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The Wisdom of Waiting

by Jil Zilligen
Fall 2001

Patagonia® clothing pollutes. We've not been shy in admitting that manufacturing clothing impacts the environment. But rather than resigning ourselves to this fact, we’ve found inspiration in it. Inspiration to innovate, to find new solutions to long-standing problems, to test, refine, research and bring to market new materials and processes that reduce our effect on the environment. These efforts have resulted in our use of post-consumer recycled Synchilla® fleece, organic cotton and lower impact dyes.

We recently faced a new challenge: whether to join with another company in bringing to market a new product that looks great, functions well and is made from renewable materials. Sounds great, doesn’t it? In our quest to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, in this case petroleum-based synthetics, we put a whole lot of effort into researching and testing clothing made from polylactic acid (PLA).

PLA is a plastic made from plants. The process begins with a plant high in sugar content. The only economically viable raw material today is corn, but theoretically, PLA could be made from other high-sugar crops such as sugar beets or yucca. The process is fairly simple: harvest the crop, process it to yield sugar, ferment the sugar into lactic acid. The company that makes PLA then converts the lactic acid molecules to plastic in a proprietary process. The resulting plastic can then be made into all sorts of stuff – packaging, textiles, office furniture, etc.

Pursuing PLA as a product option fit perfectly into our core purpose: to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. At first, we could barely contain our excitement about the promise of PLA. Over the course of a few years, we had worked to get closer and closer to a polyester-like fabric that, when compared to petroleum-based polyester, uses less energy to produce, performs and functions well, looks great and is compostable. It seemed almost too good to be true.

Unfortunately, it was. While today’s PLA meets many of our environmental, quality and performance criteria, it fails a critical one. It’s made from genetically engineered materials. PLA is made from corn, and while the percentage changes with current market fluctuations, today roughly 30% of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered. As of this writing, all of us know too little about how genetically engineered agricultural organisms impact human, wildlife and ecosystem health to assume their use will result in an environmental improvement (see “The Magic Door,” by Bill McKibben).

Like any technology, genetic engineering can be used wisely or irresponsibly. The use of genetically engineered organisms and enzymes in laboratory and metabolic processes seems to safely improve productivity, lower costs and reduce pollution from industrial factories in a closed, controlled environment. The release of genetically engineered organisms into the wild, on the other hand, is taking place in the absence of adequate testing and regulatory measures and is therefore not something we support.

Because genetically engineered corn is the current raw material used for PLA, and studies have shown unintended, negative environmental impacts from GE corn, we cannot responsibly embrace PLA until we can guarantee a GE-free source of raw material. We have invested a significant amount of time, research, and even hope in PLA. We worked rigorously and closely with the company that developed PLA to find an organic source of dextrose, or corn sugar, in order to ensure that no genetically engineered corn went into the original material. Unfortunately, we came up short because dextrose, as a commodity product, is processed in massive quantities. Within the current agricultural infrastructure, no source separates conventional or genetically engineered corn from organic corn at the processing plant to guarantee a GE-free source of dextrose.

Our decision not to introduce PLA into our product line was the result of many difficult, even painful, discussions. We revisited our core purpose often. Our conclusion: Releasing into the environment and using inadequately tested, genetically engineered organisms is not a solution to the environmental crisis.

We hope to be able to offer you functional, high-quality and environmentally sound, plant-derived polyester-like products in the near future. Until then, we hope you agree that it’s wise to err on the side of caution when pursuing a technology that may irrevocably alter the balance of life. We will continue to search for an economically viable, GE-free source of dextrose. Until we find it, we will continue to assess our impacts and make innovative choices based on known quantities and qualities.

About the Author

Jil Zilligen is vice president, Environmental Initiatives at Patagonia. She oversees all of Patagonia’s environmental activities and works to fulfill our core purpose to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.