Patagonia and Organic Cotton: A Case Study

In the early summer of 1994, a group of men and women sat in a conference room at Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, in a heated discussion that went on all afternoon. At risk was around $20 million in sales.

In 1991 Patagonia had commissioned an environmental impact study on the four major fibers we use in our products. We expected the synthetic, petroleum-based materials to be the worst, but we were surprised to learn that conventionally grown 100 percent cotton, which we had always thought of as a "natural" product, was just as bad as the rest of them.

The process of growing conventional cotton involves the heavy use of chemicals that poison the soil, air and ground water. And, since many of these chemicals were originally formulated as nerve gases for warfare, it's no surprise that where spraying occurs, health problems follow. Higher rates of birth defects and cancer in both humans and wildlife surround the cotton fields. This is an outrageous cost to pay for the battle against bugs, and it's a battle we'll never win. While the bugs quickly adapt to the chemicals, some of which cost $500 a gallon, the rest of us sustain long-term damage.

We had to do something about our use of a fabric with so dreadful an impact on the earth. But at that time, sportswear made from conventional cotton was 20 percent of our total business.

The alternative, organically grown cotton, was and is expensive: to grow and to gin, spin, knit and weave. The entire farming industry was and is organized around, and dependent on, the chemical industry.

Very little certified organic cotton was being grown anywhere in the world at that time. Organic farming is much more labor intensive. The farmers must work the fields constantly, checking for hazards to plant health. Weeding and composting also require extra labor. Defoliation has to be done naturally, without toxic chemicals. If Patagonia had to hike prices to cover the cost of making clothes from organic cotton, and our customers refused to pay those prices, we could lose our sportswear business. We would be, someone said that afternoon, "toast."

The meeting that day in 1994 ended finally when Yvon said, "If we continue to make clothes with conventionally grown cotton, knowing what we know now, we're toast anyway. Let's do it; let's go organic." Our board of directors voted that all conventionally grown cotton had to be eliminated in the Patagonia line by the spring of 1996. We settled on three goals for the spring 1996 organic cotton line: to sell the line successfully, to influence the rest of the apparel industry to use organic cotton and to encourage growth in organic cotton farming. We reduced our margins on most of the items so the retail price would not exceed a 2 percent increase over conventional cotton. Goals were one thing; reality was another. In the past, when we wanted some fabric for pants, for example, we would call a salesman who would show us a sample book of fabrics, and we merely had to browse through and make a selection. Now we had to begin with bales of raw cotton and "bird-dog" the entire process through to the finished goods; the staff at Patagonia had to go back all the way to the beginning of the supply chain. We searched out cotton brokers with access to bales of organic cotton. Of all the fabric mills we ended up using for our supply of organic cotton, only two had prior experience working with it. We had to pay three times more for our cotton fabric in 1996 than it cost in 1995, and there were fewer types available. We had to cut the cotton product line accordingly, from 91 styles down to 66.

We decided to use "transitional" cotton temporarily as well as certified organic. Transitional cotton is grown using all the organic processes, but the practices haven't been in place long enough to earn official certification. Second, we decided that we would sell "clothing made from organically grown cotton" rather than "organic clothing." The difference seems small, but we didn't want to mislead buyers about the fact that we would still be using synthetic dyes and conventional cotton thread in the production. In the end, we put the quality back in the product construction. In some cases, we had to use a higher-quality, longer-staple cotton and pre-shrink the yarn and fabric.

To encourage others to use organic cotton and to help make organic cotton farming a sustainable business, we organized busloads of employees, journalists and representatives from other clothing companies to go to the Central Valley of California to see for themselves that "factory farming" isn't a metaphor, but a simple, stark description of a once-beautiful landscape. In the San Joaquin's cotton fields, for miles around no birds sing or insects hum; the air stinks, the eyes burn, toxins stain the irrigation ditches. Hired men with shotguns sit in lawn chairs by the "lakes" in order to scare off waterfowl and shorebirds before they land in the toxic soup.

We offered all of our information and discoveries to other apparel firms like Marks & Spencer, Timberland and Nike. We knew we weren't large enough to sustain organic farming by ourselves, and we didn't want to make our use of organics a selling point. Ideally, we hoped the entire industry would switch over just because it's the right thing to do.

Finally, we believed we had enough organic cotton farmers to make enough cotton to make enough clothes. But that wasn't the end of our worries. For a couple of seasons we watched the weather closely in the San Joaquin Valley. If our farmers' crops failed we were out of the sportswear business.

In the spring of 1996, our organically grown cotton sportswear line debuted. To our surprise, everything went fine. Not too many noticed the slight price increase on some clothing and those who did, applauded our choice.

Our organic cotton program is a success because our customers are making the same choice we made – to pay more now for organics rather than pay the hidden environmental costs down the road. It's also a success because our cotton clothing is carefully thought out, and as a consequence, it sells well. As of this year, there are more encouraging signs. Just as in the organic food industry, which is currently growing at a rate of 20 percent a year, the worldwide demand for organic cotton is booming; it has tripled since we first made the switch in 1996. The farmers, gins, spinners, weavers and cloth manufacturers who followed our lead have all created a new source of revenue for themselves. The costs of organic cotton have gone down to where it is on the average only two times more expensive than industrial grown, and more and more companies, encouraged by us, are switching over.

Switching from industrially grown and processed cotton to organically grown is a positive step forward, but doesn't completely solve the problem. Even when cotton is grown without toxic chemicals, it still uses an inordinate amount of water, and cannot be grown year after year without permanently depleting the soil. When a cotton garment is worn out, it is usually thrown away. We have to dig deeper and try to make products that close the loop – clothing that can be recycled infinitely into similar or equal products. We have to accept the responsibility for what happens to each product when it reaches the end of its life cycle, just as a computer manufacturer should be responsible for what happens to its old model computers that end up in landfills.

Some of the fiber mills we work with, at our prodding, are actively working on using less toxic materials and processes. They willingly work with us because they believe that what we are attempting to do is going to create a more sustainable business model for them and for society. They realize, as David Brower put it, that there is no business to be done on a dead planet.