Patagonia: The Environmentally Responsible Brand
Sustainable and ethical manufacturing is perhaps the single most important topic across all industries in 2022 and Patagonia really is at the heart of this for clothing and retail. Established in 1973, Patagonia's anti-establishment ethic and environmental awareness has got stronger by the decade.
The current CEO, Ryan Gellert, doesn’t describe Patagonia as being a ‘sustainable’ company; he forgoes the buzzword to describe Patagonia as a responsible company. Paradoxically, as Patagonia has spoken more and more about their environmental qualities, they’ve grown and sold more items. Before 2018, their mission statement was to make the best product and cause no unnecessary harm to the planet, but this has now changed. Now, their mission statement is to save our home planet. It's no longer enough to simply not have a negative impact on the environment, there's an urgent need to give back, regenerate and restore.
So what is Patagonia doing to become the most responsible brand possible?
Information is the single most important thing to help people on their own responsible shopping journey. Nobody likes being preached to, so if the information isn't educational or engaging, the world is never going to change.
Story telling is one of the key skills Patagonia is uniquely qualified to do. They have grown a community worldwide who hold environmental causes close to their hearts, and the more Patagonia can use their position, their voice and their community to spread knowledge and information, the better. They stopped all paid Facebook and Instagram ads as part of the Stop Hate or Profit campaign in June 2020 and have never gone back. Their social media is full of stories. Their product goals are to make less product, challenge the footprint of that product, and repair it to keep it in use for longer.
So if you go to Patagonia.com, there's a 'Stories' tab in their top navigation. If reading isn't your jam, head over to their YouTube channel to spend hours watching stories on a whole host of topics from their supply chain to individual in the outdoors to environmental activists.
A simple pledge: donate 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. You might have already heard of this non-profit organisation, but you may not have known that it was founded by Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia's founder. Patagonia has been awarding millions of dollars to grassroots environmental groups since 1985, so in 2002 1% For The Planet was creating to help other businesses do the same. Think of it as an environmental tax.
For the few products that Patagonia creates using virgin fabrics or insulation, they aim to be responsible in its production or sourcing.
For products that use virgin down, 100% of it is certified to the Advanced Global Traceable Down Standard.
With virgin wool, it's sourced under strict Responsible Wool Standard guidelines.
Not all virgin fabric is plastic. REFIBRA® lyocell (TENCEL™) fibre is synthetic (man-made) but biodegradeable as it's made from wood pulp and recycled cotton. The production of Tencel is also a closed loop process - while it uses chemicals, 99% is recycled and continually used.
Currently, 94% of Patagonia's lines use recycled materials of some kind - whether that's recycled polyester, nylon, cotton, down, cashmere or wool. By using fabric made from recycled synthetic materials you're not only bypassing the extra consumption of fossil fuels and carbon used in the manufacturing process and potentially ruling out the need to dye, but you're also using supply chain waste and post-consumer waste. However, it's worth noting that clothing made from recycled PET (the plastic used in your single use drinks bottle) has not necessarily diverted the bottle away from landfill if it was already in the recycling bin. These bottles are sold by recycling plants to the highest bidder - that's either the textile industry for 'recycled' clothing or the beverage industry to make into new plastic bottles. We, as consumers, need to make sure we're putting our bottles into the recycling bin 100% of the time, especially as the supply of recycled PET is running short since China stopped accepting international waste for recycling.
"Every single material is greenhouse gas intensive, just at different levels. Recycling materials has lower environmental impacts than making them from raw virgin resources but that doesn't make them green, it makes them maybe less brown. It's only if you buy a less impactful product instead of a more impactful product that you reduce your environmental burden." (source: video below)
Don't worry, there is so much to feel positive about as the primary benefit of using recycled materials is to reduce the fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions of creating virgin fibre. By using recycled content, Patagonia has removed 20,000 tons of Co2 emissions in one year. The extra good thing Patagonia does is to make a garment from recycled materials that really lasts to encourage people to reduce their consumption - buying well and buying less.
Patagonia is also making its own recycled material: NetPlus, from 100% recycled discarded fishing nets - one of the most harmful forms of plastic pollution - collected in South America. To date, Patagonia has used more than 527 tons of fishing nets in their products. From now on, Patagonia aim to increase the use of NetPlus material in their products.
Where recycled cotton is used, it's simply offcuts from factory floors that would otherwise end up in landfill. It would be a shame to waste as in its production, a single pound of cotton uses 173 gallons of water. Every offcut matters. They gather these organic cotton offcuts, sort them into colour, process them into yarn and sew their Responsibili-Tees in Fair Trade factories.
Organic Cotton and Regenerative Farming
It might be a peculiar thought that farming and fashion are linked, but if a garment is made from cotton, then it started as a plant. Mass production of food and crops have necessitated the use of synthetic fertilizers for the last 50+ years. Whilst this increased crop yields, it led to over-farming of the soil and decreased the land's ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
In the early 90s, employees in their Boston store began getting headaches. Investigations showed that their conventionally grown cotton t-shirts were off-gassing formaldehyde used in the garments' production and was the direct cause of their employees' headaches.
In 1996, Patagonia found another way and has been using exclusively organic cotton where it is not using recycled cotton. That's impressive considering that less than 1% of the world's cotton is grown organically.
"Organically farmed cotton employs nature-based solutions to manage pests and to build healthy soil, instead of the synthetic pesticides, herbicides, defoliants, fertilizers and GMO seeds used to grow conventional cotton. Organic methods support biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, improve the quality of soil and often use less water. Compared to growing conventional cotton, there is a 45% reduction in CO₂ emissions and a 90% reduction in water as a result of growing organic cotton."
