The Cleanest Line

Environmental Constraint = Better Quality

Environmental Constraint = Better Quality

By RJ Hosking   |   Aug 1, 2008 August 1, 2008

Time and time again we see that when we reduce environmental harm, we end up producing better-performing, higher-quality Patagonia garments. And sales of those improved garments often enhance our business health and profitability.

Our environmental initiatives are constraining by nature, butbenefit us by sparking innovation during all stages of development.These constraints force us to take a closer look at our materials – andto develop less environmentally harmful fabric and trims that also mustmeet, or exceed, our performance and quality requirements. Constraintsforce teams from all parts of the company to work more closely togetherto meet environmental, performance and quality goals. The mutual senseof challenge often results in some of our most cutting-edge,best-performing and most environmentally conscious products.

This drive to innovation can, as a side benefit, result inefficiencies that benefit the consumer (and in turn contribute toPatagonia’s health as a business). When we develop new raw materialsthat can be used across a wider range of products, we more readily meetminimum requirements from suppliers and reduce costs. Simplifyingcomponents also reduces waste.

Some examples below make the case for doing the right thing:

Organic Cotton

Cotton_2When we switched to using organic cottonin 1996, there was no existing organic infrastructure. The brokerswouldn’t return our calls; they didn’t handle organic fiber.Ultimately, when we first started, we had to go directly to thefarmers. That first season we crossed our fingers in hope of rain inthe San Joaquin Valley. Next, we had to persuade cotton-ginners to takeour business (and clean their equipment carefully before and after ourruns), and then find a spinner willing to do the same for the yarn.

A side benefit of having to learn our business so deeply: We werealso able to minimize use of formaldehyde resins and other finishescommonly applied to cotton to reduce shrinkage and improve wear. Weknew about the adverse environmental impacts of these finishes, andthat they can be tough on sensitive skin. But until we establisheddirect relationships with mills, we had no idea how to goformaldehyde-free without sacrificing quality. Working with our newcontacts, we were able to relearn old techniques to control shrinkageand reduce twisting and pilling. Moreover, the use of lighter (and lesscostly) yarns–strengthened by a change in the yarn twist–achieved asignificant gain in both durability and softness, a side-benefit to theside-benefit.

Capilene® Baselayers

Cap1Our Capilene baselayerfabric is another example of how self-imposed environmental constraintshave made us more efficient. There are hundreds of polyester yarnsavailable and quite a few recycled ones now, but only a handful aretruly closed-loop recycled and recyclable. When we committed to usingpost-consumer recycled polyester exclusively for the fall 2006 season,we knew we also would have to improve the yarn construction to maintainquality at the same high level as virgin polyester. So we focusedclosely on creating the best possible yarn and knit construction foreach baselayer weight.

We also wanted new Capilene baselayers to retain less odor, withoutthe use of chemical or elemental antibacterials which can contribute tothe development of more resistant strains of bacteria. To control odornaturally, we chose Chitosan, a protein extractable from crab shells,which are in turn a by-product of the food industry. Using crab shellsto reduce stink may be counterintuitive, but Patagonia’s natural odorcontrol performs as well as the alternative anti-odor treatments, withless harm to the environment and human health.

Overall, improved Capilene fabric wicks, breathes, dries, andprevents odor better than our older Capilene fabric. And Capilenegarments can now be recycled into new underwear when they come to theend of their useful life.

Wool PBL

Wool1A wool baselayer cannotafford to itch; by definition it is worn against the skin. But alluntreated wool itches to some degree (individual fibers naturally haveskin-irritating scales). Untreated wool will also shrink and felt(matting) when machine-washed and dried.

When we developed our first wool baselayer styles, we learned aboutthe chlorine-based wash treatments used in the fabric developmentprocess. We chose to avoid the industry standard, a chlorine treatmentcalled Hercosett–also known as Superwash that can be harmful inwastewater. Instead, we worked with a supplier to use an innovativetreatment that employs ozone to remove scales. This process releasesonly water and oxygen as by-products, which is much safer for theenvironment. It takes longer, and so we call the result our slow-washedwool.

WoolSlow-washingalso produces a stronger, more durable wool. That’s because thestandard, aggressive chlorine treatment to descale wool also weakensthe fiber. So to compensate for the loss of strength and restoredurability, a resin-coating process follows the chlorine treatment.This results in further environmental harm – and a stiffer, lesssupple, less breathable wool. By using neither chlorine nor a resincoating, we yield a softer, stronger fabric with excellent moisturemanagement.

Recycled Polyester Laminates

Until recently, we could not make recyclable shells because theyinvolved multiple fabrics and trims. The shell – with its polyestersubstrate, polyurethane laminate and nylon scrim – was our equivalentto an electronic circuit board, too hard to take apart to recycle.

The ability to recycle a shell became a holy grail for us. We knewwe would need to use 100% polyester for the entire composite fabric,and, to make that workable, we would have to develop with our suppliersa more breathable barrier.

We’re proud to say that our fully recyclable polyester fabrics (check out the Eco Rain Shell Jacket)perform just as well as non-recyclable fabrics. We’ve also found thatour polyester laminates are less subject to contamination from bodyoils, which helps maintain breathability over the life of the garment.Moreover our laminate requires less harmful chemicals in themanufacturing process.

QuiltQuilt Again Jacket

The Quilt Again Jacket (available FA08) is yet another good exampleof an environmental innovation resulting from self-imposed restraint.Currently natural fibers like wool and cotton and some blendedpolyesters are not chemically recyclable. So we created a unique fabricfrom reclaimed polyester and wool: Our supplier presorts Capilene®polyester scrap and some old Italian wool sweaters by color to create arepeatable pattern and heathered appearance. The old garments arechopped, then respun into a beautiful yarn that requires no dyeing.This further reduces water usage and the need for chemicals.


These are just a few examples of how our self-imposed environmentalconstraints push us to innovate and to improve quality and performance.Doing the right thing – reducing our environmental footprint – hasyielded better products. Better products have attracted more customersand helped us grow our business.

Environmental constraints, because they impel us to reduce waste andnarrow our choices in raw materials and trims, also help us improve thebusiness’s bottom line. When we reduce complexity, we allow ourselvesto focus our efforts on greater innovations. We’ve learned that inreality, unlimited choice ultimately drives up costs. The ‘Live Simply’mantra turns out to be more than a nice bumper-sticker slogan; it’ssound business advice. Time and again we’ve learned that when we do theright thing we end up doing well.

This is not to congratulate ourselves or put ourselves forward asparagons of virtue. We have taken only small, initial steps towardcreating a more sustainable business. We have begun to be mindful ofthe environment in everything we do as a business – and to reduce theharm we do when we learn better ways to act.

What do you think?  Let us know.

Photos (top to bottom): Organic Cotton, Scott Wilson; Ranch Hand, Kirsten Mashinter; Sheep, Tetsuya Ohara. 

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