The True Face of the North Face

It started with a nice gesture. Adam Anderson, the CEO of Innovex Downhole Solutions, wanted to buy his employees a Christmas gift. So he ordered 400 North Face jackets and asked that their corporate logo be included.

Then came the bad news. The North Face company would sell Innovex the jackets but wouldn't include the energy company's logo. The reason? Innovex was an oil and gas company, and it would be a bad thing for North Face's public image to associate itself with the industry.

Not happy with that answer, Anderson struck back with some public relations of his own. It turns out the vast majority of North Face's apparel—its hoodies, snow pants, coats and many other items in its product line, like backpacks and tents—are made with polyester, polyurethane and nylon, all of which come from petroleum. Even its fancy fleece jackets are made of polyester.

"The irony in this statement is that your jackets are made from oil and gas products the hardworking men and women of our industry produce," Anderson noted in a letter he sent to Steve Rendle, CEO of VF Corp. (which includes the North Face brand), on LinkedIn. "I think this stance by your company is counter-productive virtue signaling, and I would appreciate you re-considering this stance."

Anderson wasn't finished. "We should be celebrating the benefits of what oil and gas do to enable the outdoors lifestyle your brands embrace," Anderson concluded. "Without Oil and Gas there would be no market for nor ability to create the products your company sells."

Anderson's letter went viral. The North Face PR team went underground. Their real-life dependency on oil wasn't part of their global branding efforts.

NorthFace
A man wears a North Face jacket in Cologne, Germany. Photo by Jeremy Moeller/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association decided to have some fun with the situation, presenting the outdoor gear company with its first-ever Extraordinary Customer Award. Dan Haley, president and CEO of COGA, even held a mock award ceremony. "I think too often we think of oil and natural gas as just as fuels," Haley said. "But we often forget just how many other things we have and enjoy in the 21st Century that are made possible because of oil and natural gas," he added, making reference not just to the North Face product line but also to many other products Americans depend on.

"Things like electronics, sports equipment, medical devices, appliances and even dentures and soft contacts," Denver's CBS4 News reporter Shaun Boyd noted in her coverage. The video of that local report went viral, proving that humor is a better weapon in public relations battles than outrage. North Face was unavailable for comment.

In her report, Boyd also noted that "the CEOs of oil and gas companies lampooned the North Face, pointing out that its parent company is building a hangar at Centennial Airport for its private jet fleet."

In 2019, the Denver Business Journal reported that the brand paid $10.3 million for 1.3 acres of land to house planes used by its executives for global business travel. Two of its jets are Dassault Falcon 7X's, which cost $54 million a pop, have a range of 5,950 nautical miles and are powered by three Pratt & Whitney turbofans that deliver 6,400 pounds of thrust each. That too is something North Face doesn't include in its branding.

According to The Washington Times, Climate Depot founder Marc Morano called the North Face incident "a prime example of a company pandering to the corporate woke trend."

"If North Face wants to prove their stance is more than virtue signaling, they should refuse to sell their clothing to any customers who are employed in any fossil fuel company," Morano told the Times. "Or how about refusing to sell to any customers who used fossil fuels to travel to and from their stores? If not, why not?"

Morano asked some great questions, but don't wait for answers from North Face. The fact is, the company depends upon the very fossil fuels it purports to abhor, not only to make its products but also in connection with the industries and activities it depends on to propel its growth.

Take skiing. North Face sells some fancy gear to skiers around the world. Its A-Cad jackets list for $599, Brigandine jackets for $749, Purist Bibs for $549, TNF X Smith Mag goggles for $280 and the TNF X Smith Code Helmet for $230. All of which are made with and out of oil.

Where do those skiers wearing that North Face gear prefer to ski? The mountain ranges of Florida, New Jersey, Texas or Iowa? The fact is, the top 10 best ski destinations, U.S. News and World Reports notes, are in Colorado. In places like Breckenridge, Vail, Aspen, Steamboat Springs and Telluride. Locations in Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico rounded out the list.

How do skiers get to these beautiful mountain landscapes? Certainly not Uber. Or driving electric cars cross-country and up the mountains. According to The Denver Post, skiing aficionados logged 588,000 deplanements at Denver International Airport, nearly 8 percent of all non-connecting arrivals at the airport. Those vacationers—in Colorado alone—account for nearly $5 billion in annual economic activity, up from $2.5 billion a mere decade ago. All of that travel supports 46,000 jobs. Those workers earn $1.9 billion annually. More facts North Face probably doesn't want its branding department to associate with, either.

There is perhaps no more eloquent spokesman for the oil and natural gas business than Denver-based Liberty Oilfield Services CEO Chris Wright, who recently released a YouTube video in defense of his industry, and the millions of Americans the industry supports. The title speaks volumes: "North Face Disregards the Poor."

He started with some context. "Before our industry began, say 200 years ago, global human life expectancy was about 30 years and over 90 percent of people lived on the equivalent of less than $2 per day. Not many mountain climbers, skiers, snowboarders, hikers, or recreational backpackers in those days. There was no spare time, wealth or modern transportation necessary to pursue any of these endeavors. All of these endeavors are only made possible by the dramatic transformations of the modern world that were enabled by oil and gas."

Wright was just getting started. "North Face claims its stance is based on climate change concerns, but that's not consistent with the facts. The largest factor driving down U.S. greenhouse emissions has been the technology advancements from our industry that enabled the American shale revolution," Wright said. "Natural gas now supplies 40 percent of U.S. electricity, rapidly displacing coal and driving current emissions on a per-person basis to the lowest level since before I was born."

Wright noted that he is no Luddite. "I have worked in fusion energy, solar energy and geothermal energy. I don't care where energy comes from as long as it is affordable, reliable, clean and lifts up human lives."

He then went on to point out where North Face's position on oil and natural gas is not only wrong but tragic for poor people around the world. For Wright, energy policy isn't merely a class issue; it's an issue of life and death.

"One-third of humanity still cooks with wood, dung and agricultural waste," he explained. "The indoor air pollution smoke kills 3 million folks every year, according to the WHO. Further, a billion people have no access to electricity and another billion only intermittent access. Widespread energy poverty leads to lack of access to clean drinking water, access to medical care, malnutrition and a poor education. This is the global energy crisis of our time. Why do you never hear about this?

Wright then closed things out with this impassioned plea. "As long it is fashionable to myopically focus only on climate change, the tragic and preventable loss of life, health and opportunity that accompany energy poverty will be tragically ignored. This is wrong and cannot stand."

Will North Face respond to Wright's impassioned plea? It probably doesn't have the will, or the decency, to reply. It's too busy catering to its own image—and the self-image of its customers, none of whom suffer from energy poverty. Customers who can afford North Face gear. And 1,000-a-day ski lift tickets for a family of four per day in places like Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge. And the airfare to get there.