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The Oil Industry Attacked The North Face, But Its Argument is All Wrong

Yes, we all use fossil fuels. But we don’t want to. Here’s what really matters.

The zinger goes like this: If you use oil and gas and criticize the fossil fuel industry or advocate for a clean energy future, you’re a hypocrite.

It’s a classic oil and gas defense meant to discredit the messenger. And I’m sure you’ve seen it in the comment section any time someone like Caroline Gleich, an outspoken ambassador for Protect Our Winters, takes a stand and posts on Instagram about climate change.

Obviously, everyone uses fossil fuels (that’s exactly the problem). So, by that argument’s backward logic, unless you’re a nudist monk living in a cave and subsisting on fallen aspen leaves, you are not qualified to advocate for the environment. It’s like saying you can’t criticize capitalism, or support legislative changes that might improve it if you’ve participated in capitalism.

It’s honestly dumb to even explain this, but here we are. “The argument” made a splash in the outdoor world last week. The latest mouthpiece for this asinine talking point is CEO of Liberty Oilfield Chris Wright. Here’s the very dumb backstory: The North Face refused to produce branded jackets for a Texas oil and gas company. In response, Wright, who actually works for a different oil and gas company, produced a “Thank you, North Face” campaign. They put up a billboard in Denver that says “Your North Face puffer looks great on you. And it was made from fossil fuels.” And Wright hosts a very poorly made video outlining how thankful TNF should be for all the ways the company has benefited from the oil and gas industry. (TNF, like every other apparel company on the planet, uses synthetic fabrics that derive from fossil fuels.)

It was a mini PR success. Oil and gas sympathizers seized on it as a truly fine owning-the-libs success story, and many commenters shouted a collective “hell yeah!” because, you know, who doesn’t love seeing the puffed chests of oil and gas trillionaires who kill the planet and ruin the air you breathe, which, by the way, kills 8.7 million people a year and costs the public $820 billion in healthcare?

The oil and gas industry is dying, and the ones that have the most to lose from a transition to clean energy and stable climate are doubling down on the old deflect, discredit, deny playbook. Some 20 years ago, it was British Petroleum who popularized the term “carbon footprint” in a huge PR blitz. The idea was to put the burden on individuals — a carbon footprint is a way of measuring one’s impact on the planet — despite that my decisions, or yours, have very little meaningful impact compared to the oil and gas players that are the primary cause of climate change.

The oil and gas industry wants you to think that it’s your emissions that are the problem, not theirs. But since 1988, just 100 companies, including BP, have produced 71 percent of all global emissions. The problem is systemic, not individual. A homeless person has an unsustainable footprint because that person still lives in a carbon economy. That The North Face or Patagonia profit from a jacket made by fossil fuels is entirely the problem those companies are trying to bring attention to.

Jamie Henn, a climate activist and director of Fossil Free Media, put it this way in a recent tweet: “I love that the best defense the oil and gas industry has is that people still use oil and gas. It’s like, yeah, that’s exactly why we have to keep fighting you all — if it was all clean energy and electric vehicles then we’d be solving the problem.”

None of this is to let corporations like The North Face off the hook. Some companies really do care more about marketing and good branding over actually addressing the systemic issues they claim to be focused on. If The North Face doesn’t back their decision to not make jackets for Shell with the real, hard, difficult-to-market work of lobbying for climate change legislation, then it feels pretty greenwashy.

The North Face acknowledges they are reliant on the oil and gas industry for many of the products they make, fuel for when they travel, and for the energy they need to operate our business. They also applaud efforts to invest in clean energy technologies, “because we understand how the long-term use of fossil fuels is deteriorating the health of our planet,” the official statement reads

Ten years ago, only 6 percent of The North Face’s synthetic materials were recycled. By fall 2021, that number will reach 72 percent. By 2025, 100 percent of the brand’s most-used apparel materials will be recycled, regenerative or renewable, and The North Face will eliminate all single-use plastic packaging.

In a bold, celebrated piece called “The Complicity of Corporate Sustainability,” Aspen Ski Co. VP of Sustainability explains just how dangerous “being green” can be.

“A business that pursues ‘sustainability’ as conventionally understood becomes, in the media’s eye and in customer perception, a ‘green’ company, absolved of doing anything else,” writes Auden Schendler. “Such firms don’t have to undertake the hard work of political activism that might actually drive down global emissions like political advocacy, use of public voice, testimony in Washington, noisy, uncomfortable coalition building and peer pressure, divestment, or public calling-out of bad behavior. Hell—they don’t even need to cut their emissions to be labeled a leader. They just need to aspire to it.

“But this approach may actually be worse than a distraction. In practice, these actions seem expressly designed to garner the imprimatur of greenness without demanding the hard work of power-wielding and political activism.”

Whether you’re a jacket manufacturer or a skier who cares about climate change and protecting our winters, it’s not enough to show how green you are. What actually matters is using your voice, your vote, and your wallet to disrupt and demand the systemic change necessary to actually do something about it.

John Clary Davies is the brand editorial director at Avocado Green Brands and former editor-in-chief of POWDER Magazine. He reuses his Tupperware almost too long.