Is it green or greenwashing? This series looks at the sustainability practices of reader-nominated brands. For more details on the project and a bit about my background, the project page is here. This piece focuses on Patagonia.
Here’s how they stack up against my 5 main tenets of sustainability:
They use more sustainable fiber types: recycled synthetics, closed-loop semi-synthetics, and regenerative natural fibers.
Every item at Patagonia has a sustainable fabric story. They primarily use recycled nylon, recycled polyester, organic cotton, hemp, lyocell, and RWS wool (sometimes even the wool’s recycled too). There are a few items that contain virgin synthetics to achieve certain fabric performance.
They follow regulations on how to market green initiatives. They don’t rely on generalized, debatable terms like “eco-friendly” or “sustainable,” and instead use fact based language that’s reflective of their actions.
Patagonia follows the Green Guides to a T. They never tell us that they’re a sustainable brand. They tell us what their products are made of and have third party auditing certifications to back it up. All recycled claims are accompanied by fabric percentage breakdowns. They don’t push their use of organic cotton unless an item meets the national marketing thresholds. The only time I’ve seen them be err from any sort of regulations or norms is that they don’t use a voluntary US standard for how they write out UPF. (Essentially, they write UPF 40+ where the norm is to label 40, 45, and 50, and then all results above that as 50+). When I reached out to them about it (because of course I did), they explained that they’re aligning with EU norms, the difference in UV transmission between 40 and 50 is 0.5%, but they’d pass it along to their product team regardless.
The Patagonia team knows consumer protection laws and knows that their compliance is essential to build trust and a reputation for sustainability with their customers.
Pieces are built for the long haul: not only are pieces physically durable, but they’re durable in the face of trend cycles. They’ll be relevent in your closet for years and capture strong resale value if they’re cycled out.
Patagonia is one of few brands catering to this side of sustainability.
Social media and warp-speed supply chains drastically sped up the trend cycle and decreased the amount of time that customers are satisfied with a completed purchase. The average American buys 65 pieces of clothing each year, but despite having the largest wardrobes in human existence, 61% of us regularly feel like we have nothing to wear. The candence of fashion has us on an exhausting hamster wheel of shopping.
The best way for both an individual and a brand to remove themselves from that cycle is to develop a signature style that’s not trend-dependent.
I bought most of my Patagonia items in the mid-2010s when I had to get my requisite PNW wardrobe starter kit. The Synchilla fleece, Baggies Shorts, and Fjord Flannel I picked up 7 years ago are still in the assortment today. The colors and patterns don’t really look irrelevant. My 2016 Synchilla Fleece is on Worn Wear right now for $64, which is $14 more than I paid for it new on seasonal clearance. In a world where clothing has been made practically disposable, Patagonia pieces are somehow appreciating in value.
On the ski side, where most brands are playing with double zippers, asymmetrical zippers, high contrast colorblocking, and tie dye trends, Patagonia really sticks to classic silhouettes. Colors have leaned a bit more into trend themes like warm organic colors, lush greens, and dusty blues, but in 5-10 years, it won’t time stamp their items quite like the “Pandemic Boredom Tie Dye” will.
I’ll also point out that Patagonia plays in seasonal colors, but they have a strong replenishment side of their business. The black and navy Nano Puff Vests, Birch While Better Sweaters, and khaki Quandry bottoms are evergreen. They know almost exactly how many units they’re going to sell in a season, and if they’re wrong, they adjust their order quantities for the next PO. These products don’t get marked down, so demand truly reflects customer interest in the product, not customer interest in deals and discounts.
They’re clear on how products are made and how to best dispose of them: transparency about the brand’s green claims builds trust with consumers.
Patagonia has set the standard for the entire apparel industry when it comes to transparency. In the mid-2010s, they publicly disclosed all of their factories, and the rest of the industry felt pressure to follow. In the past few years, they added fabric mills. They have Patagonia employees visiting suppliers regularly to ensure they’re meeting sustainably and ethics standards. I can’t stress how rare that is. Almost every brand requires labor audits, but most just accept third-party certifications. Those are global programs that operate in tons of countries and regions. Auditors sometimes get bribed. Certified factories sometimes contract out to a factory that doesn’t meet sustainability or ethical standards. The only way brands can be 100% sure their supply chain is running as intended is to be there and see product being made. That is wildly more expensive than paying a third party auditor for a factory’s audit results.
On Patagonia’s website, they have tons of customer education pieces. Curious about the Lyocell in a shirt? There’s a page that details how the fiber is made, why it’s a fairly sustainable fiber type on the market today, and ways that Patagonia hopes to reduce its impact in the future. They have pages that break down technology used in their anti-odor topicals and UPF additives. I learned a lot of what I know about apparel development from Patagonia’s resources. And they don’t just highlight the good stuff – they still own the fact that 2% of their fabric usage is virgin nylon and share the reasons why and their roadmap to eradicate virgin synthetics from their line.
