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Ever since VF Corporation’s Investor Day back in fall 2019, the company has been guided by a theme it calls the “Power of And.”
At that event, held in Beaver Creek, Colorado, VF pledged to create value for shareholders and stakeholders. It vowed to focus on building its core brands and its emerging brands. It promised to be purpose-led and performance-driven.
And this week, the Denver-based company—whose vast portfolio includes such outdoor stalwarts as The North Face, Timberland, and Smartwool—committed to tackling plastic waste and tackling racial injustice.
On Tuesday, the company announced sustainable packaging goals that call for VF and its 20 brands across three divisions to “eliminate all single-use plastic packaging, including polybags, by 2025.” Two days later, the company unveiled a host of programs and actions to advance racial equity and “focus on a core set of actions to support VF’s employees, communities, consumers, and society more broadly.”
We spoke with Lauren Guthrie, vice president of global inclusion, diversity, equity, and action, and Jeannie Renné-Malone, vice president of global sustainability, to learn more about the drivers behind these initiatives and how they speak to the company’s DNA.
A holistic approach to racial equity
Guthrie said VF’s eight programs to advance racial equity build on the company’s legacy of commitment to inclusion and diversity work through its Council to Advance Racial Equity. But, she added, it was the events of 2020—both Covid-19 and the marches for social justice following George Floyd’s murder and other acts of violence against people of color—that sparked a commitment to do even more.
“The past year has catalyzed and accelerated this work,” she said. “We’re purposefully stepping into equity work, and I think that’s a result of the multiple pandemics that we’ve experienced this year. We’ve been at this for the past six, seven months, and I think these commitments are the tip of a large iceberg because we have multiple programs that align with each one. What I’m most excited about is the authenticity of the commitments and the partnerships that we’ve had across the organization.”
The commitments include everything from increasing BIPOC representation in VF to interviewing more diverse candidates, from eliminating pay gaps in the company to ensuring that the VF Foundation’s grantmaking efforts are aligned with the wider racial equity goals.
Guthrie said she’s proud of the steps that VF is taking to improve racial equity within the walls of corporate and at its brands. But she also believes the company will emerge as an industry leader because it does more than expect supply chain partners to join VF on this journey—the company demands it of them.
For example, one of VF’s racial equity goals calls for a supplier diversity program that will double the company’s spend “with minority- and women-owned businesses by 2025 through enterprise direct and indirect procurement, and the activities of its brands.” In other words, diversity will flow up and down VF’s supply chain—and then, hopefully, throughout the industry.
“We’re excited to take a leadership role,” Guthrie said. “The power in this work comes when we join forces and join hands in the effort collectively, so we’re super excited to continue to raise the bar, to set the standard, and also to support the work across the industry. That’s where the power of ‘and’ comes through.”
Saying goodbye to plastic
Likewise, Renné-Malone said the challenges of the past year related to Covid led VF to make some decisions about how it can improve its sustainability efforts.
“We noticed some trends, when we were deep in the pandemic, of consumer interest increasing around making purchasing decisions based on climate change,” she said. “The emerging generations of consumers are focused on sustainability; they want to know where their products come from, who’s making them. The millennial and Gen Z generations are making purchasing decisions based on climate change, and that’s only going to increase over the next few years.”
VF had several ambitious sustainability goals underway, but its newly announced aim to eliminate polybags is making headlines due to its consumer-facing nature and the sheer number of products that VF’s brands make and sell each year.
In addition to eliminating all single-use plastic, VF said “all remaining packaging will be reduced, originate from sustainable sources, and be designed for reuse or recyclability.”
“We’ve documented that we can go through as many as 100 million polybags a year—eliminating them will have a huge impact,” Renné-Malone said. “We know we have the opportunity to eliminate polybags from our entire system, and to look for different options as we move toward that goal. But it’s going to take collaboration with partners such as retailers that are starting to have ‘no polybag’ requirements by 2022. These partnerships are a catalyst to our focus on eliminating polybags from our system.”
People and planet
The shared timing of VF’s sustainable packaging goals and plan to advance racial equity isn’t their only commonality. Because communities of color often bear the brunt of environmental injustice, these goals are, in many, ways aligned.
VF also believes these initiatives will be good for business, further driving home the goal of being purpose-led and performance-driven.
What’s more, Guthrie and Renné-Malone fully understand that both pursuits will bring scrutiny—they welcome it, in fact—and will require accountability as they hit milestones along the way. They also know the journey is just as important as the destination.
“It truly is about our purpose,” Renné-Malone said. “We are committed to the betterment of people and the planet. The power of ‘and’ says it very clearly: the better we perform, the more we can activate our purpose. We truly believe that as we go on this journey, we’re bringing along our consumers, we’re bringing along our retail partners, we’re bringing along our investors. We all feel part of the journey.”