Patagonia has been at the forefront of environmental initiatives since before eco-consciousness became the topic du jour in the fashion industry.
Now, the Ventura, Calif.-based company is digging even deeper into efforts to promote circularity, reduce waste, and champion Earth-friendly materials with a smaller carbon footprint.
Bring Hemp Home
The outdoor label’s most recent mission centers around bringing hemp production back to the states—specifically, to Colorado’s San Luis Valley. While hemp has long been viewed as a viable resource for global brands, and has been regarded as a cash crop in countries like China, U.S. agriculture has been slower to catch on—mostly because of preconceived notions about the plant’s connection to the cannabis industry and regulation surrounding its cultivation, even for textile use.
But there are many benefits to hemp that make it a worthwhile investment for the American brand, which has sourced the material from China since 1997, Corey Simpson, a Patagonia spokesperson, told Sourcing Journal. “When the 2018 Farm Bill made industrial hemp legal to grow again in most states, we started supporting U.S. farmers looking to transition from cultivating more extractive crops to this drought-tolerant, soil-friendly crop,” he said. Growing cotton, by contrast, is a much more water-intensive process, and one that heavily taxes the land on which it is grown.
“We are working on these partnerships to help restore a thriving U.S. hemp industry that puts farmers first and creates good jobs along every part of the supply chain,” Simpson said, pointing to the San Luis Valley as Patagonia’s first stop. According to the brand, which began its work with Shanan Wright and Dion Oakes, two former potato and barley farmers who planted a stake Colorado’s newly minted hemp industry in 2018, bringing U.S. hemp production up to speed will take investment from brands, researchers and local governments.
Patagonia connected Wright and Oakes with soil scientists at Colorado State University to help optimize their growing strategy, as well as the brand’s hemp supplier in China, which offered to lend its expertise to helping the farmers’ 319 acres of nascent crops blossom into a thriving industry. The brand is also bending the ear of Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who is acutely aware of the issues facing farmers in the state—namely the skyrocketing cost of water amid widespread droughts—and the need for a crop that can stand up to tough environmental conditions. “We don’t want these communities to dry up and for people to leave,” he said in a video for the program. “That’s why industrial hemp is such an important crop.”
The Bring Hemp Home initiative was born of Patagonia’s introductory efforts in Colorado, Simpson said, and it aims not only to restore the nation’s hemp industry but also to keep farmers on their land, producing crops domestically so that brands can rely on home-grown resources.
“We’re also working with hemp-processing partners to ensure our entire hemp supply chain has an even smaller impact on the environment,” he said, explaining the process of using clean retting, which separates the hemp fibers from other tissues, decorticating, which strips the outer layer of the plant, and degumming methods, which pull the hemp fiber away from the plant’s woody inner core and strip it of its sticky lignins and pectins.
“In addition, we are working with bio-composite companies that can transform the ‘waste’ from our crop into building materials and other goods that provide alternatives to plastics and fiberglass,” he said, noting the crop’s potential industrial applications.
According to Patagonia, hemp currently makes up less than 0.1 percent of the global fiber market, and the company is looking to lead the charge in increasing its usage. “For the fall 2021 season, we’re launching our Workwear Hemp Denim line, which uses non-degummed hemp, and less water, too,” Simpson said. “This year, we added hemp into 68 of our product styles.”
When it comes to the material’s application in apparel, there are some notable benefits, he added. “We love hemp because it is soft and breathable in hot weather, making it a great fabric for active days and travel,” he added, noting that hemp has an “airy, natural and light” hand-feel and greater strength and durability than some other natural fibers, which means it stands up to wear and tear longer.
Those performance capabilities make hemp fabrications a natural fit for Patagonia’s gear, and the brand has incorporated it into its lifestyle, workwear, climb, trail and fish categories, he added. “Because hemp is such a multi-purpose fabric and can be blended with other materials, it can be used in technical applications as well as casual wear,” Simpson said, adding that styles across Patagonia’s lines are made from hybridized blends of hemp fiber with Tencel Lyocell or organic cotton, which make it softer and more resistant to wrinkles.
