THE BLOG
10/24/2014 07:49 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

Scaling Up: What It Takes to Create Responsible Practices on a Global Scale

The complexity -- and potential for good -- of global reach.

Companies that are the largest in their industry, such as Unilever or Nike, face a unique challenge each time they make a move in sustainability. Should they use their scale to change their industry globally for the greater good, or should they prioritize quick wins, creating aspirational, sustainability-based fame for their products?

Think of Starbucks and disposable coffee cups. For years they tried to chip away at the issue of waste on their own, but they ground to a halt at the point where they were leading the industry and couldn't move the needle any further than 10 percent post-consumer recycled content. But in 2008, they took the issue to the industry. Multiple "Cup Summits" took the cup from something they led alone on to something that transformed the pulp and paper, packaging, and catering industries and even re-imagined the way waste streams functioned globally. It took years to change the fundamental ways food packaging is produced and taken back into the waste stream, and today, Starbucks is even going beyond recycled content, targeting 100 percent reusable or recyclable cups by 2015 and working in partnership with competitors like Tim Horton's. What started as a Starbucks project ended up bigger than the industry.

Why am I telling you about recycled coffee cups? The reason is goose down, the material that fills many of our comforters, jackets, sleeping bags and pillows. In the past few years we've seen rising concern over where down comes from. When we dug into this, we saw many disturbing vulnerabilities -- practices like force-feeding ("gavage" for foie gras) and a potential for live plucking in the related food industry. We also saw that in many cases, down used in products could not be traced back to its origin.

Other companies began to pay attention to these types of issues, too. IKEA began making down alternatives. Gap and Zara said goodbye to angora -- which was going through a similar moment of transparency. However, due in part to limited regulations on animal welfare and food-down supply chain complexities, the industry struggled to find a way to source responsible materials at scale. Some companies have tried to develop ways to mitigate risks and mistreatment of animals; however, these approaches have typically only been applicable to a single company's own supply chain or specific supply chain type. Good for one brand -- not great for all.

So we faced a choice: Do we ensure The North Face brand's down is from responsible sources, or do we take on the challenge as a leader and bring our industry -- and other industries -- along with us? Going it alone would have been the easier choice.

While many people know The North Face for its jackets and gear, not as many know the story behind the name. The north face of a mountain (in the northern hemisphere) is the most formidable route to climb. Taking the toughest route means forging a path that might be more challenging -- you might have to lead a new route -- but this is the legacy and the company culture that helped support us in establishing a standard that brings the whole industry along -- creating a source of responsible down not just for our company, but building an economically viable, global market for responsible down. It is still a new path that will continue to change and adapt.

To develop the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), we worked with farmers, collectors and processors across Eastern Europe and Asia to create what is today the largest global, publicly available certification system for the responsible sourcing of down that addresses animal welfare and material traceability. From the outset, we knew that we needed help creating a quality standard that could be applied globally and used by anyone. We worked with several partners, including the animal welfare group FOUR PAWS, down suppliers like Allied Feather & Down and Downlite, third party, independent auditor Control Union, and certification standards experts at Textile Exchange, which now owns and governs the standard on behalf of the industry. We even worked with our competitors to develop a standard the entire industry could access.

For us, responsible down doesn't mean only prohibiting animal mistreatment such as force-feeding and live-plucking. We took a holistic approach by including requirements and guidelines on things like food and water quality, housing, stock density and outdoor access, animal hygiene, and pest and predator control in the standard. To ensure validation of these practices, the standard also includes strict requirements to document the traceability of the down from its origination through to the final product.

We set a goal of 30 percent of all of the down that goes into our fall 2015 products to be RDS-certified material, including all of our technical Summit Series products and all products we sell in Europe. Thirty percent is an aggressive goal given the volume of down we use and the infancy of the standard. However, widespread adoption of the standard within the down supply chain has yielded enough certified down for us to exceed our 30 percent goal.

Why are we sticking with 30 percent? This is actually a crucial strategy for building a global market for certified down. By sharing the supply of certified down with others in the apparel, bedding and hospitality industries, a more diversified and stable market for responsible down can take root.

Making change at a large organization can be tough. But when your efforts can help improve the welfare of animals across an entire global supply chain, it can be worth every obstacle on the "hardest side of the mountain."