VF Corp.’s Made for Change initiative outlining goals for advancing environmental and social improvements across the company takes on specific meaning when it comes to its Jeanswear Coalition.
Roian Atwood, Sustainability Director for Jeanswear at VF Corp., explained in an interview that’s because denim production has some unique characteristics, from cotton farming to fabric treatments to manufacturing methods that make sustainability goals more challenging.
“When we look back at the legacy and heritage brands that Wrangler and Lee are, there’s been a long history and sort of strength in good apparel engineering and adopting new technologies for continuous improvement,” Atwood said. “We recognize that even though the word sustainability may be overplayed with some consumer groups, and we’ve been reframing it to talk about value and sustainability as value, as in having confidence, as in caring for all of those things,” which aligns with corporate goals and synergies.
However, in the Jeanswear Coalition, where Wrangler and Lee are each $1 billion brands, there are certain aspects that are more specific to the product.
“Cotton is a big focus for us and the cotton that goes into our product, and the water resources required to finish that product–the water that goes into that dyeing process and even water that goes into cotton is a big concern,” Atwood said. “I think we’ve largely been focused on these material impacts, and it matches up nicely to our corporate goals.”
He noted that Wrangler sources more than 50 percent of its cotton from U.S. growers, and that’s “vastly different than smallholder farmers in other geographies,” he said, and fits into sustainability and environmental goals.
“It is highly mechanized and often these producers are producing multiple crops,” Atwood said. “Our growers are also growing corn, they are growing sorghum, they are growing wheat, and that’s actually the practice that we want to see, that’s actually a practice we advocate for with growers is complex rotation—the idea of using three different crops in the same field over a five-year time frame. It’s one of the six key practices that we’ve identified as being good land stewardship practices.”
He noted that the platform has been developed while taking cues from thought leaders such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which focuses on biology as this missing link that hasn’t been managed in the farming systems and “that’s inspiring, because I think it is a direct manifestation of Wrangler’s desire to take care of the land.”
Partners in this effort also include the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation on new water saving methods, and the Soil Health Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina, that is researching healthy soils and how to measure and track them.
“When we look at the denim footprint, in general, there’s obviously an environmental impact, and we want to attack both the hotspots with the most significant impact, and then there’s what is it that we can immediately control and effect,” he said. “When it applies to our own cut and sew facilities and the denim wash down process, we’ve been very diligent to implement water savings techniques, and in 2016 we announced our 2020 goal. It’s a Wrangler specific 2020 goal to remove 5.5 billion liters of water from our manufacturing process, leave it in the ground for local communities and we are doing that through not only improved wash cycles, but through simple water recycling methods.”
He noted that VF aims to decarbonize its business and help restore our planet’s ability to sequester more carbon through natural carbon sinks such as forests, farms and oceans.
VF notes that carbon dioxide is emitted at every stage of its operations, from offices and factories to the fields where cotton and other raw materials are grown. To eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in owned and operated facilities, it is moving to source 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.
In the area of water recycling, VF is piloting a reverse osmosis program for water recycling across its laundry facilities. The test has seen a 50 percent reuse rate for the past two years. In 2017, VF expanded the system to increase that rate.
“We have a water shortage globally and we have to solve these issues,” Atwood said. “How can we learn and borrow from other industries, bring that into ours, and rescope or redefine how wastewater is treated? If we think about how wastewater treatment will look like in 10 to 15 years from now, it can be vastly different.”
For a large denim manufacturer like VF, it takes a major commitment, he noted.
“You cannot necessarily recycle your water unless you are willing to make an investment and have some sort of treatment going on, onsite,” Atwood said. “There are many varying scenarios—if you fully treat your water onsite versus if you use an effluent treatment plan, a centralized effluent treatment plan, so things are outside of your control.”
VF uses the 25 percent of its owned manufacturing facilities to test new water conservation techniques and incorporate best practices into its extended supply chain to influence wider adoption of these technologies, from high-efficiency washers to reverse osmosis recycling.
In addition, manufacturing techniques can also be a conservation tool.
“We have a significant number of lasers for laser finishing and that is a great advancement…for displacing the human, hand-sanding technique and allowing for better air quality,” Atwood said.
He noted that VF is also experimenting with more enzymes washing.
In the actual manufacturing of Wrangler and Lee jeans, there is global production, but primary facilities are in Mexico, “which is what actually creates that connectivity to our supply chain. It allows us to use so much U.S. cotton.”
“Our process is that every site location has an in-depth energy audit,” Atwood said. “From that energy audit, we create a long list of technologies.”
He said in the past four to five years, there have been 20 to 30 individual projects that have been identified involved in energy efficiency.
To eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in owned and operated facilities, VF is moving to source 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, and throughout the supply chain, it is working with suppliers to pursue various carbon reduction strategies and energy efficiency projects, and is working with materials suppliers to increase the use of more recycled materials.
Atwood said denim recycling is also being explored, such as taking cutting scraps and product development samples and putting them into denim insulation.
“We’ve partnered with a project called Good360…for denim insulation in disaster relief rebuilding,” he said. “Over the next 12 months, through Good360 and additional local partners in the Houston area, we are working to rebuild 100 homes using this denim insulation that comes from our product. We are excited about that, because first of all, it’s neat to see a blue house come together and it’s just creative and different. It actually inspired us to work with the University of North Texas to develop a denim plywood, where we actually have trials going on right now going in to create this denim plywood to see how far can we take this idea.”
In the end, Atwood said his division’s sustainability scheme is “about working with a league of partners–working with VF corporate, our supply chain and all the actors to drive the improvements that we want to see.”
“Ultimately, its about building sustainable products that consumers feel proud about wearing,” he added. “I think that articulating the value of those sustainable products in creative ways to consumers is really an important part of the dialogue and an important part of the discussion.”