Outdoor companies were urged at the European Outdoor Summit (EOS) in Barcelona last month to make their business more resilient by getting ahead of regulations to come, not least in terms of sustainability.
The topic was fluently addressed by Rick Ridgeway, vice president of public engagement at Patagonia, at the EOS. He explained the brand's pioneering approach to environmental issues starting from the sixties, when Yvon Chouinard established a blacksmith workshop in California. But Ridgeway was most eloquent when he went off-script to answer questions about the contradictions of the brand's stance and its business implications.
Patagonia's commitment to environmental projects stems from a trip taken in 1968 by Chouinard and Doug Tompkins to climb Fitzroy in Patagonia, which inspired the name of the company. Twenty years later, there were clear signs of the impact on the local environment, such as grasslands turning into desert due to over-grazing.
The commitment articulated by Patagonia is to build the best products, to do so by causing no unnecessary harm, and to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the group's environmental vision. This has resulted in initiatives such as 1% for the Planet, with grants to over 800 non-governmental organizations. The company has a vice president of environmental activism, and it supports campaigns to remove supposedly useless dams with investments such as the Damnation documentary.
Another initiative that ended up involving more than 200 companies was a letter written jointly with Walmart that was addressed to the chief executives of many apparel companies. They ended up forming the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and launching the Higg Index. Concerns over the environment are also informing the development of products such as wetsuits that are no longer made of standard neoprene.
But Ridgeway admitted that some of Patagonia's campaigns relating to sustainability met with some resistance at the company, such as the ad placed in the New York Times on Black Friday: It featured a Patagonia jacket and urged consumers not to buy it (unless they actually needed it). Employees constantly question the contradiction of striving to sell more products while reducing impact on the environment – and the answer that the earth is better off with more market share going to green companies isn't entirely satisfactory.
Ridgeway spoke of the environmental urgency to take action, pointing out that humans are currently using one and a half times the resources that our planet is able to restore on an annual basis - and the multiple reaches seven times in the U.S. However, he also made the business case for sustainability, pointing out that some investors had started applying a sustainability filter.
At another session of the EOS, Cindy Rhoades described the progress of Worn Again, the company behind a chemical process that aims to fully recycle polyester and cotton fibers and thus keeps the raw materials going into garments in circulation – not just once with re-use, but continuously. She wants to help address environmental concerns over growing demand for apparel: It already requires 55 million tons of polyester and cotton fibers, which takes up water, pesticides and land, and the growth of the population is expected to raise the demand to 90 million tons in 2020.
Rhoades said that only about 20 percent of the apparel being sold is collected and 55 percent of that is suitable to be worn again, another 40 percent may be transformed into lower-value products such as rags and insulation, while the remaining 5 percent still goes to increasingly expensive landfill. A major challenge for recycling textiles is that dyes may not be separated, and that 35 percent of fibers are blended.
Launched in 2005, Worn Again started with upcycling, meaning that discarded pieces of textile could be used again to make other products – such as “end of use” staff uniforms from Eurostar that went into the production of controllers' bags made in the U.K. However, this turned out not to be very cost-effective, since products costing $50 ex-factory with such upcycled materials could be manufactured at about $10 with virgin materials in Vietnam.
The technology researched by Worn Again is to recapture polyester and turn it into pellets, and recapture cellulose to turn it into a new cellulose fiber, which would allow the production to be almost circular. The project started four years ago and Worn Again is aiming to get the first plant up and running in the U.K. in two to three years' time.
Rhoades says the initiative is meant to comply with the demand from the market, which calls for virgin-equivalent quality, an environmentally-friendly process and a price that competes with virgin materials. There would still be about 20 percent of waste through the 20 percent of “other” materials in textiles. Rhoades says the process creates potential for multiple re-use, due to the re-polymerization of slightly damaged polymers. The process itself is full loop.
The ensuing discussions showed that outdoor industry executives strongly supported the principle, but some of the participants were concerned about the group's ability to scale up the project and to get it integrated into their supply chain. Supported by H&M and Kering, Worn Again is striving to obtain commitments that will support the development of the concept. Rhoades also called for European outdoor companies to publicize their support of circular production, to push for the introduction of related tax breaks and to measure and report on the impact.