Fair Trade and recycled swim products
Patagonia’s latest spring swimwear designs for men and women are designed with both performance and material makeup in mind.
Its latest line of high-performance women’s one and two-piece swimsuits and men’s board shorts are Fair Trade Certified sewn and made using majority recycled materials like polyester and nylon. The outdoor label has also updated its men’s Hydro Series swim trunks, which it characterizes as its most high-performance style, with new fit features to ensure that the 87-percent recycled polyester shorts stay in place throughout rigorous activity.
The company has upped its game when it comes to Fair Trade certification in recent years—in 2014, just 10 swimwear styles from one factory were certified, Simpson said, but by fall of 2020, more than two-thirds of all Patagonia board shorts and swim styles claimed the distinction.
“We have worked with some of the most specialized factories that make our most technical products—wetsuits, shells and mountain bike apparel—to become Fair Trade Certified,” Simpson said, adding that some of Patagonia’s best-selling sportswear products, such as its cult-favorite Better Sweater and Re-Tool Fleece, are also being made in in Fair Trade Certified factories. Each season the company pushes more of its factory partners through the certification process, he said, and “as more and more of our factories become certified, we can offer even more technical products that are designed specifically for one of our core sports,” he added. “We know that our core customers in our sport communities share our values—they want products that are made in a supply chain where people and animals are treated well.”
In addition to an ongoing push toward Fair Trade, 64 percent of Patagonia’s fabrics this spring season are made with recycled materials, in keeping with the brand’s goal of cutting out virgin petroleum-based fibers by 2025. The brand has committed to using only preferred materials that are renewable—like Tencel Lyocell, organic cotton, hemp and Yulex, a natural rubber—or recycled fabrics made from both synthetic or natural materials, by that date.
A different organic standard
While Patagonia has been using Certified Organic Cotton across its collections since 1996, and launched a line of “Cotton in Conversion” apparel, made with cotton farmed organically and on its way to certification, in 2020, the company is spearheading yet another standard for the crop.
In collaboration with organic soap brand Dr. Bronner’s, Patagonia established the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), a new holistic agriculture certification that builds upon existing organic, animal welfare, and social fairness standards, in 2018, with pilot cotton crops being grown across 150 farms in India. Now, those fibers are being used in 19 ROC pilot apparel styles across the line, to debut by the end of the summer.
“Created to model an ecological and ethical system for agricultural production that addresses the problems of factory farming, climate change and economic injustice, locally and globally, the intent is for the standard to become adopted by companies and producers on a broad scale,” Simpson said. The program relies on practices that aim to rehabilitate soil—including low or no tilling, cover cropping and crop rotation. “These practices reduce greenhouse gas emissions and could help trap more carbon than conventional agriculture,” Simpson said, describing them as “the highest standard for agricultural practices.”
In the long term, ROC’s objectives are to increase soil organic matter and absorb atmospheric carbon in soil, which Patagonia believes will help minimize the effects of climate change.
Pushing Worn Wear
Patagonia debuted its circularity program Worn Wear, in 2017, seeking to lend new life to old outdoor gear. The repair and resale program has since taken off, as shoppers increasingly seek to curb their impact on the environment and make more mindful purchases.
According to Simpson, Patagonia is seeking to boost Worn Wear’s influence even further in the midst of the pandemic. Over Black Friday weekend in November, it launched an “option to buy used” button on its website next to all products site-wide that were available to buy used. “We believe this will make it easier for our customers to make an informed decision every time they shop,” Simspon said. While most Patagonia styles are available through the program, the company does not currently accept skin-to-skin garments like T-shirts, leggings, swimwear and base layers.
“Worn Wear will become a more significant part of our business because we are asking our customers to buy less and demand more,” Simpson added, noting that buying used extends a garment’s life by about two years, which cuts its combined carbon, waste and water footprint by 73 percent.
“We are leaning into resale more because we are committed to keeping our gear in use longer,” he said. “No other company is selling used alongside new items and this really exciting development for us.”