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How Patagonia Puts Apparel Manufacturing Under the Microscope

Patagonia has proven itself to be a pioneer in sustainable fashion with product lines like recycled cashmere, recycled wool and denim dyed using an innovative process to minimize energy and water use and carbon dioxide emissions.

Each are achievements made possible by the outdoor brand’s 20-plus-member materials team.

At the Sustainable Fashion Forum in Los Angeles last Thursday, hosted by Fashiondex and LA Textile, Sarah Hayes, Patagonia director of material development, and Elissa Foster, Patagonia manager of product responsibility, shared how the company’s unwavering focus on building better, stronger products begin with sourcing the right materials.

Identifying the impacts

“There are hurdles along the way…and it’s really hard to minimize environmental impact throughout a supply chain,” Foster said. “But we’ve been doing our best to identify where the impacts are.”

One of Patagonia’s first steps was to determine how it could reduce its carbon footprint. The company found that more than 85 percent of its carbon footprint results from materials, more than its owned and operated buildings, retail stores and the transportation of product from factory to distribution center to the customer.

This factoid, Hayes said, led Patagonia to break down the material manufacturing life cycle stages. Among the areas the company examines is the type of performance characteristics a new product must have, the process required to make the textile, how it is dyed, the impact it may have on water and energy, and if the raw material is being made in a responsible way—to the environment and workers.

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“There’s a lot of things that we’re thinking about,” she said. “It’s definitely not easy. We can’t do it by ourselves and we would not be who we are today if we didn’t have the most amazing supply chain partners.”

When they come across a new technology or new fiber, for example, Hayes said companies will run trials for Patagonia. “Or a lot of them actually have really strong R&D departments and bring things to us.”

Organic cotton pioneers

Patagonia has been organic cotton—and only organic cotton—since 1996.

While it’s an older story for the brand, it’s a raw material Patagonia continues to think about. “There has been some lifecycle analysis to come out with some data that is super quantifiable to show the environmental savings of organic cotton compared to conventionally grown cotton,” Hayes said.

The company has found organic cotton can save 91 percent water consumption and reduce soil erosion by 26 percent. Additionally, farmers of organic cotton also benefit as they are not exposed to as many harmful pesticides, Hayes noted.

Despite the environmental and health benefits, and the more than 20 years of Patagonia setting an example in the market, Hayes said only 1 percent of total global cotton production is grown organically. “This is one thing that we would really have hoped have influenced by now.”

Patagonia decided to double down on organic cotton and held a conference with its supply chain partners from China, India and Texas at its Ventura, Calif.-based campus this past January. The goal? To reinvigorate the conversation about organic cotton and to discuss how the company could help scale its production.

“We see [organic cotton] as a ray of opportunity for brands that are trying to switch into making more sustainable material choices,” Hayes said. “Not everybody has to go 100 percent right away the way we did.”

In hindsight, knowing the difficulties Patagonia initially faced when it converted to using only organic cotton, Hayes said the company might have started with a smaller percentage.

“But even 5 or 10 percent, just a small amount, can really have a dramatic impact on increasing organic cotton production,” she said. “And that, in turn, can have a dramatic impact on some of the global warming problems that we’re seeing.”

Designed to last

Manufacturing product is resource intensive, which is why Patagonia aims to make things that last forever, Foster said. “We have a lifetime guarantee on all of our apparel, which means that when it breaks, you can send it to one of our repair centers around the world to repair or patch up and send it back to you as good as new.”

Repair has become increasingly important to the brand. Patagonia hosts clinics in store locations to help repair items on the spot and to teach people how to make repairs at home. The company also provides tutorials on its website.

And now the company has an online resale platform to further the life cycle of unwanted items. “For example, if you bought a fleece jacket and it doesn’t fit anymore, but you don’t want to get rid of it…now there’s an opportunity for resale, which is pretty cool and has been amazingly successful,” Foster said.

Aim to inspire

Part of Patagonia’s mission statement prioritizes developing a business that inspires and implements solutions. It’s a goal that could be shared across the industry.

After all, Hayes noted that what works for Patagonia may not work for a startup—and vice versa—but sharing best practices may spark new ideas.

“There’s really an opportunity for us as an industry to start doing things slightly different and think about the materials were using and to talk to our customers about why we’re using those materials,” she said.

The prevalence of farmer’s markets, organic grocers and farm-to-table restaurants in the past decade demonstrates how the food industry has benefited from consumer engagement. A parallel movement that inspires customers to ask more questions about how and where their garments are made could have the same effect on the fashion industry.

“That’s what I hope for,” Hayes said, “so the industry can keep evolving and improving itself.”