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Q&A: Meghan Wolf, Environmental Activism Manager at Patagonia

The apparel industry is responsible for about 6.7% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world. In this interview, Meghan Wolf spoke about the challenges and opportunities of pursing a more sustainable business model in the clothing industry.

Courtesy of Meghan Wolf

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The apparel industry is responsible for about 6.7% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company, is an industry leader in sustainability. At Nevada Conservation League’s annual Home Means Nevada Awards Dinner last year, Patagonia received the Green Business of the Year Award.

Patagonia uses 100% renewable energy at their owned and operated stores, offices and distribution centers. In 2022, 88% of the whole product line was made with preferred materials, including organic and Regenerative organic cotton, hemp, recycled polyester and recycled nylon, among others. By 2025, the company is committed to eliminate virgin petroleum fiber in their products and only use preferred materials. In addition, the packaging will be 100% reusable, home compostable, renewable or easily recyclable. By 2040, the company is committed to be net zero across the entire business.

The Green Business of the Year Award was accepted by Patagonia’s Reno-based Environmental Activism Manager, Meghan Wolf. In this interview, Meghan explained the challenges and opportunities of pursuing a more sustainable business model in the clothing industry.

1) What kind of barriers and challenges that the clothing industry is facing when pursuing a greener business?

It can be confusing to consumers when clothing brands use buzzwords like “sustainable,” “green” and “conscious” when marketing their apparel, so part of the challenge comes from within the industry itself. Businesses genuinely using responsible practices can unfortunately get lost in the shuffle.

Additionally, there are premiums for using responsible materials and labor, too. We aim to show businesses that you can still be profitable with policies like paying Fair Trade-certified wages and using organic cotton and recycled materials to build gear meant to last.

Companies also need to be continuously researching, measuring and setting aggressive goals as new information becomes available. The more we learn about waste and pollution resulting from the apparel industry, the more work we need to put in to finding ways to mitigate or avoid it entirely.

2) Can you please provide one or two examples on how Patagonia is reducing its carbon footprint?

We’ve managed to make appreciable cuts to carbon emissions by incorporating recycled materials across our product lines. This season (Fall/Winter 2022), 98 percent of our products contain recycled materials, which allowed us to avoid 4,300 metric tons of CO2e emissions. In a single year, using recycled materials allows us to avoid approximately 20,000 tons of CO2e.

Another way we’ve reduced emissions comes from a decision we made back in 1996 Making the switch to organic cotton reduced CO2 emissions by 45 percent compared to conventionally grown varieties. Today, any non-recycled cotton we use is organic.

Finally, Patagonia has also set aggressive Scope 3 emissions reduction targets as part of the Science Based Targets Initiative, and we are developing a program that will result in substantive and scalable emissions reductions in our supply chain.

4) How big is the plastic program in the clothing industry? And how can consumers and businesses create meaningful changes?

Plastic use is pervasive in the clothing industry: About 60 percent of clothing worldwide is made from polyester, but only 1 percent of discarded clothing is recycled. While Patagonia relies on synthetic fibers for technical apparel made to withstand the harshest conditions on the planet — where equipment can literally be lifesaving — we now know that you can get that level of performance from recycled materials. We’ve also partnered with the brand Bureo, which recycles discarded fishing nets, to make materials for bestsellers like the Baggies shorts and Down Sweater lines. To date, Bureo has collected nearly 6 million pounds of discarded nets and has recycled those nets into high-quality, durable products.

To make meaningful changes as consumers, we must buy less and use what we have for as long as possible. If we need something new, search out products made of recycled materials to grow the demand, the profits from which can be invested in the infrastructure that’s needed to divert more material from the landfill. Businesses, too, must get on board with using recycled materials where possible so that we’re using every lever available to reduce the amount of non-recycled synthetic materials out there.

4) What’s next for Patagonia? What are the next sustainability milestones the company is working toward?

By 2025, we’re aiming to eliminate virgin petroleum sources from our fiber supply chain entirely. We’re also working to ensure 50 percent of our synthetic materials come from secondary waste streams (textile waste, ocean plastic or bottle collection from regions without waste management systems) in that same timeframe.

While we do have specific milestones and goals in place, we’re also working on comprehensive changes that we hope can influence the industry. We’ve instituted a metric called the Environmental Profit  & Loss (EP&L), which calculates carbon, water and waste costs of every item we sell, and it’s something we reference when making decisions on improvements – or reductions — on what we make.