The Patagonia website is a platform that offers a robust education on environmental sustainability and ethical production practices. The brand does not shy away from addressing the enormous challenges the apparel industry faces in attaining sustainability, and calls itself out on its unsustainable practices. While Patagonia has amazing initiatives such as moving away from virgin materials, offering repairs to their items, and selling used products through their Worn Wear line, they still face challenges with material and production. They use some materials that are unsustainable and their labor practices are far from perfect. However, Patagonia’s willingness to acknowledge their own shortcomings, and explain the moves they’re making to become more sustainable, makes them a rare form of transparent. I specifically looked into the Women’s Focal Point Bikini Top. The price point of $69 is quite high for a product that has a long way to go to be sustainable. While Patagonia is better than most, this does not mean it is anywhere near truly sustainable.
The outer material is 83% recycled nylon and 17% spandex jersey. Given that Nylon is a petroleum-based material, its production is high in greenhouse gas emissions and uses a vast amount of energy. Therefore, by choosing to use recycled nylon, Patagonia reduces its environmental impact and provides a new way to use old nylon materials that may otherwise be discarded in landfills. Their recycled nylon is made from post-consumer plastic, discarded materials in weaving mills, and old commercial fishing nets. While this is a good start, there is room to improve. Patagonia states that they are continuing to look for plant-based nylon replacements because every form of nylon is harmful to the environment. While spandex is helpful in making garments stretchy, it is detrimental to the environment. Spandex, also known as elastane, is made from fossil fuels which are non-renewable. Additionally, it is not biodegradable, meaning once it is discarded, it will negatively impact the environment and take a long time to decompose. Furthermore, in day to day wear and washing, it releases micro-plastics into waterways, polluting the environment. The lining is made of 12% spandex jersey and 88% recycled polyester. Recycled polyester is made from recycled plastics. Using recycled polyester harnesses waste as a material and lessens reliance on petroleum and raw materials. Furthermore, it minimizes the emissions that arise from producing new polyester, while extracting items from the landfill. However, much like spandex, recycled polyester releases micro-plastics through washing. Since this is a swimsuit that will need to be washed regularly, this is an issue because micro-plastics contaminate the water and harm wildlife. Recycled polyester is far more sustainable when used for bags or shoes, which are not washed in machines. Patagonia states that it is continuing to look for ways to utilize waste in the ocean and move toward more circular manufacturing processes.
Spandex is a chemically intensive fabric to make. Its production releases dangerous chemicals for both the manufacturer and the environment. Additionally, spandex generally requires synthetic dyes for color. Synthetic dyes are one of the biggest culprits in pollution coming from the textile industry, polluting waterways and aquatic life. The recycled polyester is made by breaking down clear plastic bottles into small chips and then melting this into yarn. This creates far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than virgin polyester and also uses less water. This season, 84% of polyester fabrics Patagonia used were made with recycled polyester, reducing CO2 emissions from polyester by 14%. Additionally, 90% of this season’s nylon fabrics incorporated recycled nylon. This choice reduced their CO2 emissions from nylon production by 20%. However, like spandex, these nylon and polyester fabrics generally need intense synthetic dyes which pollute water. Furthermore, the item was made in Columbia. Patagonia is a worldwide brand, so the swimsuit will be transported all over the world, consuming energy and releasing emissions.
This is a Fair Trade Certified item, meaning the workers are paid more than other apparel workers. 82% of Patagonia’s line is Fair Trade Certified for sewing, and they offer more Fair Trade Certified styles than any other apparel brand. However, the Fair Trade certification has received criticism for not actually ensuring that the workers get paid more than other non-Fair Trade workers. Thus, it is unclear how ethical the labor conditions are. This particular swimsuit was made in the Supertex S.A. sewing factory in Yumbo, Valle del Cauca, Columbia. This factory produces sportswear and has 1021 workers. I was unable to find specific information regarding their wages. Patagonia has a four layer approach to choosing factories to work with. This approach addresses environmental impact, social impact, business, and quality. The people working to verify each of these layers for Patagonia have full veto power. This ensures that the standards in all areas are met. This process is verified by the Fair Labor Association. Unfortunately, the FLA has received criticism, such as a critique from the United Students Against Sweatshops, which stated that the requirements are weak and fail to protect human rights. In the past, Patagonia has faced unethical practices in the factories they partner with. In 2015, human trafficking issues were brought to light in some of the factories. They addressed the issue and outlined steps to prevent it in the future. One aspect of this has been drastically reducing the number of factories they use. Furthermore, Patagonia acknowledges on their website that only 35% of their apparel assembly factories pay their workers a living wage. This simply must improve. Overall, their labor practices seem to be moving in the right direction but need more verification.
As a brand, Patagonia engages in many sustainability initiatives. 1% of their sales each year go toward environmental causes. They have run advertising campaigns telling consumers to buy less. Much of their outdoor gear and outerwear can be returned to them after use, and it will be refurbished and resold in their Worn Wear line. Additionally, they offer repair services for damaged items. Patagonia has made great strides to use more sustainable fabrics. From only using organic cotton to always trying to incorporate recycled materials, they are moving in the right direction. Finally, their website is impressively transparent with sections for each material, a map guide to their mills and factories, and plenty of resources to learn how they hope to improve in the future. While they have much more work to do to become truly sustainable, I believe they fully intend to improve and am confident they can achieve their goals.