Patagonia is a well-rounded company with both environmental and social sustainability initiatives and practices. For example, Patagonia acknowledges that “the best thing we can do for the planet is to stop buying new clothes and get more use out of stuff we already own, cutting down on consumption” and uses their Worn Wear program to follow through on this message. It is clear they are comfortable with calling out the clothing industry for their impact, and that includes being critical of themselves— a great quality for a company to have if we want to keep improving environmental and social impacts! Their website is full of useful, educational resources and information on their environmental and social programs. Their transparency made analyzing the sustainability of their product a smoother process, leaving only some questions left regarding the recycled fabric and dyeing process. While their prices mostly align with their competitors’ range, Patagonia’s prices tend to lean on the higher end. I understand that their sustainable initiatives are being incorporated into the prices and I personally am willing to pay more for their environmentally-conscious practices, but ultimately the higher price of their products excludes some populations to a certain extent, like under-resourced communities, from accessing these sustainable product options. The exclusion of many consumers through their lack of affordability hinders their holistic sustainability. With that said, compared to other sportswear/outdoor clothing companies, Patagonia is making notable strides in being more sustainable and I’d recommend rewarding these efforts by sourcing your gear from them if you can afford it!
A simple scroll on the product’s webpage informed me that this surf rashguard shirt is made from an 83% recycled polyester/17% spandex jersey blend. Polyester is an important fabric to make lightweight, quick-drying clothing but virgin polyester requires petroleum so using recycled polyester lessens that dependence on petroleum-based raw materials. Recycled polyester thus reduces greenhouse gas emissions in the production process and utilizes waste, allowing Patagonia to support a new recycling stream for polyester clothes that are no longer wearable. Spandex is also a fast-drying fabric in addition to providing strength and elasticity as an elastic polymer which is a type of plastic. Patagonia is transparent in the sense that they state that though they have experimented with pre-consumer recycled versions of Spandex, it is most likely one of the last materials that will be fully transformed into a non-virgin source. Though a critical material in their products, it is also used the least in comparison to their other fabrics like cotton, nylon, and polyester which are heavily used and thus being prioritized for the conversion to recycled sources. This is not an excuse for Patagonia to not put effort into increasing the percentage of recycled spandex in their blends, but it is an honest explanation. Being as well-equipped of a company as they are, though, I’d suggest that they expand their team if needed to actively pursue converting all their fabrics to recycled sources. Patagonia does state that they are currently exploring spandex alternatives that would be recyclable and non-virgin petroleum sources for elastane (another name for spandex) like recycled and bio-based versions instead. Moreover, their fabric lab is in the process of testing new polymers that would cause less environmental harm.
While it is good that recycled polyester is keeping plastic waste out of landfills/oceans and uses 59% less energy in its production process compared to virgin polyester, it’s important to recognize some of its downsides too. Synthetic fabrics, including polyester and spandex, whether recycled or not release microplastics when they are washed which then enter our oceans as pollution. Patagonia has started researching ways to reduce microfibre release to tackle this problem with ideas like innovative material design and reselling washbags.
The rashguard top is Fair Trade Certified™ sewn, ensuring the workers are given tangible benefits to improve their lives which is important because apparel workers are widely exploited and among the lowest-paid people in the world. This top was made at the Supertex S.A sewing factory in Yumbo, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. Their website provides a map to visually show the location and states that they work with this supplier because they want to “promote and sustain fair labor practices, safe working conditions and environmental responsibility in the finished-goods factories, farms, and mills.” It even tells us there are 1,021 workers. Patagonia uses a strict 4-fold approach to pre-screen the factories and mills they work with, ensuring all existing and new suppliers meet their requirements for business, quality, environmental, and social standards. Patagonia also uses their Supply Chain Environmental Responsibility program to measure and reduce the environmental impacts of manufacturing their products. Through industry-wide tools and third-party certifications like the bluesign® system, Patagonia confirms their suppliers are meeting their standards. Their Supplier Workplace Code of Conduct is “based on International Labor Organization (ILO) core labor standards and requires [their] suppliers comply with all laws in each of the countries where [their] factories operate.” Patagonia also has a “robust Material Traceability program to ensure strong chain of custody guidelines for [their] suppliers.” It is clear that Patagonia is putting in a conscious and intentional effort to verify that their supplies are acting in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. It is important to note that the dyeing process used for synthetic fabrics is also known to be toxic and energy-intensive, requiring water, energy, and chemicals. I’d encourage Patagonia to share more about their dyeing process and its impact. Moreover, I think it’d benefit Patagonia’s transparency to share more about the process of turning plastic bottles back into recycled polyester, touching on its current sustainability and how it could be made more sustainable.
