Sustainable or greenwashed? Outdoor brands in portrait: Patagonia

6. May 2021

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It is the outdoor paradox: we want to experience and conserve unspoiled landscape, but consume abundant resources to see it with our own eyes. We get upset about summer skiers and roaring Porsches, yet still get on the plane to New Zealand. Whether manufacturers and suppliers of outdoor goods or consumers and buyers: people rave about nature and mountains, but in doing so they also contribute to their endangerment.

Though perhaps there is another side to it. On the one hand, colourful images of waterfalls, forests and mountain scenery fuel the desire to consume and travel, but on the other hand they can also sharpen a sense for the beauty of sensitive ecosystems that are worth protecting.

Not only climate: What is sustainability?

To put it simply: sustainable is when you do not use up resources faster than nature can recreate them – with or without human influence. Selfless renunciation may be urged, but it is hardly heeded, let alone taken seriously. Urging can only successfully be done by credible role models – and there are not many of them. At least, when someone demonstrates it, it is widely respected and admired.

Meanwhile, not even the many appeals to “voluntary self-restraint” to a “reasonable level” usually have any effect. They just smell too much like a moral club, and besides, no one can really say exactly where this golden mean lies anyway. Mostly, attempts are made to operate with a certain “CO2 budget” per capita and year. Reduced to numbers in this way, it seems more feasible, but in my opinion it misses the core of the problem – just like the whole fixation on numbers, CO2 and “the climate” today.

With “climate targets” and maximum “permissible” increases in the earth’s temperature, mankind shows not only that it has good intentions, but also that it is still stuck in the technocentric worldview that created the problems in the first place. Such a worldview believes that with certificate trading and somewhat more efficient technology, the earth’s temperature conditions can be controlled and thus the environmental problem can be brought under control. However, people forget that cosmic influences such as the sun and the earth itself also have a say in such huge ecological interrelationships. CO2 fixation also takes the focus off other problems such as soil sealing or emissions of soot, fine dust and aerosols.

In addition, “real” sustainability involves questioning one’s own needs and motives. This is the only way to properly protect the environment.

True sustainability must still take other aspects into account as well. This includes not only the three levels of the sustainability model (ecological, economic and social), but also personal and fundamental, non-technical aspects such as questioning one’s own needs and motives. Leading to then, perhaps, not making that impulse purchase or taking that spontaneous short trip halfway around the world. For example, you might ask yourself: do I need this 3-layer high-tech jacket with 40,000 mm water column for my hiking plans? Do I need the water-repellent and breathable down blanket for the camping trip? Does everything always have to be brand new or is a well-maintained second-hand piece enough?

With outdoor clothing, every increase in function often means an increase in chemicals. Let me stop myself here though, seeing as I have unintentionally started to lash out the moral club… My intention, though, is to show that ultimately the main responsibility lies with us as customers, because with all the advertising seduction in the world, no manufacturer and no retailer alone can determine what is made and produced.

Speaking of manufacturers: this article here is to take a closer look at Patagonia’s sustainability efforts – and in subsequent articles, a few more manufacturers will be checked for their sustainability.

Patagonia’s sustainability programme

First of all, no outdoor company can afford a consistently sustainable/ethical raw material, production and distribution chain without demanding exorbitant purchase prices. In this way, sustainability is more of a small special niche aimed at a “high end” clientele. This, however, leads us to the notorious “ransom” of a few super-privileged people.

In terms of sustainability, Patagonia is considered a frontrunner in the outdoor industry. But is Patagonia really as sustainable as it seems? Mountain friend Stephan enlightens you!

Real sustainability must work on an efficient, large-scale and low-cost scale. And Patagonia is on the right track here, because their measures are not aimed at exclusivity. In addition, Patagonia does not take the “easy way” of designing only one of many aspects sustainably, thus creating a green image for itself with some “climate-neutral” intermediate product. No, they are committed to more sustainability on several levels and had already begun to do so at a time when only very few globally operating companies thought about such things.

Environmental aspects of sustainability

However, Patagonia, too, has been and still is a growing, globally operating company whose processes and products are not always fully sustainable. Elegantly and diplomatically, this problem is expressed in phrases like “between marketing and environmental protection”. This balancing act includes commitments to various environmental projects such as the well-known donation concept “1% for the Planet”. Its basic idea derives from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard himself: 1% of the annual company turnover goes to organisations that support environmental protection.

Patagonia’s main goal is to improve environmental sustainability with a 4-point programme. This consists of the following points:

1 Reduce

This means striving for the longest possible product life. In doing so, the need for constantly new clothes is supposed to be reduced. The famous marketing campaign “Do not buy this jacket” during the 2011 Thanksgiving season should also be understood in this context. I will deal with this apparent contradiction later on.

2 Repair

The American company motivates customers to repair their own clothes and provides an exemplary service with a textile repair centre and the “Worn Wear Truck”.

Patagonia designs many garments so that customers can repair them themselves as easily as possible and supports them with instructions on the internet. In the USA, they have built one of the largest textile repair centres ever where they repair 40,000 garments every year.

Patagonia repairs broken outdoor clothing free of charge in its shops and has been sending a repair service across Europe with the “Worn wear truck” since 2017 (current tour dates can be found here on the company website).

Patagonia also doesn’t mince words when it comes to denouncing other brands that deliberately make repairs difficult in order to get customers to buy new clothing quickly. You can find out more about the Worn Wear activities in this “Bergfreunde” article and this Utopia report.

