Before a North Face Denali fleece jacket lands on the racks at your local gear shop, it travels through 23 factories in seven different countries and three states in the U.S. Thread comes from Honduras; brass eyelets from Colombia; polyester yarn from North Carolina; nylon yarn, zipper pulls, and cord from China; and polyester fabric and nylon shell fabric from Taiwan. All these materials are flown to El Salvador, where Brooklyn Manufacturing’s 117 machine operators turn them into the iconic fleece jackets.
I know this because of a new traceability map on VF Corporation’s sustainability website. VF Corp, which owns The North Face and other major outdoor brands, spent the last year tracing in detail the supply chains of ten of its brands’ most well-known products, from Vans Checkerboard Slip-Ons to Timberland Earthkeepers boots.
Follow arrows on the interactive graphic to see the flow of metal and synthetic fabric from mine or oil refinery to textile mill to manufacturing plant. Dots represent individual factories. Click on a dot to learn how many people work at the factory, the gender breakdown of the workers, the specific part that facility makes, and any worker-well-being policies or environmental certifications in place.
For years VF has kept tabs on the manufacturing facilities and raw materials it uses. The North Face launched the Responsible Down Standard in 2014 in collaboration with the Textile Exchange. But according to Sean Cady, VF’s vice president of supply chain management, the company wanted to find out how hard it would be to verify sustainable and humane practices for every supplier and factory behind a few popular items, from the moment raw metal or petroleum (for synthetic yarns) is extracted from the earth to when finished garments wind up in VF’s California distribution center.
The quest proved to be complicated. “Many [plants that mine or process raw materials] didn’t know who VF was,” Cady says. For example, Cady’s team traced the Timberland Earthkeepers boots back to a slaughterhouse in Kansas. (The slaughterhouse sold hides to a local tannery, which in turn sold the tanned hides to a Chinese factory.) But when VF employees contacted the slaughterhouse to gather details for the traceability map, the owners “were like, wait a minute. VF Corporation? We make steak,” Cady says. They had no idea their product was winding up in Timberland boots, and no interest in divulging information about their business.
Plants that declined to speak with VF are marked as such on the map. “We wanted to tell the story that the supply chain is complex and deep, and oftentimes those factories aren’t collaborative with the brand,” Cady says.
Ultimately, these maps are a tool for consumers, who are increasingly paying as much attention to the environmental and ethical aspects of their gear as they are to quality and technical specifications. Of course, the project is limited in scope. And while Cady says he intends to pursue similar mapping for more gear, we shouldn’t expect to see detailed source maps for every single VF product anytime soon. Regardless, customers can now find out exactly where some of their favorite gear comes from.