Patagonia Wants to Be ‘Carbon Positive’ — Here’s What That Means for Sustainability

Patagonia doesn’t want to be carbon neutral. The outdoor-wear company’s “real aim,” it says, is to go a step farther and become “carbon positive.”

“[This means] we take more carbon out of the atmosphere than we put in, even as our company grows,” it wrote in a recent blog post.

This won’t be easy, the company admits. Patagonia’s supply chain, which includes everything from growing crops for spinning into yarn to dispatching finished products to store shelves, currently accounts for 97% of its carbon emissions. Conventional wisdom attributes the bulk of carbon emissions to transportation, but 86% of Patagonia’s emissions originate from its raw materials. That’s why, the company says, it’s been focusing heavily on recycled fibers, which can reduce carbon emissions by 44% to 80%.

Indeed, Patagonia says it will only use renewable or recycled materials in its assortment by 2025. And as of fall 2019, 69% of its line incorporates recycled materials—recycled polyester, recycled wool, recycled down and reclaimed cotton among them—all of which have the added benefit of reducing water use and diverting waste from landfills and oceans.

At the same time, the company is investing in regenerative organic agriculture as a source of raw materials, and not just in its apparel but also the food it sources for Patagonia Provisions.

“Regenerative is a catch term for a group of farming practices — organic, compost, little or no till, crop rotation, cover crops and intercrops — that have been shown to have lots of benefits but first and foremost promote the creation of healthy topsoil,” Patagonia explained. “These techniques have also shown promise in drawing more carbon into the soil and storing it better than other farming methods.”

Together with the Regenerative Organic Alliance, Patagonia is testing a Regenerative Organic Certification to “help alert people to products that have the potential to not only do less harm, but more good.”

Another way Patagonia seeks to whittle its carbon footprint? Keeping its garments in circulation through its Worn Wear program, which repairs and sells used and vintage Patagonia items. The firm plans to expand Worn Wear to make it a “robust business unit” that supports multiple initiatives encouraging reuse, repair and recycling to extend the life of products. “Even nine months of use reduces the carbon footprint of a garment by 30%,” Patagonia said.

With dire warnings about climate change dominating headlines, “carbon neutral” or “net zero” is quickly becoming a buzzword for sustainability in the fashion industry. Just last month, Gucci declared itself the world’s first “entirely carbon neutral” luxury fashion house. Kering, its parent conglomerate, quickly followed suit, announcing a few weeks later that the entire group will become carbon neutral in its own operations and across its supply chain, first by reducing whatever emissions it can, then by offsetting the rest through forest-conservation projects.

In April, “It” girl brand Reformation decided to “cancel carbon.” The same month, Allbirds, creators of the “world’s most comfortable shoes,” began imposing a carbon tax on itself in a bid to become carbon neutral by the end of 2019. Even American Eagle, the mall brand that teens love, says it plans to become carbon neutral by 2030 across its employee business travel and its owned and operated facilities, including stores, offices and distribution centers.

Some commitments are more ambitious than others. Similar to Patagonia, Swedish fast-fashion chain H&M has set a goal to become “climate positive” by 2040, which translates into reducing more greenhouse-gas emissions than its value chains emit, “all the way from cotton farms to the customers’ washing machines and the recycling baskets,” it has noted.

To be sure, the fashion industry has its work cut out for it. Quantis, an international environmental consultancy that began in Switzerland, estimates the fashion industry accounts for 8.1% of the world’s carbon emissions, which is as much as the total climate impact of the entire European Union or greater than all international airline flights and maritime shipping trips combined.

But efforts, at least, are underway. In December 2018, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change rallied 40 fashion-industry heavyweights — including Adidas, Burberry, Esprit, Guess, Gap, Hugo Boss, H&M, Inditex, Kering, Levi Strauss, Puma, Stella McCartney and Target — to collectively reduce their emissions 30% by 2030, before achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Editor’s Note: This story was reported by FN sister magazine Sourcing Journal. For more, visit Sourcingjournal.com.

Access exclusive content