VF’s first sustainability report boasts executive buy-in, materiality and partnerships but lacks clear data

It’s VF Corporation’s first sustainability and responsibility report, and with the “branded lifestyle apparel” company’s more than 30 brands generating $11bn, and a dizzying list of material issues associated with the industry, managing and communicating their progress and commitments is a mammoth task. VF chose to present its report as a microsite – there is no downloadable version. For an industry facing so much criticism – factory safety, child labour and water use among them – the quality of reporting from large clothing companies is surprisingly patchy, but VF has made a strong start.

The good: Governance, materiality and partnerships

Three things stand out: executive buy-in, materiality assessment and partnerships. The microsite features a letter and Q&A from the CEO, a letter from the CFO, descriptions of materiality assessment and stakeholder engagement processes, a governance section that details relevant committees and operational structures, and more. This is a solid foundation and excellent insight into the management commitment behind the initiatives detailed in the “Planet” “Products” and “People” sections. The number and variety of the company’s partnerships also impresses. From the environmentally focused Leather Working Group and the forest stewardship organisation Canopy, to the human rights NGO Social Accountability International, it’s reassuring to see the company seeking guidance and committing to established programmes.

The bad: website woes

Research shows that companies are moving rapidly away from the sustainability report microsite trend, as its navigational failings frustrate the investor community and confuse other stakeholders. From a design perspective, the use of high quality images and navigational cues through three pillars (People, Planet, Products) works, but white text overlaid on a semi-transparent background doesn’t. An estimated 50-80% of people have some form of astigmatism, which means readability should not be compromised for aesthetics. The image selection is also sometimes trite – beach sunsets and grinning cotton farmers.

VF might consider introducing a PDF format report with simple design for investors and professional bench-markers. This will free up the microsite to become a communication tool and not a report, addressing a broader audience with the most interesting information presented through features such as interactive graphics and video. The 2014 report attempts to integrate videos, but they are lost in each lengthy webpage.

The ugly: hidden data, missing trends

It was disappointing to see the way the data was reported, because the company has been tracking GHG emissions, energy use, and other environmental KPIs since 2009, so we should be able to see the trends in clear charts. Unfortunately, there are none. This is baffling. There is ample space in the right-hand column of the microsite to include charts and graphs, while still giving room and weight to the narrative approach VF has opted for. While VF’s story-telling makes the report more readable, qualitative detail must be balanced with quantitative rigour. Its targets are similarly hidden in various pages, with only a selection included in the very high level “Goals” page. In the same vein, there was a surprising lack of data in the People section.

Promising future

VF should be applauded for its bold start to sustainability reporting. To make it stick, it now needs to set new stretch targets well beyond 2015, improve its data presentation, and address its nearly impenetrable, and often trite, design.

Without wishing to stifle innovation, the company will find some relevant pointers in the GRI G4 Guidelines, especially on supply chain and materiality. Data and targets should be pulled out into a single feature graphic, so readers can assess performance at a glance.

VF could also make more of its partnerships and disclose more about its investments and initiatives. What does the Natural Resources Defense Council have to say about its energy efficiency programme in China? How much has VF invested so far of its promised $17m towards ensuring the health and safety of workers in Bangladesh?

With updated targets, rigorous, well-presented data, and improved design, VF will be on the way to an impressive 2015 report.


cr report  CR report review  sustainability report  VF Corporation 

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