Patagonia globally supports over 72,000 workers in 10 countries through their Fair Trade program. They have been making Fair Trade clothing since 2014 and now offer more Fair Trade Certified sewn styles than any other apparel brand. Patagonia pays a premium on each of their products that carry the Fair Trade Certified™ sewn label; a democratically elected committee of Fair Trade workers at each factory then decides how the money is then used whether it be community projects or purchasing needed products. Patagonia is searching for permanent solutions to ensure living wages in their supply chain. They even encourage other brands to join the Fair Trade movement as they continue to grow the number of Fair Trade Certified™ factories that specialize in outdoor clothing through their partnership with Fair Trade USA and their suppliers.
Patagonia was the first outdoor clothing manufacturer that turned trash into fleece, making recycled polyester out of plastic bottles in 1993. During the Spring 2021 period, 84% of their polyester fabrics were made with recycled polyester. Patagonia is actively working towards reducing their dependence on virgin petroleum as a raw material source and solely using recycled materials. Through their spring recycled blend initiatives, Patagonia reduced their CO2e emissions by 14% as compared to that of virgin polyester fabrics. That’s over 3.1 million pounds of CO2e avoided! 64% of all their fabrics this season are made with recycled materials and 82% of their line is Fair Trade Certified™ sewn. Patagonia should keep actively pursuing 100% for both categories, and considering their initiatives it appears they are making progress towards this goa
Patagonia understands and acknowledges they still have to keep making changes and progress when it comes to being sustainable. They are looking into potential recycled materials like recycled ocean plastics to expand their sourcing from plastic bottles. They state that they are looking into chemical-recycling technologies for their long-term aim of reusing recycled garments, bringing them closer to a “circular” manufacturing process.
Patagonia is actively striving towards their goal of being carbon-neutral by 2025 across their supply chain with initiatives that prioritize energy efficiency, renewable electricity and the use of less carbon-intensive fuels. Patagonia works to reduce their collective impact on the climate through initiatives such as the Supply Chain Environmental Responsibility program mentioned above that covers environmental management systems, chemicals, water use, water emissions, energy use, greenhouse gases, other air emissions and waste. Patagonia works with their suppliers to train them and improve their facilities through actions like implementing wastewater treatment and air-emission treatment systems.
Patagonia is acting as an agent of positive change in our world through their environmental programs, social responsibility programs, and sourcing. Through Regenerate Organic practices, Patagonia is investing in and experimenting with ways to improve soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Patagonia has been a member of the 1% for the Planet family since 1985, meaning they have pledged a minimum of 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. I’d like to note that all this information was easy to access, highlighting their transparency when it comes to their actions. Among these resources is an engaging infographic, titled “How Clean Are Your Clothes?”, educating on the hidden costs of the clothes we buy and the intersectionality with our climate crisis. On their website there is a whole tab dedicated to activism, bringing in the social and racial justice needed to achieve climate justice. At the end of the day, there is still progress that needs to be made for Patagonia to be more sustainable because they are still contributors to the clothing industry (and higher-end, at that), but they seem aware of this and so far their actions show us that they strive to fulfill their commitments and reach their sustainable goals.