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Patagonia doesn’t use the word ‘sustainable.’ Here’s why

November 2, 2021, 12:46 PM UTC
It's easy to say you want a sustainable product, but brands like Patagonia don't control their industry's supply chain.
It’s easy to say you want a sustainable product, but brands like Patagonia don’t control their industry’s supply chain.
Robert Alexander—Getty Images

UN climate summits used to be the preserve of policy wonks and heads of state, with perhaps a few campaigners and scientists on the fringe. But today, conversations on climate have entered the public consciousness, and we have been forced, by a courageous Swedish 18-year-old, to acknowledge that our house is on fire. And, suddenly, COP26 achieves a level of hype nearing that of Glastonbury Festival, with businesses of all sizes and leanings making it an integral part of the calendar.

It may feel jarring to witness the corporate encroachment at the upcoming talks in Glasgow, but it’s no surprise. Persistent corporate lobbying against climate policy is no secret. Even so, it is a mistake to write off the positive impact that for-profit businesses can have. Not because they’re saints (none are, Patagonia included). And not because they have all the answers (others might; we certainly don’t). But without the private sector committing to becoming part of the solution rather than the problem, we have no hope of saving our home planet.

For businesses ourselves, the first step must be taking a long hard look in the mirror. The private sector faces a massive—and understandable—trust deficit on the back of widespread greenwashing, spin, and straight out lying. Therefore, we must get a clear picture of our impact and use this to open honest conversations.  

At Patagonia, we don’t use the word “sustainable.” Why? Because we recognize we are part of the problem. Previously, we set ourselves the target of carbon neutrality by 2025. But purchasing offsets to get us there doesn’t erase the footprint we create and won’t save us in the long run. We must first put the weight of our business behind drastically cutting emissions across the full length of our supply chain.

What is unsettling is that, right now, we aren’t entirely sure how to do this. Our pledge to use only renewable or recycled materials in our products by 2025 is a case in point. We have spent years of work on this, and our recycled content is now up to 68% of our total usage—still not enough. Investigating all the options, from upweighting the sale of secondhand products to moderating growth and cutting the breadth of our product line, only reinforces our belief that we can’t do this alone. 

The biggest problem here is that 95% of our emissions come from our supply chain, and we are a minor player on this stage. We produce in shared factories, often alongside much larger brands. So, we’ve had to innovate. We are developing an “insetting” approach in our supply chain by setting up a joint funding mechanism where other smaller brands can partner with us to invest in “greening” the factories in exchange for carbon credits. As is the case for many of our progressive ideas, we currently have only a hunch that it will work, but we know we have to try.

This approach intrinsically fits our values: innovating and finding solutions from which we, and other businesses, can benefit, then sharing this learning as widely as possible, in order to scale practical solutions to the crisis we face. 

If accountability and innovation are the first two steps, the ultimate action we must take to deliver on a real climate strategy is to give back more than we take. Businesses wield enormous influence, and we must jointly demand that governments play their part in doing what is right for the whole of society, and support them in this aim.

Patagonia has gone above and beyond in many ways, for many years. For example, we support grass-roots activists fighting for nature around the world. We challenge unnecessary consumption, through actions such as our 2011 Black Friday ad in the New York Times, titled “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” What is new for us is the combined sense of urgency that comes from working with other like-minded businesses to demand change. 

Our message to policymakers in Glasgow this month is clear: Set global standards for carbon accounting and offsetting. Right now, it’s wild out there, with a lack of clarity that just feeds greenwashing and delays meaningful action.

And our message to businesses? Join us in cutting through the blah, blah. Our voices are stronger when we speak together, such as with the B Corp movement or the open letter we cosigned in support of Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act. 

People are right to be wary of companies declaring their support for climate action. Much of it will be mere posturing—but not all. Genuine corporate climate champions do exist.

You might just be one yourself.

Beth Thoren is the environmental action and initiatives director, EMEA, at Patagonia.

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