As a founding member of Organic Exchange (OE), a nonprofit dedicated to expanding the production and use of organically grown fibers, Patagonia recently attended their annual conference and board meeting in Seattle. At the meeting, OE members – which include companies like Nike, GAP, Nordstrom, REI, Walmart and Target – decided to broaden their traditional focus on organic cotton “to the emerging field of sustainable textiles, in order to better support both their needs in organic cotton and to help identify other sustainable textile solutions.”
Given the collective influence of OE members, which represent some 750 billion dollars in retail sales demand, and their ambitious goals (like increasing the amount of land used for farming organic fiber by 50 percent per year), this seemed like a significant change. I wondered if it reflected a greater willingness among businesses to take a more comprehensive look at their footprints, a frustration among businesses with existing solutions to their environmental problems, or something else. So I caught up with Jill Dumain, our Environmental Analysis Director, to find out what she thought.
Hit the jump to read the full interview.
Jill: The conference was our first attempt and we are very happy with the outcome. During our board meeting held the week of the conference the board voted to support a broader direction for the organization to include more topics than organic cotton. We are careful to acknowledge that we aren't letting organic go but responding to topics that many of our members have been asking for. We had a whole track of talks on dyeing and finishing. This is realizing that if organic cotton is used, there is still a lot of information to be learned about dyeing and finishing but it also applies to polyester, nylon, wool and other polymers and fibers.
Q: One of the sessions was about the proliferation of eco-labels. Is that trend an encouraging sign? Or a concern, both in terms of green washing and the challenge it presents to brands trying to make themselves stand out?
Jill: I think it is both encouraging and a concern. It is encouraging because the need is being recognized and responded to. But it is concerning because there are too many trying to do the same thing so it is ultimately confusing to both the industry and the consumer.
Q: I saw that another session was dedicated to the increasing scarcity of water and what this means to businesses. How has Patagonia addressed this concern? Didn’t you recently add this measurement to the Footprint Chronicles?
Jill: Yes, we have added water to the Footprint Chronicles now and have engaged in a water footprinting project with a group of graduate students. This work should be done in May and we are looking at water scarcity issues and how this can impact the textile industry. It is an issue that has been crowded out by the carbon discussion but is rising fast.
Q: Another session was about the pros and cons of bio-based textiles? What do you think about the increasing use?
Jill: I think some of them are quite good and others still have some problems based on how the crops are grown that they depend on. Lenzing, with their product Tencel®, has visibility back to the farms that are growing the trees for their production but not all bio-based fibers are able to see that far back in the supply chain. Some of the commodity crops that go into bio-based fibers are derived from GMO crops and there are still a lot of unanswered questions in that arena.
Q: Yvon's comment about business never being sustainable seems to have been quoted a lot recently. Do you have any idea how many other companies in the OE share that perspective or think they can actually hit a "sustainable target."
Jill: I would say there is concern about how loosely "sustainable" is used throughout the industry.I would say the majority of my colleagues and other OE members see it as a never ending journey. Therefore, most would have to agree that a business can't truly be sustainable if the journey never ends!
[Photos: Tim Davis]