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

Patagonia – A Good Model for a Post Consumer Era Manufacturing Company

By Guest contributors on February 22, 2010

This post by guest contributor Gerard Furbershaw, designer, speaker, co-founder and COO of LUNAR, first appeared on LUNAR’s blog. He has served as President and Chairman of the Board of the Association of Professional Design Firms, Chairman of the San Francisco chapter of the Industrial Designers Society of America, and is a Trustee of the Design Foundation.

Manufacturing companies interested in transitioning to sustainable business models would benefit from considering what Patagonia has done. Through a combination of their values, mission, life cycle assessments, and actions, they have become pioneers on the path towards sustainability.

Patagonia’s roots were in climbing hardware (Chouinard Equipment Company in the early days.) Founded by Yvon Chouinard, a renowned climber, the company’s first move towards sustainability came in the early 1970s when it became a leader in a movement called “clean climbing.” Pitons being hammered into and removed from rock were scarring pristine faces. Although pitons made up 70% of the company’s sales, Chouinard discontinued producing them and initiated a revolution in climbing. He launched a line of aluminum hexentrics and stoppers that could be wedged into cracks in the rock and removed without damaging it. Although he took a risk by dropping pitons, Chouinard was able to change the way climbing was done without impacting his business’s revenues.

After leaving climbing hardware for outdoor clothing, Patagonia’s mission became to give “maximum attention to product quality” while “striving to do no harm” to the environment. Although Patagonia’s actions are among the most environmentally conscious of any company’s, they chose to qualify their “do harm” statement with the “striving” qualifier. This is a more realistic approach as mankind’s existence will impact the environment. The key is to ultimately minimize it to the point where it is sustainable.

Patagonia makes all their decisions within the context of the environmental crisis. Without a value like this, it’s easy for a company to forget about environmental consequences of business decisions. Although they seek immediate and dramatic changes whenever possible, they realize they must sometimes pursue an approach of incrementalism.

In 1991, Patagonia conducted a life cycle analysis of the key fabrics used in their industry. Although one would presume polyester and nylon would be the worst environmentally due to being petroleum based, cotton and wool didn’t fare much better and in some cases were worse.

They found that although cotton fields comprise only 3% of the world’s farmlands, they use 10% of the world’s insecticides production. As a result of this finding, Patagonia decided to switch to organic cotton. To expedite the change, they decided to sell “clothing made with organically grown cotton” rather than “organic clothing” as they had not yet found organic dies that met their quality standards. By compromising, Patagonia was able to immediately influence the rest of their industry to use organic cotton and help get the organic cotton farming industry on its feet.

At the time of the lifecycle analysis, Patagonia’s fleece jackets were made from virgin polyester. They switched to polyester made from recycled PET soda bottles. Between 1993 and 2003, they diverted 86 million soda bottles from landfill.

By instituting company values and missions that address environmental issues, performing life cycle assessments and designing and producing in alignment with the results, any company can join Patagonia as a sustainability pioneer.

What other companies have initiated compelling sustainable business models?