Patagonia Inc. is a US outdoor apparel and sports equipment manufacturer that has been pioneering the corporate eco-activist movement since the mid-70s. Over the years it has been acting consistently to defend its core values by placing environmental and social responsibility before business objectives. Its leadership in the field has served as a platform for other brands to join forces and show care for the planet. For example, Patagonia (co-)founded notable organizations and started initiatives such as 1% for the Planet, Fair Labour Association (FLA), Textile Exchange, Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), The Higg Index, etc. Among other key memberships, in Dec 2011, the brand was granted a B Corp. Certification and it has maintained a score of 151 points (ranging 80 - 200) since 2016.
TLDR; Is Patagonia Sustainable?
Patagonia may well be the most sustainable brand for outdoor apparel. Its leadership has influenced a lot of people and businesses to get on board with the environmental movement. Patagonia has started more initiatives than any other company in the industry, it unites activists on a mission, and spreads a message everyone needs to hear.
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Patagonia And The Environment
Patagonia is determined to fight the climate crisis and has set an ambitious goal to drastically reduce emissions and become carbon neutral by 2025. It openly admits the impact of clothing designed for high-performance - making synthetic threads from oil, dyeing fabrics with chemical dyes, waterproofing jackets, and so on.
Our analysis of Patagonia's line estimates that petroleum-based fibers account for ~75% (52% polyester, 22% nylon). They are carbon-intensive to produce, made of non-renewable resources, and have a huge waste potential. However, this choice of materials is justified in the outdoor and sports apparel niche which has a lot of technical requirements that only synthetic fibers can meet. As a mitigation, the brand utilizes a high proportion of recycled materials - more than 60% (claiming 68%). It is a little-known fact that Patagonia collaborated with Polartec to manufacture the first-ever polyester fleece from recycled bottles back in 1993. Yet 15-20% of the materials in this season's collection are virgin plastics, though the promise is to switch to 100% renewable and recycled materials by 2025.
Additionally, 100% of their virgin cotton is organically grown, either certified or "cotton in conversion" (organically grown crop on land that is still not clean from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers). Organic agriculture greatly reduces blue water consumption and unlike the conventional method, it doesn't contribute to pollution and water scarcity.
Nearly 97% of the carbon emissions are released in the supply chain during textile production, factory operation, and distribution. Raw materials alone account for 86%, so Patagonia reduces a significant amount from using a high percentage of recycled materials.
The transportation footprint is minimized through drop-shipping (e.g shipping directly from factories to international distribution centers) and minimizing inbound air transportation.
With over 70 stores around the world, the facilities and distribution centers directly operated by the company are around 3% of their total carbon emissions. In the US they fully operate on renewable electricity and globally it goes down to 76 percent.
Technical performance is paramount for gear that will be used in extreme weather conditions. Various chemicals are used in product finishing to ensure desired qualities like waterproofing, moisture-wicking, sun protection, and odor control.
Patagonia is the first brand to become part of the Bluesign partner network. It uses the system to manage chemicals, dyes, and finishes. At each step in the textile supply chain, Bluesign approves chemicals, processes, materials, and products that are safe for the environment, workers, and customers. Our brand report shows that over 40% of Patagonia products carry the Bluesign Approved seal.
Fluorinated DWR (Durable Water Repellent) is a textile coating technology that attracts a lot of criticism. Patagonia has been slower than the competition in adopting PFC-free DWR. PFC (perfluorinated chemicals) has a bad rep because it is costly and toxic to the environment, doesn't biodegrade, and can be potentially cancerogenic. Patagonia has promised to convert noncritical products with a DWR finish (90% of waterproof garments) to PFC-free DWR by Fall 2022. And for the remaining 10%, they will keep searching for a solution.
Textile Waste Management
The problem with most performance fabrics is that they are NOT biodegradable and the technology for garment-to-garment recycling is a tough nut to crack. Patagonia's focus on quality certainly helps to extend the lifetime of their gear, but sooner or later it is destined to end up in a landfill. This is how Worn Wear was born, it is a secondhand marketplace that will take your used Patagonia gear and will list it for sale to give it another chance to be worn and loved. None of the gear that you send back will end up in the recycling bin. Even clothes in subpar condition are used in the repair service or to create the ReCrafted collection.