Regenerative farming is the highest standard of farming which aims to rehabilitate soil, respect animal welfare and improve the lives of farmers.
Patagonia have piloted a line of t-shirts that use cotton directly from farms in India who are part of their regenerative farming programme. Since 2017, 550+ farmers have been part of their Regenerative Organic Certified Pilot. By investing in these programmes, clothing production can not only just reduce their impact, but give back to the planet.
PFCs in DWR
Fluorinated DWR finishes make clothing waterproof by repelling water droplets. You might see the terms PFAS, PFOS and PFOA used; PFOS and PFOA are two subcategories of PFAS which is one of the family of chemicals called perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs. In other words, ‘PFCs’ is the broad term for all fluorocarbon chemicals. Different chemicals in this family have a varying number of carbon atoms, so C6 has six carbon atoms and C8 has eight. While the outdoor industry has moved away from C8 (or 'long chain') PFCs in this coating, C6 (short chain) PFCs are currently unbeatable in their waterproofing performance. They're considered less harmful to the environment than C8, but they are certainly not safe. PFCs are known as forever chemicals; once created they will never break down and are harmful to people and the planet. To read more about the chemistry related to PFCs, head here.
While Patagonia still uses C6 PFAS in some of their clothing, they are in the process of going PFAS-free across their entire line by 2024. This is not exclusively a problem for Patagonia - the entire outdoor industry is struggling with removing PFCs from their waterproofing. For clothing that is PFC-free, there are performance and longevity issues. It's going to take a while to find a better solution for clothing that needs very high waterproofing performance. If you don't need a really high performance waterproof, then consider buying a PFC-free DWR coated item instead - it'll still keep you dry.
Only 10% of the chemicals that go into a textile factory, come out in the fabric. The rest is either recycled or ends up in the air, water,land and people.
Bluesign® was founded in 2000 and Patagonia was one of the first to work with them to improve their supply chain. "Bluesign® partners have access to the extensive bluesign database of more than 900 chemicals, which are rated as blue (clear to use), silver (use with good management) or black (never use). Bluesign® helps factories manage silver chemicals with good practice and replace black chemicals with bluesign® approved". (source)
The aim of the bluesign® system is responsible use of resources, clean processes with controlled air and water emissions, safe processes for the workers and safe products for consumers. To achieve this, the system defines criteria for ingredients, for the manufacturing process and for finished products. By making sure all the ingredients are approved, it's much easier to make sure the finished products are approved.
In 2021, nine out of the top 10 material suppliers for Patagonia were bluesign system partners. They're working towards making their entire supply chain bluesign certified.
Getting colour into fabrics isn't as simple as you might think. Traditionally, fabrics are batch-dyed, but more brands are becoming aware of the water and carbon saving ability of solution dyeing. That's a 90% reduction in water usage and 96% reduction in CO2 emissions - certainly not to be dismissed. This technique adds pigment to the fibre while the plastic is still molten - so, yes, it is only applicable to plastic based yarns.
Patagonia started to experiment with solution dyeing in their luggage as this technique also makes the yarn really strong. They are now incorporating solution dyeing in their luggage, fleece and shells. More research needs to be done into dyeing processes and how different fibres can be coloured in the most economic and environmentally safe ways, but this is a start when synthetic fibres need to be used for the longevity pay off of the product.
Fair Labor Association
Being a sustainable brand isn't just about the product, it's about the people. Patagonia is a founding member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) which holds apparel companies to account for responsible labour practices in their supply chain. The FLA randomly audits parts of the supply chain and finds opportunities for improvement.
Fair Trade Certified
85% of Patagonia's line is Fair Trade Certified Sewn, which means they pay a little extra for every one of the garments. But what does this mean and where does that money go?
“That extra money goes directly to the workers at the factory… In each factory, a democratically elected committee of Fair-Trade workers decides how the funds will be used. Workers have chosen to use the premiums to fund community projects, like health-care programs or a child-care center, to purchase products they could not otherwise afford, like a laptop computer or a stove; or to take a cash bonus. But that's not all. The program also promotes worker health and safety as well as social and environmental compliance, and encourages dialogue between workers and management.” - Patagonia.
That's 64,000 people supported by Patagonia's participation in the Fair-Trade programme.
As of 2020, 39% of Patagonia's clothing assembly factories were paying their workers a living wage. They are aiming for this to be 100%, though it is a hard ask when they do not own any of their production factories. In the meantime, they are working with the Fair Labor Association to fund three living-wage benchmark studies in El Salvador, Colombia and Thailand.
Garment Circularity: Worn Wear
Patagonia believe the best way to produce environmentally friendly, sustainable clothing is to make the products as low impact at their origin but also as high quality as possible so they last the test of time and then if they do become worn, repair them and wear them again.
Patagonia launched the 'Worn Wear' campaign in the USA to emphasise the quality of their clothing but to also encourage their customers to grab a sewing kit and repair a garment rather than throwing it into landfill.
This has now been extended to trading in your old Patagonia item to receive credit towards your next purchase. This new step is an acknowledgement that it takes a lot to change consumer behaviour, and people's tastes change. As long as the item is in good condition, they’ll accept it.
In 2020, Patagonia helped repair 101,706 garments. While this service is currently only permanently available in the USA, they are looking at expanding it to other countries. However, keep your eye out for their Worn Wear van heading out on the open road in Europe.