

For customers, the process is easy. They simply bring back an item purchased from the North Face to one of the company’s retail stores when they are done with it. If they are an XPLR Pass member, they receive a shopping credit. 

The challenges to going fully circular 

In a perfect world, everything the company sells could be recycled under the circular design process, but challenges remain. Some of its technical gear is difficult to design for circularity, Shu said. This includes items with waterproof layers, lots of pockets and multiple materials that are essential for functionality.

The demand for recycling is also hard to predict. But the North Face wants to avoid merely being an intermediary for directing material to landfill, Shu said, so the company is establishing regional recycling partners to ensure it has the capacity to recycle as much returned product as possible. 

 “We sell products globally,” she said. “So we’re setting up circularity infrastructure in North America and Europe, because we don’t want to be shipping customers' products to other regions for recycling.” 

Expansion is coming 

The North Face continues to expand its line of circular design products. Twenty products were available in the line last fall. By fall 2023, the company plans to triple the number of circular styles.

The company will continue its focus on converting the materials it uses to lower-impact sources, Shu said. “We have a goal of converting 100 percent of our most commonly used materials — polyester, nylon and cotton — to either recycled, regenerative-organic, responsibly-sourced or renewable sources by 2025,” she explained.  

The North Face will launch the first product in its “climate conscious cotton” line this spring. The cotton in the line comes from farmers in the U.S. who use regenerative farming practices — like crop rotation and composting — which improve soil health and enhance carbon sequestration. 

It’s a win-win, Shu said. “Farmers want to reduce their reliance on synthetic inputs too.” 

Images courtesy of the North Face

Phil Covington headshot

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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