Outdoor apparel brand Patagonia has long been recognized as one of the world’s most outspoken corporate entities in the fight to preserve the planet.
That reputation was put on full display following the Trump administration’s elimination of most of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah in 2017, when the outdoor apparel brand hit back with a widely discussed campaign to sue the president.
While its public advocacy efforts have taken center stage since the brand’s inception, loyalists and true tree-huggers appreciate Patagonia’s efforts behind the scenes, too. Carbon emissions studies and sustainable material innovations may not be fodder for brand campaigns, but the company’s product teams are constantly strategizing about how to mitigate the apparel industry’s devastating ecological impact.
“We have this longstanding history and legacy of doing the right thing,” Matt Dwyer, Patagonia’s senior director of materials and innovation, said. The brand was built on founder Yvon Chouinard’s vision of creating mountaineering equipment that wouldn’t disturb the natural environment, he said, and that initial philosophy has sustained it through more than four decades.
Dwyer said that the company began thinking deeply about the impact of its materials about 25 years ago, when it introduced its first post-consumer recycled fleece. Now, its roster of environmentally conscious fabrics and components has blossomed, along with revamped supply chain processes to conserve natural resources and create less waste.
“About two years ago we did our first carbon footprint exercise and found that, to nobody’s surprise, materials and supply chain accounted for 86 percent of the entire company’s carbon footprint,” Dwyer told Sourcing Journal.
“We always knew that by being a business, we’d have an impact. That’s the paradox we’ve dealt with since day one, but this time we had numbers to go with it. If there was ever a rallying cry for me and my team, that was absolutely it,” he added.
Since digesting the results, Patagonia has doubled down on efforts to incorporate recycled materials into every possible product. Dwyer believes that while there’s no silver bullet to achieving true sustainability, recycling should play an integral part in any apparel brand’s strategy.
Those efforts can take shape in ways big and small. Patagonia recently developed a replacement for the plastic inserts in its trucker hat brims, Dwyer said. While not the sexiest innovation, the company and its recycling partner, Bureo, have managed to create a solution that utilizes 100 percent recycled fishnets instead of virgin plastic.
“We try to find problems to solve sorting by the biggest, the most opportune and the most convenient—using a scientific or engineering approach,” Dwyer said. “If the supply chain doesn’t exist, we build it, and if the solution doesn’t exist, we find a clever way to solve it,” he added.
The company also wants to dispel the myth that recycled materials are too costly or rare, or that they don’t deliver on performance. The company’s No. 1 style is its Better Sweater, which is made from 100 percent recycled materials, Dwyer said. Since the product’s launch, it has amassed a cult following, forcing the brand to manufacture it in high volume. Many of Patagonia’s technical shell products are also made with wholly recycled face fabrics.
Dwyer admitted that taking on the “waste economy” is a challenge for many brands because of the lack of recycling infrastructure. The problem is pervasive, he said, and efforts to curb it have been met with lackluster support and funding.
“California shut down more than 100 recycling facilities this year because they weren’t economically viable to run,” he said by way of example.
Still, Dwyer believes the best thing brands can do is attempt to “add value to waste,” whether it’s in the form of fishnets, plastic bottles, or other discarded, pollutive goods. “That’s how you spur the infrastructure development to make use of these materials,” he offered.
Patagonia has also been tackling the issue of microplastic shedding, which occurs most notably in its popular fleeces.
“Everything sheds, whether it’s natural or synthetic,” Dwyer explained. “Even the most tightly woven materials, like shiny, down-proof or insulated fabrics do.
“We started on fleece because it’s made through a very destructive process, and depending on how you create your textile, that will directly impact how it sheds,” he said.
The brand first began studying the problem with a team of research scientists at UC Santa Barbara, and also works with the Vancouver Aquarium to explore the issue’s impact on marine life.
While a fail-safe solution has proven elusive, Patagonia is looking into the polymers that it sources for its materials as well as the treatment of textiles at the mill level to see if the potential for shedding can be mitigated. The company is also researching optimal garment care and solutions that can be implemented in consumers’ homes, like detergents and filters for washing machines.
Design for repair
An integral part of the company’s sustainable strategy is its focus on durability and longevity. Patagonia aims to keep its products in service as long as possible, Dwyer said, to ensure that they don’t meet a landfill fate.
“Design for repair starts at the beginning stages,” he said, explaining that the brand’s designers build styles with the knowledge that they could come in for repairs later on in their lifecycle.
Those repairs are largely performed for free in store, and if they require more extensive attention, Patagonia has a facility in Reno where damaged garments can be sent for a full workup.
The company is also taking these services on the road with a program called Worn Wear, which stops into college towns and ski communities across the country to solicit free repairs for all types of garments—not just Patagonia products.
Last year, the Worn Wear program began buying back used Patagonia merchandise and offering consumers store credit. The unwanted garments are then refurbished and put up for sale on the program’s microsite for a fraction of their original cost.
Patagonia will also launch its ReCrafted program later this month, where new products are created from used gear that consumers have turned over to the brand.
“Geopolitical and economic risk is part of how we evaluate supply chain and sourcing, but our goal is really to find suppliers who are in it with us to save the planet,” Dwyer said. Digging for savings comes at a cost when it comes to supply chain processes, he added, citing environmental and social implications that the brand is not willing to assume.
“The suppliers that we work with have had to jump through significant hoops and audits simply to get on the list, much less to get a significant share of our manufacturing,” Dwyer said, and for that reason, the brand has landed in countries other than China for its finished goods strategy.
While the brand does source some of its fibers from the country, Dwyer said Patagonia has largely been able to evade the impacts of the ongoing trade war.
Bringing manufacturing back stateside is a conversation that “happens daily,” Dwyer said, though the concept presents many logistical challenges.
“It’s unfortunate that technical sewing and fabric manufacturing largely left this country two generations ago,” he explained. “Even when we talk about making something simple like our snap tee—we can source the fabric and sew it, but we couldn’t find the button snaps that make it iconic.”
Sourcing componentry and other materials from across the globe doesn’t make sense when it comes to reducing the brand’s carbon impact, he said. But moving production closer to the brand’s primary market is an ultimate goal.
“It saves on our footprint. It saves time. And it definitely saves cost,” he added. “It’s a problem that we’re definitely trying to solve.”