Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Patagonia Footprint Chronicles – step in the right direction or sneaky sleight-of-foot?

By Lorne Craig on September 5, 2008

What happens when a giant of the corporate eco-movement opens some of its processes to full public scrutiny, with a tone that verges on self-flagellation? Depending on your love for the corporation in question, it’s either another reason to love them or a shameless marketing bauble designed to keep your eye off more pressing issues.

The green giant is Patagonia, and The Footprint Chronicles is their latest underbelly exposé.

This interactive mini-site allows you to track the impact of ten specific Patagonia products from design through delivery. A small but varied sampling, including shirts, shoes, pants, shorts, a dress, a jacket, a vest and a sweater, are tracked across the globe from design to drawer. A set of four icons lets you see distance traveled, carbon released, waste generated and energy consumed for each. The site is a clean, classy web experience (would we expect anything else?) and the tone is so transparent I occasionally felt like averting my eyes.

One of the things the site does well is to keep the door open for customer feedback. Through the Patagonia blog, The Cleanest Line, comments have been flying fast and furious, ranging from fawning (“I love Patagonia and what it stands for...”) to fuming (“Considering China's record on environmental issues, it seems hypocritical for Patagonia to outsource to the most polluted country on the planet.”)

As an eye-opener into the world of clothing manufacture, this site should be required viewing for all teenagers who think they need a new wardrobe every season. But does it do enough to move the green needle on clothing manufacture?

Patagonia turns over a lot of rocks in their system to let us see what’s underneath. Clicking on the individual processes of the 9 Trails Shorts, for example, leads to such treasures as a slideshow from inside a Vietnamese sewing factory and a video of Patagonia Designer Bryn Pitterle, taking us through every stitch of her journey to “design the ultimate short”.

But for me, this is where Patagonia starts to become a victim of their own style. Not to pick on Ms. Pitterle, but footage of her trail-running through the California hills and shooting her titanium compound archery bow make me wonder if the world really needs another ‘ultimate running short’, no matter how apologetic the manufacturer is for their environmental impact.

But enough crabbing. The Footprint Chronicles are so far ahead of what almost anyone else is doing in terms of honesty and transparency that Patagonia deserves our respect for the effort. I just wish it were more systemic and less symbolic.

Perhaps, instead of of a rich media showcase of carefully selected products, the next version could be an automated web-based application that provides the transportation, carbon, waste and energy info on every Patagonia product at the catalog level, driven from the database up.

Just a thought.

P.S. I sincerely hope I haven’t offended California’s trail-running bow-hunter community. Honest.