MILAN — Have you ever heard the ocean whispering and muttering? North Sails has.
The performance wear label, which has voiced its concern and support for the current state of the oceans, is spearheading an ambitious plan: it intends to retool as the brand “giving a voice to the ocean,” as chief executive officer of the apparel division Marisa Selfa put it.
The three-year, multipronged plan is aimed at advancing the company’s sustainable efforts in a new, more radical direction and is based on five key sustainable development goals, including decent work and economic growth; responsible consumption and production; climate action; life below water, and partnerships for the goals.
“Before I joined, the company was already very aware of the focus on sustainability. They had done amazing work around voicing the protection of the ocean….I think in the last year and a bit what we’ve done is actually giving this objective a top priority. So instead of being one of the things we’d take care of as much as all the things, suddenly this journey of sustainability as a whole has become the top of the pyramid of our objectives,” said the Spanish executive, who joined North Sails in mid-2020.
North Sails had secured the B Corp seal of approval even before Selfa’s arrival, but the executive is motivating her team to keep doing better. “Our focus now is to make sure we score much higher in the next few years,” she said.
“I keep saying that fashion without sustainability is irresponsibility, and to me, as a business leader, I cannot drive North Sails without having a true commitment to improve season after season,” Selfa underscored, touting her team’s prowess, agility and propositional approach.
Her aim is to stress the strategy so much as to turn it into the guiding principle and overturn the business model — all with a little help from a newly established sustainability committee.
The plan is based on two main pillars aptly called “Building the Ship” and “Being the Voice of the Ocean.” The former includes actions aimed at shifting the brand’s business model by implementing the use of innovative materials and fibers and responsible manufacturing processes, focusing on the integrity of the supply chain by setting high labor standards, and the ocean conservation by supporting ambassadors and foundations across the globe.
Regarding materials, Selfa said North Sails “is still very small. We don’t have big budgets for R&D unfortunately, so we need to rely on good suppliers.” Among them, the brand has struck a deal for the use of Seawool, the result of a 10-year R&D that blends repurposed PET bottles and the surplus of oyster shells (Taiwan only produces around 160 kilograms of shells each year, Selfa noted), and SeaCell, a lyocell blended with seaweed powder sustainably harvested from Icelandic waters.
“I wish I could tell you that we’re developing six more, I just don’t have the R&D, but this is just what’s really making us [change] the way we look at our supplier base,” the CEO offered, explaining that she’s looking for partners that not only align with the brand’s code of conduct but that are also pushing the boundaries of innovation.
The use of eco-friendly materials also nods to North Sails’ commitment to become more traceable and transparent by implementing actions aligning with Scope 3 of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol.
“We don’t own our factories so I think for us it’s more about making sure that our suppliers are able to meet our code of conduct, which has just been reviewed to make sure it is meeting our standards,” Selfa said. Next year, North Sails will launch a pilot project to implement RFIDs in its products, knowing that there are customers who want to know more.
As the soon-to-become ocean positive brand, the team at North Sails has been voicing its concern for the microplastics issue, too, viewed as the marine ecosystem’s key pollutant. “For us, being ocean positive means that we want to really bring the ocean to a better place than how we found it,” Selfa said.
In addition to educating its customers on the issue, the brand is “reducing as much as we can some of the materials that are of importance for the situation, so we’re looking into new fabrics and see how we can best balance the commercial [and sustainability] needs,” Selfa explained.
Additionally, the performance wear company is in talks to secure supply of a washing machine bag that prevents microfilaments from being released. This will be sold or offered complimentary with each purchase.
“To me, it’s OK to say that we are on a journey, we’re not at the end and everything is totally perfect, which by the way, I doubt that there is any company that is perfect. Perfect is not making another T-shirt, we have clothes for the end of our lives, everybody. But I think it’s important to show our customers that we are committed to just get better and better,” the executive offered.
Sustainability comes at a cost and the list of challenges are more than one might expect. Selfa cited the current time-related unreliability of the supply chain, as well as the rising cost of raw materials and logistics among the hurdles to overcome. An additional one is the pressure from investors on the company’s margins.
“At the end of the day, a company has to deliver and…that is putting pressure [on us] because we’re trying to do the right thing and to be honest….I’ve got to tell you that 99 percent of the times we’ve been doing what was right for sustainability,” she said. In 2021, North Sails’ apparel division is expected to post 55 million euros in revenues, up from 38 million euros in 2020.
Mindful that customers are increasingly holding brands accountable, the “Being the Voice of the Ocean” initiatives group all the brand’s communication strategies, including its multifaceted support to ambassadors and NGOs spread across the globe.
As part of the ongoing “Go Beyond” campaign, North Sails is spotlighting one ambassador per month, including professional explorer and naturalist Nacho Dean; marine conservationist Mariasole Bianco; sailor and mechanical engineer Kevin Escoffier, as well as Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen, founders of Sea Legacy, a collective of photographers, filmmakers and storytellers shedding light on the state of the oceans.
It is also actively supporting research and conservation programs spearheaded by the Tara Ocean Foundation, focused on studying the ocean’s microbiome; the Ocean Family Foundation, which raises awareness and concretely helps prevent ocean pollution, as well as Coral Gardeners.
The Coral Gardeners collaboration holds a special place in Selfa’s heart and is meant to provide a one-year support to the NGO based in French Polynesia in a mission to restore and repopulate the reefs and educate people on the importance of corals. North Sails has also developed two capsule collections dedicated to the project and it’s adopting one coral for each customer spending at least 200 euros at the company’s stores.
“We really have a lot of work ahead…[the actions] are big enough to have our hands full and also they’re big enough to make us move to the next level,” Selfa said.
Asked about her view on how the fashion industry is tackling sustainability, Selfa said: “Some people are super committed, others not so much. They believe that what they can do is just a drop in the ocean. True, but the ocean is full of drops, millions of drops.”