Patagonia’s also one of the only brands addressing the disposal side of a product’s environmental impact. They take any garment back. They put anything they can up on Worn Wear (repairing product beforehand if necessary). They recycle or repurpose unsalvageable pieces. And they also have more pages of customer education content teaching you how to remove stains, maintain your waterproof membranes, and patch a puffy so that garments can live a long and useful life.
They don’t play games with customer demand. Merchants have some tricks and gimmicks to manipulate customer demand: short term promotions, limited time offers, limited quantities and “a few units left” messaging. Sustainable brands give customers the time and space to decide whether they really want an item without creating pressure and mark down what’s left at the end of the season.
Patagonia is one of the least promotional brands out there. They don’t even offer deals for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. They don’t use deals to influence your perceived value of a purchase. The only price markdowns come at the end of the season, and they run in perpetuity. There’s no made up time limit or unit limit that exists only to drive a sense of urgency. They also never incentivize “stock up” orders where a discount is applied for buying multiples of an item or hitting a basket total. Images don’t seem dramatically retouched or enhanced. On-figure photography shows fit issues with larger sizes and on curvier body shapes, but most brands would hide that with pinning and photoshop. Reviews are prominent and straightforward. Patagonia doesn’t use any smoke and mirrors to complete a sale.
Patagonia has an entire venture capital fund called Tin Shed Ventures that invests in sustainable innovation. Recycled polyester fleece? Patagonia made the first one in 1993. Recycled nylon? Patagonia backed the company that made the first post-industrial recycled nylon through Tin Shed. Hemp clothing? They lobbied heavily for the 2018 Farm Bill that removed hemp from the DEA’s list of controlled substances and allowed US farmers to grow it. Recommerce shops like Worn Wear or REI ReSupply? Tin Shed invested in Trove Recommerce to start brand-managed resale. Patagonia’s been a source for a lot of the sustainability initiatives common in the market today.
They also get a lot of credit in my book for their approach to their carbon footprint. They vocally aren’t carbon neutral. Carbon neutrality usually comes from carbon offset programs, like planting trees or investing in wind farms. Some of these programs are rad. Some involve large land grabs in Africa and South America for large Western corporations to combat their environmental group that provides little to nothing in return for nearby communities. Some programs protect forests that were never really under threat of deforestation. Some programs straight up pocket the money and do nothing. The carbon offset model, in theory, lets corporations and individuals aid governments in environmental funding. But the market is completely unregulated. (Also, just pay fair taxes). Patagonia’s essentially like “we make products. Our business has an environmental impact. We own it. We measure it. We invest money in minimizing it.” Big difference compared to brands that throw money at cheap carbon credits for a shiny carbon-neutral marketing message.
Patagonia also puts the following phrase on all of their item pages: “Everything we make has an impact on the planet.” It’s a bold move to remind customers that their consumption has an environmental impact and I’m sure it influences customer conversion. But you can really feel Patagonia’s tension between needing revenue to survive as a company, yet needing their customers – wealthier, White folks – to substantially reduce their consumption.
And that doesn’t even delve into how their “only shareholder is the earth” (their shares are owned by a trust and a separate philanthropic entity. Dividends are reinvested into the planet).
That doesn’t look so good…
The conservation movement in the US has been and continues to be incredibly racist, and Patagonia has some fingerprints of that in their business that they haven’t effectively stamped out.
In 2008, Patagonia wrote a blog post about plus sizing that was flagrantly incorrect about how manufacturing minimums and factory contracts work in the apparel space and plus sizes. I wrote a piece on it here, but their general message is “making plus size clothing erodes profits (and therefore philanthropic giving) and the product becomes waste.” It’s a fatphobic take. They don’t blame their customers when other ventures don’t take off. And plus sizing, particularly for women, is highly correlated with race, disability status, and age.
If Patagonia really wants to transform the apparel supply chain, why are they gate keeping it from the customer base who consistently rank highest in concern for the environment (Black and Hispanic women. On average, these women either sit above or barely on the Patagonia size chart).
3 thoughts on “Patagonia: Green or Greenwashing”
Great read! I appreciate your research. I just have one question: the data about Patagonia’s response on sizing is 15 years old (2008), have you approached them or do you know if anyone else has about the topic?
As a person of color, AFAB, I am the “target audience” written about at the end of your piece. I am sincerely interested in any current information, as all in all, your article, just reinforced the positive feedback and experience I have had with Patagonia.
I know that several women I know, who are not women of color, BTW, have complained about their sizing, and as a group, we had to select North Face, for fleece apparel, that would universally fit all in our group. We all agreed that the Patagonia brand fit more in line with our values and lasted longer (we did do a wear comparison, and by far Patagonia’s held up better), but not all in the group would be able to wear the item.
Thanks for the article!
I haven’t personally. I do know that they’ve seen the piece because they pulled their blog piece down after a few weeks and split their XXLs under a new node they called “extended sizes.” (My piece was the top search result when anyone looked up Patagonia & plus sizing). They seem to be aware of the conversation and more willing to put effort into reputation management than true solutions.