You could say that fashion is, well, fashionably late to the climate change party.
But collectively, we’ve been a bit slower to link our everyday wardrobe with our carbon footprints—probably because the connections and complications are less obvious than the impact of, say, a coal power plant or round-the-world flight.
But clothing is big business, and so it’s not surprising it has a big impact on the planet. To start with, the processes associated with fashion, including how it's produced account for an estimated 10 percent of global carbon emissions.
Plus, one of the most popular textile materials, cotton, is a serious water hog—it can take 20,000 liters (or nearly 5,300 gallons) of water to make enough cotton for one T-shirt and one pair of jeans.
Modern synthetic materials like nylon and spandex aren’t necessarily a solution. Synthetics often produce plastic microfibers that make their way to the oceans every time we throw another load in the washing machine.
The rise of fast fashion has only exacerbated the problem. Clothing production has approximately doubled in the past 15 years, and our landfills are teeming with discarded textiles. It’s clear that a change a climate-conscious world requires a more sustainable fashion industry.
It’s clear that a climate-conscious world requires a more sustainable fashion industry.
One brand that’s never been shy about mixing principles with polyester is leading the way: Patagonia.
The maker of beloved fleece jackets and other outdoor gear has been on the frontlines of ethical fashion for decades. But how did it get there, and what does sustainable fashion even mean when you dig into the details?
How can other companies follow in Patagonia’s footsteps—and what can ethical shoppers do to support eco-friendly initiatives.
How it all began: Patagonia’s history
Patagonia’s origins are legendary.
Company founder Yvon Chouinard was a teenage “dirtbag”: a climber hanging out below Yosemite’s towering granite walls in the heady days of the 1950s.
Before he turned 20, Chouinard bought himself a used anvil and taught himself to be a blacksmith. He forged his own pitons—metal spikes hammered into rock to secure a climber’s rope—and began selling them, often out of his car as he roamed the California coast.
In 1965, Chouinard and his friend Tom Frost launched Chouinard Equipment; within five years, it was the largest climbing gear supplier in America. The company that would become Patagonia had its environmental consciousness built in from the start: When the two friends realized some of their gear was damaging the rock faces they loved, they invented a less intrusive alternative.
In the early 1970s, they expanded to begin selling warm and durable outdoor clothing, too, helping to popularize layering techniques for wilderness adventure and pioneering the use of synthetic fabrics.
Soon their colorful fleece jackets and pullovers had become a staple. Today, the company sells everything from wetsuits and waders to trucker hats and now-classic duffels.
Patagonia for the planet
The environmental sensibility that informed those early changes to their climbing gear stuck as the company grew.
After successfully advocating to protect a local fish habitat near their Ventura, California, home base in the 1970s, Patagonia’s leaders began looking for small-scale, local conservation efforts and organizations to support. The company eventually committed to donating 10 percent of its profits each year to those kinds of causes—and then revised that pledge to promise 1 percent of all sales, regardless of profit margins.
That promise eventually became the nonprofit organization 1% for the Planet, co-founded by Chouinard. The organization welcomes other businesses that make the same pledge and helps connect them to worthy projects in need of funding. Today, it has nearly more than 2,000 members in more than 45 countries; altogether, they’ve donated more than $250 million to environmental causes.
Internally, Patagonia also made changes, big and small.
It brought in recycled paper for catalogs, cut toxic fabric dyes from its product line and worked to develop fleece materials made in part from recycled plastics.
After an audit of its supply chain’s impact revealed serious problems with conventional cotton farming (it found that 10 percent of American agricultural chemicals were used on cotton crops, which represented just 1 percent of farmed land), the company moved to using only organic cotton.
Organic cotton doesn’t just save on water and chemical use—it produces 45 percent fewer carbon emissions than conventional cotton farming. Since becoming a certified organic farmer can be a laborious process, Patagonia started working with farmers to support their transition to the cleaner methods required.
If certain standards are met, the company will buy organic-farmed cotton while the certification is still ongoing.
Perhaps most ambitiously, Patagonia has set a target of carbon neutrality across its entire business, from supply chain to the checkout counter, by 2025.
It plans to accomplish this by moving to renewable energy in all its facilities and stores worldwide (it’s already there in the United States, and closing in on its goal elsewhere), moving to exclusively renewable or recycled materials, supporting reforestation, topsoil renewal and carbon capture projects, and urging customers to reuse, repair, rehome and recycle their clothes.
The company realized that climate change can’t be solved by swapping out one product for another. How do you reduce your impact on the planet when your goal, at the end of the day, is to get your customers to buy more stuff?
Patagonia had a radical answer.
Ethical clothing and the anti-consumption ethos
In 2011, a full-page ad ran in the Black Friday edition of The New York Times. “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET,” it read, in big block letters above an image of a zipped-up Patagonia fleece.
“Each piece of Patagonia clothing, whether or not it’s organic or uses recycled materials, emits several times its weight in greenhouse gases, generates at least another half garment’s worth of scrap, and draws down copious amounts of freshwater now growing scarce everywhere on the planet,” the company said in a statement explaining its provocative marketing move.
“Businesses need to make fewer things but of higher quality. Customers need to think twice before they buy.”
The company didn’t stop at an attention-grabbing ad campaign.
Soon after, Patagonia launched Worn Wear, an online hub where customers can buy used Patagonia gear or trade in their own used goods. It also expanded its repair services, including launching a mobile repair truck capable of traveling around the country, fixing gear and mending clothing.
In the years since, Black Friday has become an annual opportunity for Patagonia to remind customers to buy less, and to spend their money, when they do buy, on products built to last.
For 2020, the company linked Worn Wear to its main website in a remarkable way: Every new item on Patagonia.com is accompanied by a button to purchase a used version of the same product instead.
That may seem nonsensical—remember that dilemma about business growth based on consumption?—but Patagonia seems confident that its commitment to a reduced footprint will pay off. “When we make decisions that are right for the planet,” Chouinard said at a conference several years ago, “it makes us money.”
Changing the system—and the culture of fashion
So what can the world learn from Patagonia’s example?
Companies can think hard about durability and the ways they source their supplies—and consumers can favor truly sustainable clothing brands. We can ask tough questions about warranties, repair options and the lifespans of products.
Maybe when we feel the call of retail therapy, we can go for a walk in the fresh air instead of clicking add to cart.
Maybe your community has a local maker space or repair café, where you can get help fixing that zipper or patching that hole.
Or you can find a sweet vintage, rented or borrowed dress for your next wedding-party season, instead of buying brand new. Maybe when we feel the call of retail therapy, we can go for a walk in the fresh air instead of clicking add to cart.
The climate crisis can feel overwhelming, but Patagonia offers a road map—or more appropriately, a trail guide. There’s power in questioning our practices and overturning the default assumptions that guide us.
If a clothing company can urge us not to buy its products and still be wildly successful, we can all rethink the way we consume.
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