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Patagonia Wrestles With ‘Unsettling’ Climate Problem

Whatever you do, don’t call Patagonia a sustainable brand.

“At Patagonia, we don’t use the word ‘sustainable,” Beth Thoren, environmental action and initiatives director, EMEA, at the outdoor-wear company, wrote in an op-ed in Fortune on Tuesday. “Why? Because we recognize we are part of the problem.”

Though Patagonia aims to be carbon neutral by 2025, achieving the goal by purchasing offsets doesn’t “erase the footprint we create and won’t save us in the long run,” Thoren wrote. “We must first put the weight of our business behind drastically cutting emissions across the full length of our supply chain.”

The “unsettling” problem is Patagonia doesn’t yet know how to do this, she said, pointing to the Facebook-boycotting firm’s pledge to use only renewable or recycled materials in its products by 2025 as a “case in point.” Despite years of efforts, Patagonia’s recycled content is up to 68 percent of its total usage, which Thoren said is “still not enough.”

“Investigating all the options, from upweighting the sale of secondhand products to moderating growth and cutting the breadth of our product line, only reinforces our belief that we can’t do this alone,” she added.

One challenge is that 95 percent of Patagonia’s emissions stem from its supply chain, and the company is, comparatively, a “minor player on this stage,” since it produces in shared factories alongside other brands, Thoren said. As a solution, Patagonia is developing an “insetting” approach to its supply chain by way of a joint funding mechanism that will allow smaller brands to join it in “greening” the factories in return for carbon credits.

“This approach intrinsically fits our values: innovating and finding solutions from which we, and other businesses, can benefit, then sharing this learning as widely as possible, in order to scale practical solutions to the crisis we face,” Thoren said. “As is the case for many of our progressive ideas, we currently have only a hunch that it will work, but we know we have to try.”

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Thoren admitted that the “corporate encroachment” at the Glasgow climate talks can be jarring, particularly when businesses routinely lobby against climate-positive policies. But it would be a mistake, she said, to dismiss the positive impact that for-profit businesses can have, not because they “are saints” or because they have “all the answers” but because the private sector needs to be a part of the solution rather than the source of the problem. Still, companies need to take a “long hard look in the mirror” and understand why they might face a “trust deficit” in the face of spin, greenwashing and “straight-out lying.”

“If accountability and innovation are the first two steps, the ultimate action we must take to deliver on a real climate strategy is to give back more than we take,” Thoren said. “Businesses wield enormous influence, and we must jointly demand that governments play their part in doing what is right for the whole of society, and support them in this aim.”

Meanwhile, Patagonia is calling on policymakers in Glasgow to fight greenwashing and promote meaningful action by setting global standards for carbon accounting and offsetting. The brand is also urging its fellow businesses to join it in “cutting through the blah, blah,” challenge unnecessary consumption and go “above and beyond” in demanding change.

“Our voices are stronger when we speak together, such as with the B Corp movement or the open letter we cosigned in support of Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act,” Thoren said. “People are right to be wary of companies declaring their support for climate action. Much of it will be mere posturing—but not all. Genuine corporate climate champions do exist. You might just be one yourself.”