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Columbia Sportswear Case Study: Supplier Engagement for Climate Action

Published: 01 September 2020
6 min read
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Case study iconCase Study

September 1, 2020

When you think of Columbia Sportswear, what are the first words that come to mind? Maybe durability, comfort, or outdoor gear. What you may not realize is that sustainability is at the core of the business, and the company is leading environmental efforts in more ways than one. 

For example, starting in 2018, Columbia started publishing its emissions footprint annually — a level of transparency that is often unheard of. The brand found that manufacturing and materials production account for an estimated 98% of Columbia’s total measured emissions. This figure is similar to other footprints across the apparel and footwear industry, underscoring the need for programs that leverage collective brand sustainability initiatives at the factory level. 

As Columbia is working to set climate targets for Tier 1 and Tier 2 vendors to reduce emissions by 2030, Columbia determined that working with Aii through the Clean by Design (CbD) program would help them take a targeted approach to driving reductions through efficiency and renewable energy. In 2019, Columbia began its partnership with Aii when it began implementing the CbD program with one of its key manufacturing partners, Formosa Taffeta Co, Ltd. This initial program launched in three of their facilities – one in Taiwan and two in China. 

“We’re dedicated to this work because it’s our responsibility to manage the social and environmental impacts of our business,” said Abel Navarrete, VP of Corporate Responsibility at Columbia Sportswear. “It’s our responsibility not only to act in an ethical manner, but to ensure that we are proactive about addressing the root causes of issues as they arise.”

Columbia chose to work with Aii because it was established by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and the company knew it could integrate well with its existing Higg FEM efforts and enable cross-brand collaboration in shared factories. Columbia also knew that Aii was uniquely positioned to work with its Tier 2 facilities, especially those with wet processing given that those facilities have a high environmental impact. 

Columbia’s investment in factory sustainability efforts is not new. Since 2013, Columbia has worked with its manufacturing partners at the Tier 1 and Tier 2 level to measure their environmental performance through the Higg FEM self-assessment. In 2020, Columbia became a founding member of the Outdoor Industry Association’s (OIA) Climate Action Corps, committing to measure, plan and reduce emissions and share progress annually with industry peers.   

“Columbia doesn’t operate in a vacuum — we’re a key stakeholder in the outdoor industry, and more broadly the apparel and footwear industry,” said Navarrete. “When we take into consideration our manufacturing partners and the shared production floor with other brands, it becomes very clear the ripple effect that a robust and integrated program can have on the broader industry.” 

Ultimately, Columbia’s goal is to achieve deep reductions in emissions in its supply chain, with a primary focus on efficiency and renewable energy strategies. The foundation of Clean by Design’s program comes from the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) ten best practices that mills can adopt to target resource inefficiencies and rapidly shrink their environmental impact, using a collection of mostly no-cost or low-cost practices. 

Columbia believes that integration is key to industry-wide sustainability success, acknowledging that factories work diligently to connect the dots across all initiatives to eliminate redundant work related to improving sustainability. Brands need to align on the best programs like Clean by Design so that factories aren’t burdened with the multitude of requests from various business partners. 

We sat down with Joleen Ong, Sustainable Manufacturing Manager, to hear more about the CbD program implementation and what advice she would share, and here’s what we learned: 

Strategic communications and stakeholder engagement are important. 

Don’t underestimate the pre-work and communications that should go into setting your factories up for success. It’s important to understand the bigger picture of how this factory capacity building program will fit into your broader supply chain sustainability program, versus implementing this as a one-off program. 

Not everyone may understand the value of participating in the Clean by Design program up front. Communicating the bigger picture early on to internal stakeholders and factories allows for better understanding of what the purpose of this program is and how participation will contribute to programmatic goals. That’s why it’s important to prioritize identifying key stakeholders and think about how to structure communication internally. Some examples include: 

  • Hosting cross-functional meetings to discuss factory nominations and raise awareness about the program 
  • Gaining leadership buy-in by highlighting cost-saving benefits, especially as the payback period for many factories for taking CbD actions can be less than a year 
  • Promoting the opportunity as a reward to deepen business partnership  

Identify criteria to guide factory nominations. 

Companies should identify a set of criteria to help guide which factories to nominate for this program. Columbia takes into consideration factors such as factory readiness and business volume, the latter indicating a higher carbon footprint. Some other examples of factory nomination criteria include:   

  • Emissions intensity 
  • Verified Higg FEM 
  • Factories with personnel that have the technical competency and capacity to manage this program 
  • Potential to collaborate with other brands 

Reward your participating factories.

Once you’ve gotten approval to move forward and have identified the factory that will participate, it’s important to acknowledge the factory’s efforts and cooperation. The program benefits may be clear to the factory, but brands also need to make it clear how it benefits the business relationship. Columbia believes the factory’s actions and efforts towards improving their sustainability impacts should be recognized through scoring mechanisms such as a balanced scorecard. This demonstrates how their efforts will be recognized, with additional points to increase their score. 

For all brands and retailers, the pandemic has been characterized as “The Great Pause.” Factories and companies around the world are at intermittent stages of being shut-down and re-opened, which could impact Columbia’s ability to stick with its original timelines. Navarrete concludes, “The world has changed, but our sustainability goals and commitments have not.”