Growing Organic Fibers
As a founding member of Organic Exchange (OE), a nonprofit dedicated to expanding the production and use of organically grown fibers, Patagonia recently attended their annual conference and board meeting in Seattle. At the meeting, OE members - which include companies like Nike, GAP, Nordstrom, REI, Walmart and Target - decided to broaden their traditional focus on organic cotton “to the emerging field of sustainable textiles, in order to better support both their needs in organic cotton and to help identify other sustainable textile solutions.”
Given the collective influence of OE members, which represent some 750 billion dollars in retail sales demand, and their ambitious goals (like increasing the amount of land used for farming organic fiber by 50 percent per year), this seemed like a significant change. I wondered if it reflected a greater willingness among businesses to take a more comprehensive look at their footprints, a frustration among businesses with existing solutions to their environmental problems, or something else. So I caught up with Jill Dumain, our Environmental Analysis Director, to find out what she thought.
Hit the jump to read the full interview.
Jill: I think it is because all of us are confronted with so many different topics today that we are expected to be knowledgeable about. It is impossible to stay on top of all the information available so people are looking for filters, tools and consolidated tools to help them do their jobs.
Q: Does it say something about the changing view among businesses of what constitutes “environmentally sustainable”? A maturing?
Jill: Perhaps. But more so I think it is a broadening rather than changing. Organic cotton might have a place for people to begin their environmental work but one quickly realizes that there are many other areas that need attention from an environmental point of view.
Jill: A little of both. As mentioned above, the topics have broadened but it is such a dynamic field that the best solution today might not be the best solution tomorrow or next year. So it might seem like there is a lack of existing solutions but many times our minds are faster than technology. We might try to apply a lesson learned from one area to another but have to wait for technology to catch up to our ambitions.
For example, we were able to collect our old polyester garments to be chemically recycled into new polyester and wanted to do the same with nylon. However, the technology is much more limited in chemical recycling of nylon so we don't have the same flexibility and are hoping the nylon technology will catch up with the polyester.
Q: How was it getting together with so many companies, some of which are Patagonia’s direct competitors, to discuss sustainability?
Jill: Fantastic! The more companies that get involved, the better it is for all of us. The advantage of having our direct competitors is that we often share similar supply chains so our environmental work is supported by more of the businesses in that supply chain.
Q: Are they the same faces you see every year or have you seen attendance and interest in sustainability grow, especially among more “mainstream” companies?
Jill: We saw many new brands at the conference this year and that was encouraging. I think so many different brands approach sustainability from so many different directions and spots on the journey so it is good to always have a mix of the new and the experienced.
Q: What exactly is Patagonia’s relationship with Organic Exchange?
Jill: We are a founding member. I have been on the board for nine years and the Chair of the Board for the past four years. However, I have now stepped over to the Advisory Board and Ryan Thompson has taken Patagonia's seat and Eraina Duffy from Nike has taken the Chair role.
Q: How successful do you think OE will be in expanding from its roots in organic cotton?
Jill: The conference was our first attempt and we are very happy with the outcome. During our board meeting held the week of the conference the board voted to support a broader direction for the organization to include more topics than organic cotton. We are careful to acknowledge that we aren't letting organic go but responding to topics that many of our members have been asking for. We had a whole track of talks on dyeing and finishing. This is realizing that if organic cotton is used, there is still a lot of information to be learned about dyeing and finishing but it also applies to polyester, nylon, wool and other polymers and fibers.
Q: One of the sessions was about the proliferation of eco-labels. Is that trend an encouraging sign? Or a concern, both in terms of green washing and the challenge it presents to brands trying to make themselves stand out?
Jill: I think it is both encouraging and a concern. It is encouraging because the need is being recognized and responded to. But it is concerning because there are too many trying to do the same thing so it is ultimately confusing to both the industry and the consumer.
Q: I saw that another session was dedicated to the increasing scarcity of water and what this means to businesses. How has Patagonia addressed this concern? Didn’t you recently add this measurement to the Footprint Chronicles?
Jill: Yes, we have added water to the Footprint Chronicles now and have engaged in a water footprinting project with a group of graduate students. This work should be done in May and we are looking at water scarcity issues and how this can impact the textile industry. It is an issue that has been crowded out by the carbon discussion but is rising fast.
Q: Another session was about the pros and cons of bio-based textiles? What do you think about the increasing use?
Jill: I think some of them are quite good and others still have some problems based on how the crops are grown that they depend on. Lenzing, with their product Tencel®, has visibility back to the farms that are growing the trees for their production but not all bio-based fibers are able to see that far back in the supply chain. Some of the commodity crops that go into bio-based fibers are derived from GMO crops and there are still a lot of unanswered questions in that arena.
Q: Yvon's comment about business never being sustainable seems to have been quoted a lot recently. Do you have any idea how many other companies in the OE share that perspective or think they can actually hit a "sustainable target."
Jill: I would say there is concern about how loosely "sustainable" is used throughout the industry.I would say the majority of my colleagues and other OE members see it as a never ending journey. Therefore, most would have to agree that a business can't truly be sustainable if the journey never ends!
[Photos: Tim Davis]