Patagonia’s Water Challenge

Vincent Stanley
Spring 2011

Patagonia has recently begun a two-year initiative, Our Common Waters, to educate and engage our friends and customers. While this campaign focuses on the freshwater crisis facing the earth during the next several decades, it also strikes directly home for Patagonia as a company. We need to better educate ourselves and improve our own practices as a business that relies on water for its survival – and to pass on to customers (and other businesses) whatever we learn that’s new.

At Patagonia we’re only beginning to learn just how much water we consume – or how much water is used in our name. We do know that, as individuals, each of us drains an Olympic-sized poolful of water (2.5 million liters) to slake a year’s worth of daily thirst, make ice cubes for the lemonade, power the low-flow toilet, feed the plants, wash the dishes and grow cotton for our jeans.

Business, including agribusiness, has direct responsibility for most of the water coming out of that Olympic-sized pool. As individuals we have to remember that much of the water used in our name doesn’t come out of the tap we turn on to rinse the dishes, but rather as our share of the sum of industrial production and consumption. So it’s important for us all to keep an eye on what business does to increase – or meet – the challenges posed by water scarcity and pollution. And in the rich world we should remember that businesses – often our businesses – operating in the poor world to privatize water supply will do nothing for the common good. Antipollution measures, where they are expensive, often must be government-mandated and enforced. But all businesses, including ours, are eager to cut costs – and therefore consumption.

Just how much water is used in manufacturing a pair of organic cotton jeans – from the field through spinning, weaving, sewing and shipping to our Reno warehouse? Answer: 180 liters or enough to provide drinking water for 60 people for a day. And those jeans, because their cotton is dryland-farmed, prove to be far less thirsty than our Pima Cotton Shirt, a Patagonia® classic we sell every fall. Each shirt consumes 2,304 liters, or a day’s drinking water for 768 people (and this with improved drip irrigation that uses 20 percent to 30 percent less water than conventional irrigation).

These are two products whose water usage we can calculate. We don’t yet know the numbers for the majority of the clothes we make – how much water our various suppliers (from farms to factories) use. Nor have we evaluated how efficiently water is used or how clean it is, including the agricultural runoff from the fields and pastures from which we get our cotton and wool.

We have our work cut out for us this year and in the years ahead: not only to become fully aware of how much water goes into the making of every product, but to begin to reduce it. We will measure usage, especially from water-stressed regions, and then work with farmers and ranchers to reduce untreated runoff. We will also work with the mills to ensure that we use the least harmful chemicals in fabric dyeing and finishing and close the industrial water and wastewater cycle (so that water leaving the factories should be cleaner than when it came in), as well as to reduce wastage of water in our offices, warehouses and stores. Finally, catalog printing and paper manufacturing are water-intensive industries as is the electronics industry, should you happen to be reading this online. These activities also represent our dependence on water and the need to reduce usage.

Some of this work we can undertake independently. Most requires the collaborative efforts of suppliers, including tracking and tallying. To help make real improvements and substantial change we have the invaluable assistance of bluesign®, an independent standard that Patagonia has supported since 2000. Fourteen of our textile vendors (up from nine, two years ago) have now signed with the Switzerland-based organization to help reduce water and resource consumption as well as dyestuffs and chemicals used throughout the supply chain. We’re also working with other big suppliers in the outdoor industry to encourage all major textile providers to adopt the bluesign standard. Twenty percent of the Patagonia line now contains bluesign-approved materials.

We will keep you apprised, through the Footprint Chronicles®, and in our catalogs and on our website, of our progress in learning just how much water we use, what we’re going to do to use less, how to keep it cleaner, and at what pace. That has to be brisk. Finding ways to serve human needs without destroying the ecosystems that support us is the major challenge of our time.

About the Author

Vincent Stanley is co-editor of The Footprint Chronicles®, Patagonia’s mini-site that allows customers to track the impact of specific Patagonia products from design through delivery.