The North Face has become the oil industry’s new favorite brand to hate. It all started back in December, when Innovex Downhole Solutions, a company that provides oil and gas well services, placed an order with the North Face for 400 jackets branded with the company’s logo as Christmas presents for his employees.
North Face rejected the order, and a spokesperson reportedly told Innovex it wouldn’t brand its jackets with the logo of a fossil fuel company. Since then, it’s metastasized into a whole big thing, replete with fake awards and a former Trump advisor weighing in. While it’s tempting to dismiss it as just another own-the-libs flash in the culture war pan, the incident shows how the oil industry is readying to fight back against its increasing vilification as well as the vise grip it holds on nearly all aspects of our lives.
After North Face shot down the order, the president of Innovex, Adam Anderson, fired back at North Face with an open letter he posted to LinkedIn (!). In the letter, he trotted out tired and false lines about increasing carbon dioxide levels being good for plants, as well as increasingly familiar talking points about fossil fuels’ supposed role in helping humanity and concerns for how poverty will expand in a world without dirty energy. And then there’s the coup de grace.
“BTW - [North Face] jackets are made from hydrocarbons,” Anderson noted in his LinkedIn post. Unlike his claims that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide is good for plants, this is true: products like polyester, nylon and spandex, which figure heavily in the company’s outdoor gear, are made from plastics derived from crude oil.
The kerfluffle generated a bit of right wing press in December, but it didn’t stop there. Earlier this month, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a state fossil fuel advocacy group, held a fake awards ceremony where it mockingly bestowed an “extraordinary customer” award on North Face, emphasizing the role of oil and gas plays in North Face’s products and the outdoor industry.
The whole half-hour thing is on YouTube, and I have to hand it to them: It’s a really incredible show of pettiness, complete with a slideshow of stock photos to illustrate how oil and gas plays a role in the outdoor industry.
“Why get mad at these people? They’re our customers,” Alex Cranberg, the chairman of the oil and gas company Aspect Energy, snarked at one point. “They may not appreciate how valuable our product is, but I think we should appreciate North Face and all the other companies that use our products to make the world a better place.”
This sort of own-the-libs gotcha-ism is a classic conservative narrative arc. But the whole saga holds some clues about to techniques the fossil fuel industry may adopt at a wider scale as it faces more scrutiny and pressure due to its role in causing the climate crisis.
The industry is increasingly leaning into the messaging that its products make life better: During the faux award show, Dan Haley, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s president and CEO, shared images of people enjoying the outdoors with arrows pointing to everything made of oil from kayaks to hiking gear. And the group isn’t letting up on the approach anytime soon. In fact, it’s using the North Face kerfuffle as a springboard for a campaign called Fueling Our Lives. Haley told industry publisher Hart Energy that he hopes the campaign will “connect oil and gas, for Coloradans, with the products they use every day.”
Historically, the North Face has been kind of late to the game in embracing its role as a brand in figuring out what we’re going to do about climate change. That’s particularly true, as CNBC reported in August, compared to its direct competitor Patagonia. And the company’s decision does feel a little amateur: If you’re going to have morals on who you sell to, you might want to back them up with a little more work on your corporate sustainability. Though some brands may be trying to change course, they’re not there yet (and in the North Face’s case, some of the changes seem more PR than systemic). That means this type of attack by the oil and gas industry can really hit home.
But it’s hardly just the outdoor industry that the oil and gas industry is hitching its horse to. Tom Pyle, another presenter at the fake award ceremony (who also helped head former President Donald Trump’s energy transition and runs the American Energy Alliance), waxed on about how the coronavirus vaccine would have been “impossible without oil and gas.”
What these attacks reveal, though, is something deeper about the industry itself as well as the challenges of ending our relationship with fossil fuels. Yes, the oil executives are right. Your North Face jacket is made of oil; your ski trips run on oil; pretty much everything in your life runs on oil, and there’s not a lot you as an individual can do about it.
But that’s because oil and gas companies have worked for decades to ingrain themselves into the fabric of society and amp up the value of their product by lying, fending off competitors, buying off politicians, and creating new demand streams for their products (look no further than the coming plastics boom triggered simply from excess oil produced by the industry).
We’re only now just coming to terms with the enormous costs from decades of fossil fuel use—and the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation campaign are part of the reason why we allowed so much of our world to become reliant on their product, with few available alternatives. And it’s no surprise that politicians who get money from the industry are continually painting fossil fuels as necessary as a way to block needed progress on transitioning off them, parroting the same messages Innovex’s president and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association are now pushing. It’s a looped messaging system of whataboutism, designed to fend off any accountability or the changes need to avert more damage to the climate. It’s up to us to not let them—or even brands that rely on them like North Face—off the hook.