For a company widely credited with innovating the whole idea of corporate social responsibility, FedEx customer Patagonia’s most recent venture may, at first glance, seem surprisingly low-tech. But look more closely at the Ventura, California–based company’s Worn Wear program — which launched an e-commerce site for used gear in 2017 — and you’ll find some impressive technical stats. “Keeping a jacket in play for nine months can reduce that product’s CO2 emissions by about 27 percent,” says Phil Graves, senior director of corporate development at Patagonia. “And it can lower water use [for manufacturing] by 33 percent. Those are pretty remarkable environmental benefits, just for keeping your piece of gear in play longer.”
It’s the latest example of how the company is bringing to life its mission: “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.” And it’s rooted in the early days of the company, which started offering repair services some 40 years ago. But the big breaks came in 2010, when Patagonia made a commitment to take back every single product it sells for recycling, followed in 2012 with selling used Patagonia gear in a handful of stores. That’s when the Worn Wear team made a fascinating discovery. “We found that we had all of these rich stories about Patagonia customers loving their gear and wanting to keep it or pass it on by repairing it and extending its life,” Graves says.
Four years ago, Patagonia decided to roll out the idea nationwide, literally. “We created a tour — a road show — where we could repair gear on the road,” Graves says. The company built and fueled up a fleet of rigs to travel to college campuses and Patagonia stores across the country, repairing not only its own products but those of its competitors. “Our most recent tour went from Canada all the way to the bottom of California,” Graves says. “We stopped at surf shops and repaired wetsuits, and it didn’t matter if it was a Patagonia wetsuit or one of our competitors’ wetsuits. We repaired it and talked about the benefits of using your wetsuit as long as possible instead of buying a new one. And that really resonated with everybody we interacted with.” More than 18,000 people attended these and similar repair events in 2017.
The Worn Wear team is excited to see what the future brings. “Millennials and younger people in general care deeply about the environmental and social impact of their purchase decisions,” Graves says. “On the Worn Wear program particularly, we are seeing a younger customer base — a lot of times leading new customers to Patagonia, which makes good business sense.”
He’s especially excited about three future customers. “When I talk with my three young daughters about what I do at work and why it is important, I see them as little responsible business entrepreneurs in training because they have brilliant ideas all the time,” he says. “It’s a rare instance when your job can actually leave the world a better place — and it’s exciting to see where this next generation will take it.”
A Socially Responsible Side Venture
Not every socially responsible product connected to Patagonia carries the company’s brand name. Patagonia’s venture capital fund, Tin Shed Ventures, partners with firms working to build renewable energy infrastructure, practice regenerative organic agriculture, conserve water, divert waste and create sustainable materials — with a goal to prove that business and investments can be engines for positive change. The companies include:
TERSUS Solutions, which manufactures and cleans technical textiles using liquid carbon dioxide instead of water, a process that saves water while using less energy and fewer chemicals.
California Safe Soil, which has created an organic liquid fertilizer using food waste from supermarkets. Working with researchers at the University of California, Davis, it has tested the efficacy and sustainability of its Harvest to Harvest (H2H) formula, which aims to increase crop yields and reduce nitrate-laden runoff.
Bureo, which uses discarded fishing nets found along the coast of Chile to make sunglasses and surfboards — and for partner companies such as Jenga to make board games and Humanscale to make office chairs.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: Tim Davis and Donnie Hedden, Courtesy of Patagonia