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Apparel titan VF Corp tackles deforestation, human rights issues in supply chain

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 27 February 2017 14:39 GMT

Timberland shoes are seen in a shop in Rome, Italy, in this 2016 archive photo. REUTERS/Max Rossi

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"We're ... trying to help lead and really help create demand for more sustainably, responsibly sourced materials."

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK, Feb 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Apparel giant VF Corp, the company behind such popular brands as Wrangler jeans and Timberland boots, is adopting sourcing policies to eliminate products that contribute to deforestation and human rights violations, it said on Monday.

The new policies, which affect its sources of wood pulp, come amid strong demand for performance wear that uses wood-based rayon and viscose fabrics, said Letitia Webster, VF vice president of global corporate sustainability.

VF is the latest in a growing number of apparel companies to commit to investigate its supply chain for products from destructive regions and stop using those sources by the end of 2017.

"What we're trying to do is one, the right thing, but two, as one of the largest apparel and footwear companies in the world, we're also trying to help lead and really help create demand for more sustainably, responsibly sourced materials," Webster told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"When we actually move our sourcing in that direction, it is a big market signal that we want that type of product," she said. "If the consumer finds out that VF is doing this, then that's great. That's icing on the cake."

VF said it aims to eliminate sources of products that contribute to the loss of ancient and endangered forests or rights taken from indigenous people and local communities. The initiative affects sourcing of fabrics and of paper, particularly that is used in packaging.

Along with Timberland and Wrangler, other VF brands include The North Face, which makes well-known outerwear, Lee jeans maker, Vans shoes and Nautica fashions. VF reported 2016 revenues of $12 billion.

The North Face in particular makes a lot of performance products, such as athletic wear, Webster said.

"When a player as big as VF steps forward on these kinds of issues, suppliers take notice and so do governments," said Nicole Rycroft, executive director of Canopy, an environmental non-profit that worked with VF on its sourcing guidelines.

"They're sending the signal that customers and companies expect sustainable fiber that's clear of conflict and ecological risk," Rycroft told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Production of wood pulp can involve clearing forests to build eucalyptus or acacia plantations and taking land traditionally used by indigenous communities, campaigners say.

"Traditional communities or indigenous communities not being adequately consulted or having free, prior informed consent over their lands being developed for paper products, for pulp that feeds into the fashion industry, is fairly widespread," said Rycroft.

The issue of deforestation is particularly acute in Indonesia, a major producer of wood pulp, and in colder climates where old-growth forests are logged for pulp milled for fabric and paper.

"There's 120 million trees that disappear into clothing every year, into rayon and viscose. A significant amount of that comes from endangered forest landscape," Rycroft said.

Demand for rayon and viscose has increased, she said, from five years ago when an estimated 70 million trees went into the supply chain.

Rayon, sometimes called the poor man's silk, is inexpensive and flexible, adding to its popularity, she said.

Companies that recently have adopted similar policies toward sourcing of wood-based products include L Brands, parent of Victoria's Secret, Ralph Lauren, H&M, Zara, Levi Strauss & Co and British fashion designer Stella McCartney.

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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