VF Corp, the global apparel company behind Timberland and North Face, has established the world’s first climate-positive rubber supply chain pilot using regenerative agriculture. VF is also a leader in the changing leather supply chains, after its activity in Brazil was linked to deforestation in 2019, which prompted the company to withdraw its sourcing from the region and update its processes. After extensive research, they confirmed that their ranches were not involved, but pulled out of the area anyway.
According to the Rodale Institute, regenerative agriculture is a method of farming that “improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them.” It focuses on farming practices that aim to improve soil health and reverse climate change by expanding biodiversity, improving the water cycle, increasing organic matter in soil structure and transferring carbon from the atmosphere to the soil.
In a VF report, released Tuesday, the company said that it is committed to producing its nine most-used materials from sustainably sourced, recycled or regenerative sources going forward. These materials include leather, cotton and rubber. The report states that, by 2025, all of its cotton will be grown in the U.S., in Australia or via a third-party company centered on growing cotton sustainably. This year, VF Corp achieved its 2021 goal of finishing all of its footwear leather in Leather Working Group (LWG) audited tanneries.
The company is also building on the foundation of its SBTs (science-based targets) for climate by also establishing targets for biodiversity and natural environment loss, through its SBTs for Nature. Through partnerships with NGOs and organizations like PUR project, which helps companies make their production regenerative, VF Corp is looking to use regenerative agriculture to improve its local sourcing environments.
Forests are key to sourcing material, but can also be vulnerable to deforestation. Single plant (monoculture) rubber plantations are a significant contributor to rainforest deforestation across Southeast Asia. VF is piloting the footwear industry’s first regenerative natural rubber supply chain with regenerative design consultancy Terra Genesis International to combat that. It incorporates multiple tree species to mimic a natural forest ecosystem rather than replicating the current monoculture system where only rubber trees are planted, leading to a weakening of the soil.
Jeannie Renne-Malone, VF Corp’s vp of global sustainability said, “Rubber is such an important material to our products, especially ones [by] Vans. We truly think that we can scale this original pilot to source 100% of our natural regenerative rubber from this location and other parts of Thailand in the future.” The company will be able to source the material for use in its products by spring 2023 and will also roll out its other regenerative materials in the next few years.
VF Corp believe partnership is key and is sharing the learnings from its project with other brands in and outside of the industry. Brazil and the Amazon rainforest are key components of climate action as without tropical rainforests the greenhouse effect would likely be even more pronounced, and climate change could possibly get even worse in the future. Material sourcing can contribute to deforestation and if it is done illegally, local legislation is too weak to stop. To curb this, U.S. Democrats have introduced “The Forest Bill of 2021” to Congress on Oct. 6, shortly before world leaders come together for COP26 in early November.
Under the proposed law, the U.S. government would identify “high-risk” countries or those without effective safeguards against illegal commodity-driven forest loss. These at-risk areas are home to regular violent incidents and rights violations against Indigenous peoples and local communities. All of these factors would be taken into account in the assessment. Companies importing listed commodities from these countries will need to document their supplies to their point of origin and demonstrate that they are taking measures to ensure the commodities weren’t produced on illegally deforested land. However, there are no plans to incorporate The Forest Bill into Democratic President Joe Biden’s sweeping climate legislation, which is still under review and will be unveiled on his arrival in Scotland for COP26.
One of VF Corp’s biggest revenue-driving brands, Timberland, has been working with the Savory Institute to build a regenerative leather supply chain. Savory Institute is a non-profit focused on the large-scale regeneration of the world’s grasslands. While regenerative farming typically applies to plants, it also covers animal practices and the way that they interact with the land. Regenerative grazing practices used by farmers mimic the natural movement of animals, allowing for grass regrowth, which leads to better food for livestock and healthier soil. Regenerative farming practices focus on improving the condition of the soil, with these grasses acting as a carbon passage. VF Corp is also looking into regenerative cotton.
“With regenerative cotton, we’ve partnered with Indigo Ag here in the U.S. Then we’re launching a project in Turkey this fall with a non-profit to work with the growers and the farmers to help educate, raise awareness around the benefits of regenerative practices, and then scale those practices across multiple farms and plantations,” said Renne-Malone. “We’ve also started talking a bit about regenerative hemp, but we’re not sourcing yet in that area.”
These practices also support biodiversity and make the land more productive with greater resilience to both drought and heavy rain. Talking about the importance of regenerative farming for VF Corp, Renne-Malone said, “Creating our own supply of regenerate raw materials allows us to deepen those partnerships with farmers and really focus on those parts of the world where we can source materials in areas that share the same commitment to sustainability.”
Timberland has also been innovative when it comes to alternative material sourcing. The Earthkeepers boot, first launched in 2007, was made with recycled PET, recycled rubber and leather from tanneries that were rated gold by the LWG for best environmental practices. The leather from cattle ranchers in the U.S. that Timberland is now working with is going to become a staple of Timberland’s products starting next year. Ultimately, the company believes that collaboration across research and industry is essential for the regeneration of natural environments. “The opportunity is there for collaboration across industries and to really scale this in a way that addresses climate change in a big way.”