What Apple is to consumer technology, Patagonia is to sustainable apparel.
The Californian billion-dollar company is the poster child for brand activism and conscious clothing, and in the process, its founder Yvon Chouinard has become an international icon for sustainability.
Boring brands, conscious apparel
Company apparel – or “swag”, is rarely a relevant revenue driver for fashion brands. Nike, Adidas, or Patagonia are not dependent on it. But selling 200 hoodies in bulk is a nice cherry on top.
Don’t get me wrong – Patagonia is a front runner, and they practice what they preach. Their annual report is all about their impact, and doesn’t tell much when it comes to revenue.
But because Patagonia has become so successful at maintaining that image, their branded clothing has become an attractive (and easy) way for employers to take a stand towards their employees.
Sorry, Patagonia doesn’t want your logo anymore
In mid April, Patagonia pulled the plug on company swag – based on its environmental impact.
According to Patagonia, branded apparel gets less bang for the buck – because
- it’s not passed on to other people, and
- most people don’t like to wear company apparel in their free time
While Patagonia doesn’t mention specific impact research or data, the statement seems sound: few of us want to be advertising boards for our employers in our private lives. But how does that statement hold up to actual data?
The use phase of apparel is the second biggest impact driver
Common sense makes it sound simple. The more wear we get out of a piece of clothing, the lower the overall impact. We distribute the impact of the production across a longer time – the “environmental footprint per wear” becomes lower.
But there is a catch to that logic. A big chunk of the carbon footprint of a piece of clothing actually occurs in the use phase – often more than 23%. Washing, drying, ironing – a lot of energy and water go into keeping our clothing fresh, clean, and beautiful. So, paradoxically, we could save a quarter of our clothing’s carbon footprint by never washing it.
Studio Anneloes, a fashion brand from Amsterdam, leveraged that information in their own endeavors to become a more sustainable brand.
They launched a campaign that informed their customers about the impact they have on the world – and helped them wash and dry the clothes less. A survey confirmed that their customers indeed washed and dried their clothes less – a campaign that significantly improved the lifespan of their products.
We realized that our customers play a crucial role in our environmental story. Our garments are of the highest quality and last very long. But washing and wearing our products has an impact, and we can actively reduce that. Jan-Willem van Loon, Studio Anneloes
Amsterdam-based D2C brand Labfresh took a similar path. Their technology repels stains and odor, and thus expands the life span of their products while reducing impact.
Why Patagonia (of course) isn’t wrong
While a longer use phase doesn’t simply mean a lower impact, Patagonia’s initiative still tackles a major issue: we simply produce too many clothes. 12.8 million tons of clothing are sent to landfills every year, and yearly textile waste accounts for about 12.3 kg per capita worldwide.
Company swag is another piece of clothing that simply doesn’t need to be produced – few employees will ever ask for it, and would rather choose a piece they like. 50% of the impact of apparel occurs just in the yarn preparation and the chemical treatment of our clothes – a life cycle phase that can be fully eliminated if the clothing doesn’t get produced in the first place.
In the “R-Model” of the Circular Economy, this translates to more usage and thus less purchases from customers – a reduction of production.
Refuse, rethink, and reduce, the “smarter product use and manufacturing”, are the first steps to create a circular economy. Patagonia’s initiative is, once again, showing the way.