Yvon Chouinard (born 1938), entrepreneur, mountain climber and founder of eco-forward clothing brand, Patagonia, wrote: “Everything we personally own that’s made, sold, shipped, stored, cleaned and ultimately thrown away does some environmental harm every step of the way, harm that we’re either directly responsible for or is done on our behalf.”
The son of a French-Canadian handyman, Chouinard moved with his family from Maine to Southern California when he was 9-years-old and soon realized his passion for rock climbing. Among numerous experiences, he participated in the “Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing,” ascended Cerro Fitzroy in Patagonia, Chile, as well as peaks in the European Alps and Pakistan. Later, he published “Climbing Ice,” in 1978, which inspired the sport of ice climbing.
In 1957, he began making pitons and founded Chouinard Equipment, Ltd., a rock-climbing accessories manufacturer. But around 1970 he realized that the hard steel was damaging the famous rock faces and began to focus his life and business on environmental concerns.
“As climbing progressed, we slowly started incorporating apparel into what we sold,” a representative at Patagonia said, noting that Chouinard sold the climbing equipment side of the business to employees who renamed it Black Diamond and moved the company to Salt Lake City, Utah. Remembering his Chilean experience, Chouinard founded Patagonia and continued manufacturing apparel.
Yvon did not start with an environmental commitment, but as the company grew, he and the employees made changes that would impact the way they made their products, the materials they used and the grassroots environmental groups they support. In 1986, Chouinard began “tithing” the larger of one percent of sales or 10 percent of profits to preserve and restore the natural environment. For his green achievements, the Sierra Club gave him its John Muir Award.
In 1995, the company started making its most popular fleece from recycled soda bottles, and the following year, realizing that cotton farming had significant ecological effects, began using 100% organic cotton. Patagonia says that they currently have the world’s first certified regenerative organic cotton apparel line. They also offer a wide variety of technical apparel items that are made with recycled materials and without the use of PFC chemical finishes.
Corporate programs that are green and fair
Patagonia has achieved much and plans its future with equal intensity.
Globally, the clothing and footwear industries are responsible for approximately 10 percent of greenhouse gases; annually, the textile industry releases 1.2-plus billion tons of CO₂ into the atmosphere. Adding to this is the environmental impact of cleaning garments and the disposal, most often in landfills.
Patagonia stated that they are already at 100% renewable energy for their owned and operated stores, offices and distribution centers, but the real challenge comes from materials manufacturing, which accounts for 95% of their emissions. “We take responsibility for all of it and are determined to work with our partners and vendors to conserve water, remove toxins and reduce emissions when and wherever possible.”
In 1996, Patagonia switched to using only organically grown cotton in all products made from virgin cotton and are continuing to increase the use of preferred materials — from 43% across the product line in 2016 to 88% in 2022.
Regenerative organic cotton incorporates farming methods designed to rehabilitate soil, respect animal welfare and improve the lives of farmers. And, the company also uses hemp; recycled polyester and recycled nylon for its preferred materials. Organic cotton derives from non GMO plants grown without the use of synthetic agricultural chemicals, such as fertilizers or pesticides, aside from those allowed by the certified organic labeling.
Patagonia examines its seed-to-shelf supply chain to reduce environmental footprint as well as improve the lives of the workers in the farms, mills and factories in 64 countries.
The company has been making Fair Trade Certified™ clothing since 2014, working with Fair Trade USA. To date, Patagonia’s program has impacted more than 64,000 workers in 10 countries. The company pays a premium for every sold item with Fair Trade certification. The money goes directly to the farm, factory and mill workers who produce the products; they vote to use the premiums for projects such as healthcare programs or child-care centers, to buy products or take a cash bonus.
This program also promotes worker health and safety, social and environmental compliance and encourages dialogue between workers and management. Patagonia continues to ensure the workers are earning livable wages.
The company has also co-founded or joined coalitions to change the industry, including the Fair Labor Association, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and B Lab.
Customers can participate in environmental responsibility. The company teaches people to take care of the things they already have, using as little energy as possible and reminding them why the jacket they already have from Patagonia is the best one for the planet.
In addition, Patagonia guarantees that it will repair, replace and recycle all of its products throughout its lifespan. Called “Worn Wear,” the program encourages customers to purchase used rather than new garments and to return old gear they are not using for company credit toward new items. He notes that buying used extends a garment’s life by about two years; this cuts its combined carbon, waste and water footprint by 82%.
In “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman,” Chouinard wrote: “Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.”
Wearing the mantle for climate
The company’s climate goals are ambitious.
For one, by 2025, the company will eliminate virgin petroleum fiber in its products and use preferred materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester. For example, the company says that, since fall 2019, its Better Sweater® jackets have helped keep 14.6 million pounds of CO₂ out of the atmosphere when compared to virgin counterparts. That’s equal to planting 109,000 trees. And, its Nano Puff® jacket, which in 2020 was changed to use 100% post-consumer recycled polyester insulation, cut materials and manufacturing emissions by nearly half.
Also by 2025, company packaging will be 100% reusable, home compostable, renewable or easily recyclable. The company has removed plastic fromhang tags and packaging and uses algae ink. In addition, they use QR code technology to reduce the amount of paper by 100,000 pounds annually. A QR code can be captured faster and can store more information than a traditional barcode.
By 2030, Patagonia plans to be totally net zero. To that end, it’s also funding energy audits, which it hopes will lead to impact-reduction projects at its most important suppliers. They say that when they’ve gotten a product and its supply chain to the lowest emissions possible, then they’ll invest in natural climate solutions to reach net zero.
The Ventura, Calif.-based company sells its products at 34 stores nationwide –– men’s, women’s, children’s, underwear to outerwear –– and employs approximately 3,ooo, with about 2,000 in the U.S. In Arizona, the company has wholesale partners but does not own Patagonia-branded stores.
For more on Patagonia, visit patagonia.com.