3 Reuse

Worn Wear also serves as label for Patagonia’s second-hand market. On this platform, used Patagonia clothing is done up and traded. Every Patagonia customer can resell their used clothing here.

4 Recycle

When repair is no longer possible, Patagonia takes the garments back and reprocesses them.

If further use or repair is no longer possible, the recycling option comes into play. Patagonia takes back all garments and recycles them. This saves many still high-value materials from the incinerator or landfill. Patagonia has long produced a large proportion of its synthetic fibres from recycled PET bottles. We have already dealt with the recycling of down at Patagonia in more detail here on the base camp blog.

Social sustainability and employee management

“In 2010, the non-governmental organisation Berne Declaration compared the standards of working conditions in production countries by means of surveys and internet research at 77 fashion labels. Patagonia was ranked in the second best category ‘Average’ out of five. In the 2012 Berne Declaration/Public Eye ‘Outdoorguide’, Patagonia achieved a place in the highest ‘Advanced’ category.”

The size of the company makes it difficult to monitor the manufacturing steps.

These Wikipedia statements show the difficulties of monitoring, i.e. the complete control and evaluation of all processes in large companies (with a turnover of about US$ 600 million (as of 2013) and a staff of about 1300, Patagonia clearly belongs to this category). Tracing all the routes and intermediate products can become quite complicated. Patagonia nevertheless strives to make all manufacturing steps transparent and fair – from raw material to finished product. The latter is also reflected in its membership of various initiatives such as the Fair Labor Association, which campaigns for fairer working conditions.

Economic sustainability

Since 2013, the company has been sceptical about the concept of economic growth because there would be a point where growth would directly or indirectly endanger living conditions. Responsible growth would only be growth that takes into account social and ecological consequences. Similar things are uttered in every Sunday speech, but at Patagonia there is a good chance that these words will be followed by action. As the company is and remains privately owned, without the involvement of anonymous lenders who influence business decisions in the background.

Marketing

Patagonia’s marketing can, with some goodwill, also be counted as part of the sustainability strategy as it often targets environmental issues. One of Patagonia’s contributions, which is not measurable but certainly not to be underestimated, is that it has made the outdoor industry and its customers aware of many sustainability issues in the first place.

The company’s marketing team pulls together on the sustainability strategy.

With the already mentioned “Do not buy this jacket” advertisement, for example, they positioned themselves against the waste of resources and mountains of rubbish of fast-moving fashion consumption. At first, such a contradictory message does not seem very credible, but it was meant to be taken seriously. And if you distinguish between business growth and market growth, it also makes economic sense. Patagonia wants to flourish precisely thanks to its sustainability successes. Chouinard, the company’s founder, sees himself as an entrepreneur in competition with other companies that are forced out of the market by the elimination of fast-moving “meaningless consumption” precisely because of their lack of sustainability. Then the market shrinks, but the company grows.

What do the critics say?

The eye of the critical public is naturally particularly vigilant with a company like Patagonia. In the past, there has been criticism from animal welfare organisations on several occasions. It was justified and was received accordingly. And not in the form of appeasement and relativisation, but in the form of change. In the case of a complaint from PETA about the suffering of sheep in a supplier factory, this wool was immediately taken out of processing. Following complaints about the use of down from live plucking, Patagonia developed the strict “Traceable Down Standard” to ensure a transparent supply chain and the exclusion of force-feeding and live plucking.

There has been criticism in the past, especially from animal welfare organisations.

Consumer advocates and sustainability portals are quite appreciative. The sustainability portal Utopia.de, for example, confirms that the numerous sustainability measures are neither greenwashing nor image cultivation, but genuine efforts. The Rank a brand association, on the other hand, comes to a critical verdict, which, however, does not seem to have been reached conclusively yet. Again, the divergent results show how difficult it is to assess the effectiveness of sustainability measures.

Criticism in major media such as Zeit.de and Spiegel-Online tends to be undifferentiated and also seems to be partly criticism for criticism’s sake. This is how they write at the Zeit:

“The US company from California sells its customers not only warm and durable jackets, but an image: eco-coolness for politically correct hipsters.”

It sounds as if it is wrong that sustainability can even be “cool” by now. Would it be better if it were still tainted with a musty health food store and Birkenstock image? I don’t quite like hipsters either, so I fully understand this broadside. Nevertheless, it is more a judgement of taste and implies that Patagonia would go the way of the “fashion brand for office people”. If it were, it would certainly be questionable, at least as long as one does not offer pure fashion lines without chemically or resource-intensively achieved functionality. As it is true that technical outdoor clothing is not very useful in the city or when walking in the forest.

Der Spiegel also delivers similar criticism. It also mainly highlights problems and contradictions that affect the outdoor industry in general.

Conclusion

Patagonia can certainly improve a lot and full sustainability is still a long way off. However, if you look at it in relation to the outdoor industry as a whole, the company it doing pretty well. Patagonia is more active than most of its competitors and has been for a much longer time. Omissions and mistakes do occur, but they are not covered up or glossed over, but gradually addressed.

Comments on this post

  1. Mike Bowles said on 15. June 2021 at 09:53

    A well-written and balanced analysis. No clothing manufacturer can escape criticism since they must continue to sell new products to remain in business. I do like Patagonia’s eco activism, and also their clothing! I look forward to articles on other companies.

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