Environmental Constraint = Better Quality
Time and time again we see that when we reduce environmental harm, we end up producing better-performing, higher-quality Patagonia garments. And sales of those improved garments often enhance our business health and profitability.
Our environmental initiatives are constraining by nature, but benefit us by sparking innovation during all stages of development. These constraints force us to take a closer look at our materials – and to develop less environmentally harmful fabric and trims that also must meet, or exceed, our performance and quality requirements. Constraints force teams from all parts of the company to work more closely together to meet environmental, performance and quality goals. The mutual sense of challenge often results in some of our most cutting-edge, best-performing and most environmentally conscious products.
This drive to innovation can, as a side benefit, result in efficiencies that benefit the consumer (and in turn contribute to Patagonia’s health as a business). When we develop new raw materials that can be used across a wider range of products, we more readily meet minimum requirements from suppliers and reduce costs. Simplifying components also reduces waste.
Some examples below make the case for doing the right thing:
When we switched to using organic cotton in 1996, there was no existing organic infrastructure. The brokers wouldn’t return our calls; they didn’t handle organic fiber. Ultimately, when we first started, we had to go directly to the farmers. That first season we crossed our fingers in hope of rain in the San Joaquin Valley. Next, we had to persuade cotton-ginners to take our business (and clean their equipment carefully before and after our runs), and then find a spinner willing to do the same for the yarn.
A side benefit of having to learn our business so deeply: We were also able to minimize use of formaldehyde resins and other finishes commonly applied to cotton to reduce shrinkage and improve wear. We knew about the adverse environmental impacts of these finishes, and that they can be tough on sensitive skin. But until we established direct relationships with mills, we had no idea how to go formaldehyde-free without sacrificing quality. Working with our new contacts, we were able to relearn old techniques to control shrinkage and reduce twisting and pilling. Moreover, the use of lighter (and less costly) yarns--strengthened by a change in the yarn twist--achieved a significant gain in both durability and softness, a side-benefit to the side-benefit.
Our Capilene baselayer fabric is another example of how self-imposed environmental constraints have made us more efficient. There are hundreds of polyester yarns available and quite a few recycled ones now, but only a handful are truly closed-loop recycled and recyclable. When we committed to using post-consumer recycled polyester exclusively for the fall 2006 season, we knew we also would have to improve the yarn construction to maintain quality at the same high level as virgin polyester. So we focused closely on creating the best possible yarn and knit construction for each baselayer weight.
We also wanted new Capilene baselayers to retain less odor, without the use of chemical or elemental antibacterials which can contribute to the development of more resistant strains of bacteria. To control odor naturally, we chose Chitosan, a protein extractable from crab shells, which are in turn a by-product of the food industry. Using crab shells to reduce stink may be counterintuitive, but Patagonia’s natural odor control performs as well as the alternative anti-odor treatments, with less harm to the environment and human health.
Overall, improved Capilene fabric wicks, breathes, dries, and prevents odor better than our older Capilene fabric. And Capilene garments can now be recycled into new underwear when they come to the end of their useful life.
A wool baselayer cannot afford to itch; by definition it is worn against the skin. But all untreated wool itches to some degree (individual fibers naturally have skin-irritating scales). Untreated wool will also shrink and felt (matting) when machine-washed and dried.
When we developed our first wool baselayer styles, we learned about the chlorine-based wash treatments used in the fabric development process. We chose to avoid the industry standard, a chlorine treatment called Hercosett--also known as Superwash that can be harmful in wastewater. Instead, we worked with a supplier to use an innovative treatment that employs ozone to remove scales. This process releases only water and oxygen as by-products, which is much safer for the environment. It takes longer, and so we call the result our slow-washed wool.
Slow-washing also produces a stronger, more durable wool. That’s because the standard, aggressive chlorine treatment to descale wool also weakens the fiber. So to compensate for the loss of strength and restore durability, a resin-coating process follows the chlorine treatment. This results in further environmental harm – and a stiffer, less supple, less breathable wool. By using neither chlorine nor a resin coating, we yield a softer, stronger fabric with excellent moisture management.
Until recently, we could not make recyclable shells because they involved multiple fabrics and trims. The shell – with its polyester substrate, polyurethane laminate and nylon scrim – was our equivalent to an electronic circuit board, too hard to take apart to recycle.
The ability to recycle a shell became a holy grail for us. We knew we would need to use 100% polyester for the entire composite fabric, and, to make that workable, we would have to develop with our suppliers a more breathable barrier.
We’re proud to say that our fully recyclable polyester fabrics (check out the Eco Rain Shell Jacket) perform just as well as non-recyclable fabrics. We’ve also found that our polyester laminates are less subject to contamination from body oils, which helps maintain breathability over the life of the garment. Moreover our laminate requires less harmful chemicals in the manufacturing process.
The Quilt Again Jacket (available FA08) is yet another good example of an environmental innovation resulting from self-imposed restraint. Currently natural fibers like wool and cotton and some blended polyesters are not chemically recyclable. So we created a unique fabric from reclaimed polyester and wool: Our supplier presorts Capilene® polyester scrap and some old Italian wool sweaters by color to create a repeatable pattern and heathered appearance. The old garments are chopped, then respun into a beautiful yarn that requires no dyeing. This further reduces water usage and the need for chemicals.
These are just a few examples of how our self-imposed environmental constraints push us to innovate and to improve quality and performance. Doing the right thing – reducing our environmental footprint – has yielded better products. Better products have attracted more customers and helped us grow our business.
Environmental constraints, because they impel us to reduce waste and narrow our choices in raw materials and trims, also help us improve the business’s bottom line. When we reduce complexity, we allow ourselves to focus our efforts on greater innovations. We’ve learned that in reality, unlimited choice ultimately drives up costs. The ‘Live Simply’ mantra turns out to be more than a nice bumper-sticker slogan; it’s sound business advice. Time and again we’ve learned that when we do the right thing we end up doing well.
This is not to congratulate ourselves or put ourselves forward as paragons of virtue. We have taken only small, initial steps toward creating a more sustainable business. We have begun to be mindful of the environment in everything we do as a business – and to reduce the harm we do when we learn better ways to act.
What do you think? Let us know.
Photos (top to bottom): Organic Cotton, Scott Wilson; Ranch Hand, Kirsten Mashinter; Sheep, Tetsuya Ohara.