Another example of zero-waste practices in manufacturing is the Responsibili-Tee® T-shirt. It is made from 50% postindustrial cotton scraps that have been gathered from factory floors and recycled through a mechanical process.
Apart from that, Patagonia doesn't disclose what percentage of the textile is wasted during cutting or if it takes any systemic actions to prevent it from happening.
In an industry where brands heavily rely on suppliers to create their products, businesses are not uncommon to grow ignorant about how their orders are fulfilled. Suppliers usually compete on price, quality, and speed of delivery since these are the business parameters that bring direct value to their clients. This has created a massive problem for textile workers in developing countries. People in the field are usually overworked, paid below a living wage, and have to do their job in poor and often unsafe conditions. But the consumers have already started taking notice and it's no longer acceptable to just get a good deal. No brand can be labeled ethical if it doesn't put an effort to ensure social responsibility across the extended supply chain.
Code of Conduct
Patagonia maintains a Code of Conduct based on prescriptions from the ILO (International Labour Organizations). It requires suppliers to demonstrate improvement on a Benchmark covering international best practices in human rights and environmental responsibility. While suppliers have to agree to unannounced assessments from Patagonia or the FLA, specific progress milestones and timelines are not publicly disclosed.
Patagonia agrees with the ILO that living wages are a basic human right and that's confirmed in their the Code of Conduct. In 2019, Patagonia used the Anker Methodology to estimate that "35% (11 out of 31) of their apparel assembly factories are paying workers a living wage, on average". Did you notice the vagueness in this statement? Intentionally or not, we don't appreciate when statistics are presented in a potentially deceiving way. First, there's no such thing as paying a living wage "on average", the pay gap between different levels in the organization can leave a lot of workers below the living threshold. And second, it would have been fair if they also mentioned how much of their inventory is assembled in those 11 factories and how many workers are involved.
Patagonia works with Fair Trade USA to provide benefits and bonuses directly to garment workers in a bottom-up approach. An elected committee from the workforce decides how to best use the funds to support employees and uplift their community. Our analysis shows that around 75% of this season's collection is Fair Trade Certified™ sewn.
There's no evidence that living wages are paid in Patagonia's farms and mills. But in 2015, it has set an internal goal to reach living wages in their apparel assembly factories by 2025.
Companies with the scale and success of Patagonia usually rely on many suppliers spread across the globe. Despite its steady growth over the years, the outdoor brand has reduced the number of facilities - factories, mills, and farms. This limits the ability to leverage competition to negotiate better trading terms, but it is a great way to maintain healthy relationships and makes it easier to hold suppliers accountable.
At the moment Patagonia works with 64 facilities worldwide - relatively low given the scale. Most factories and mills are located in Asia - Vietnam, Taiwan, China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, etc. And only a few are based in Latin America and the United States. A lot of the counties on the list are linked to a higher risk of human/worker rights violations and low wages.
The FLA accreditation requires random auditing to assess the efficacy of the factory-monitoring program. But after digging into FLA's public archive we have found only 5 reports for Patagonia factories since 2016. And some of them REQUIRE IMMEDIATE ACTION in categories like Health & Safety, Compensation, and Hours of Work.
On the positive side, Patagonia participates in the Better Work Vietnam program given that it has a lot of partnerships in the country.
Although limited, Patagonia uses a small proportion of animal fibers. You can spot footwear designs from leather, down insulated jackets, and wool sweaters. Such fibers usually have a higher environmental footprint in terms of carbon emissions and pollution and also raise animal welfare concerns.
Patagonia works on the issue through
- careful selection of conscious leather tanneries that don't use PFC
- sourcing wool from non-mulesed sheep certified to the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS/PWS)
- using 100% traceable down feathers from geese/ducks that haven't been force-fed or live-plucked
Despite the efforts to protect animals, PETA has called out Patagonia on disturbing footage that shows unethical sheering and other RWS violations. PETA claims that cruelty-free wool doesn't exist and thus questions the reliability of RWS.
On another occasion, in 2010, Four Paws released evidence that Patagonia sources down from Hungary where live-plucking and force-feeding are still legal practices. In 2014, after continuous pressure from customers, the brand initiated the Traceable Down Standard (TDS) and at present, all of its down adheres to it. Four Paws recognized the effort and currently ranks Patagonia second in their Cruelty-free Down Challenge, scoring 17.9 points out of 20.