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Patagonia tests the limits of sustainability

Jeff Tyler Apr 2, 2015
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On Thursday, the venture fund for outdoor clothing company Patagonia announced an investment of more than $1 million in a Swiss company, Beyond Surface Technologies (BST), that works to reduce the impact of textile chemicals on the environment.

Phil Graves oversees the Patagonia fund, called $20 Million and Change, which targets environmental problems. He says the investment in BST could yield dividends for the planet.

What makes the company unique, Graves says of BST, “is they don’t use synthetic, petroleum-based chemicals for their textile finishings. They use natural substances.”

Patagonia is one of the most progressive, environmentally committed American companies. But at the same time that it searches for solutions, Patagonia has also contributed to the environmental problems. For example, the current process of water-proofing for performance clothing, like Patagonia’s rain jackets, involves some harmful chemicals.

“The existing technology uses fluorocarbons, which are pretty nasty things in terms of environmental impact,” Graves says. “They take forever to degrade. The challenge is when you look at some of the existing alternatives that are more environmentally-friendly, they don’t last.”

That idea of durability is a recurring theme. It resurfaces again when Phil Graves takes me surfing. We hit the waves so I could test another Patagonia innovation  an earth-friendly wetsuit that’s 60 percent plant-based bio-rubber.

“When you look at the environmental benefits, it’s a much cleaner process than the process that goes into making neoprene,” Graves says.

I wore the new, “green” wetsuit. Graves wore one of Patagonia’s traditional wetsuits, which is 100 percent neoprene.

From my brief demo, I found the bio-rubber wetsuit just as warm as any neoprene versions I’ve ever used, and even a little bit thinner, which made it easier to paddle out.

But that bio-rubber wetsuit doesn’t come cheap. Patagonia charges more than $500. That’s about four times more than a standard neoprene wetsuit from a competing brand.

Mike Russo studied Patagonia for his book “Companies on a Mission: Entrepreneurial Strategies for Growing Responsibly, Sustainably, and Profitably.”

“A significant part of the customer base cares and might reward the company for its environmental programs with purchases at prices higher than they would be willing to pay otherwise,” Russo says.

Also, that innovative eco-wetsuit is still 40 percent synthetic rubber.

Back at Patagonia headquarters, I ask CEO Rose Marcario why the company entered the wetsuit market before it had an environmentally-friendly alternative to offer.

“In our case, we enter the market and create a market so that we have a voice in the market,” Marcario says.

What about the conflict between the company’s eco-friendly investments and its continued use of the traditional, harmful chemicals used for water-proofing?

“That’s always been a tension because we create the best gear for very extreme conditions. And sometimes the best finishes for those extreme conditions  of wind and snow — are chemical based,” she says.

And, again, there’s that idea of durability.

“The issue, when you look at some innovative products  in terms of environmental sustainability  is that they don’t have the performance,” says Phil Graves. “What we’ve found is  long-term  when you look at the total footprint of the wetsuit or the jacket or whatever it is, extending the life of that garment makes the biggest difference in terms of environmental impact.”

At some level, it may be better to have a synthetic product that lasts for generations, rather than an innovative substitute that repeatedly needs to be replaced.

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