It’s time for Thuja to answer the question : is Patagonia as ethical and sustainable as they say ?
Is it living up to its reputation as the greenest of the outdoors brands ?
Well, after putting Patagonia through the Thuja machine, analysing dozens of pages, sustainable reports, and fully investigating their practices, the answer seems to be : A BIG YES !
Hurray, Patagonia is to date (october 2022) our top scorer, with an average of 83 % on our Thuja’s score. And frankly, they don’t seem to have too many weak points in our different categories.
(Find their full rating overview on our brand’s page here : https://wearethuja.com/brands/patagonia/)
Since their creation, Patagonia has always put conservation and nature protection at the core of their business. They are considered industry leaders in sustainability, and they participate in countless initiatives when it comes to nature protection and climate change.
But Patagonia is one big living paradox. It is now a worldwide brand, selling more products every year. The brand has become almost iconic, and has left the range of outdoor specialised brands for dirt bags and nature nerds. It became a social marker that people use to set a message, and distinguish themselves. Which sometimes borders with the representation of more luxurious brands. Did people miss the message of their famous campaign “don’t buy this jacket” ? Have they become too popular to be sustainable ?
With such a statement, we are opening a more philosophical question, that also has to do with your personal opinion, relationship to consuption and fashion, and political stance. On our side, we will try to answer that question as objectively as we can, by putting that brand through our index. It’s rating every brand the same way, through many many criterias, that aims to create a fair view of a brand’s commitment to sustainability.
So here is our rating of Patagonia, section by section :
Patagonia product section (score : 74 %)
As an outdoor and technical focus apparel, they still use a big portion of material derived from petroleum. Indeed,
outdoor garments, especially the technical one like ski jackets or rain jackets, are still made of polyester and nylon. It is complicated to use more natural materials like wool or cotton, especially when it comes to waterproofing them.
Some smaller brands might be doing better on that matter, using only a few very renewable materials, but Patagonia is still putting the bar high enough for renewable material use.
They are using 88% of what they called “preferred materials” that they consider sustainable (organic cotton, wool, or recycled nylon and polyester for example). We appreciate when brands don’t use vague vocabulary for setting goals for the future. In that case, Patagonia is planning to move away from virgin plastic in 2025.
They have been pioneers in the use of organic cotton since 1994, when it was not in trend. 100 % of their cotton is organic, and they’re implementing a regenerative practices program with some of their farmers. Regenerative practices help create healthier soils, which in return are storing carbon dioxide in the ground, helping fight climate change.
After concerns from NGO’s and customers in 2015 about their wool not being certified and their supply chain being vulnerable to animal welfare issues, they have set higher standards for wool, by developing a higher and stricter standard (PWS, Patagonia Wool Standard) than the already existing Responsible Wool Standard.
They are extremely vocal about fighting overconsumption, with very famous marketing campaigns about “not buying” their products. With their extensive warranty programs, second hand resell (worn wear) and repair policies and campaign, we can confidently say that they’re doing the job.
They could do better on the number of garments and collections produced every year. At Thuja, we believe that a company that produces a limited diversity of garments, collections, style and colours every year, is more likely to fight over consumption of goods.
They make new collections every year, produce a great number of garments, and have many different styles. That’s probably Patagonia’s biggest paradox. It is now a worldwide brand, selling more products every year. And besides their many calls against overconsumption and good lasting products, selling this many products might show that people haven’t fully heard their call.
Patagonia 3rd party verification section
3rd party certifications are usually a good way to show that a brand is talking about sustainability, but proving it by a certified methodology. Of course, not every label/certification is at the same level. But a multiplicity of them, like in the Patagonia case, is usually an encouraging sign.
They are members of the Fair Labor Association and contributed to its foundation. A label that ensures basic workers rights are maintained through the supply chain. They work with Bluesign for 30% of their garment, also certifying high standards of environmental and social standards of production. 87 % of their production is now certified Fair Trade Sewn.
All the cotton they use is organic certified. They sometimes go further, with the creation of a Regenerative Organic certification for cotton, that pushes the standards higher, by introducing soil regenerative practices.
It seems important to mention that they were also founding members of the very famous 1% For the Planet.
Quick overview of the Animal welfare section
Patagonia has been called out in the past for their use of animal products, and probably has not been first in line when it came to modern animal welfare practices.
They faced accusations in the past for some of their wool suppliers or down suppliers that mistreated animals.
Since then, they have worked to develop a strict responsible wool standard (PWS) and have traceability through their whole supply chain for down named Advanced Global Traceable Down Standard (Advanced Global TDS).
Yet, it’s better to avoid garments that use these animal products if your convictions are against the use of any animal in agricultural production.
Patagonia climate and ecology section (score : 85 %)
Patagonai claims “We are in business to save our home planet”, and when it comes to tackling climate change, it seems (according to our Thuja standards) that they do their share.
They publicly disclosed their carbon emissions, from scope 1 to 3 (from HQ and local direct emissions, to indirect emmissions coming from all their suppliers and producers). They have a strict and defined goal to align with the 1.5 C trajectory (From the Paris agreement, to keep cliamte change under 1.5C and reduce emissions drastically before 2050). Unlike some companies that only/mostly reduce their emissions from their headquarters, and then make green claims about fighting climate change, Patagonia is aware that the supply chain accounts for 97% of their carbon emissions. They’re planning to be carbon neutral by 2040, which means drastically reducing their emissions from their products and supply chain, not by compensating with carbon credits (which they are very upfront about).
They have audits and programs across their supply chain to fund and transform the energy supply of their partner factories. They are taking many innovative initiative to actively reduce their emissions (working on low-carbon material for their garment, measuring the Environmental Profit and Loss of each product (EPL metric score), funding regenerative initiatives,etc…). Another arm of their strategy is to fund massively grassroot organisations and local solutions to fight climate change, protecting natural ecosystems as carbon sinks, empowering local communities, and funding protest and activist movements.
If a score of 4 (out of 3) was existing for this criteria (carbon emissions reduction), they would get it.
For water protection and chemical reduction, Patagonia doesn’t have a dedicated section of their sustainability for it. A lot of initiatives they take contribute to reducing water use and pollution, or harmful chemicals (bluesign label, organic cotton, hemp, recycled materials,etc…). They don’t have a direct analysis of their water cycle, or 3rd party audit that specifically targets water and chemical uses. On the other hand, they publicly fund a lot of campaigns and NGO’s for protecting waterway, aquatic environment, wild migratory fish runs and dam removals.
For Perfluorocarbon (PFC) use in their waterproof garments, they were late in the game for such a environnemental leader. Their plan is to be PFC free by 2024, while a lot of sustainable outdoor brands have alreadt got rid of it.
Patagonia Social justice section (score : 88 %)
It might have taken longer for Patagonia to tackle the social justice issue with their business model, compared to being at the forefront of the fight for the planet. And there is always room for improvement. But they were also at the start of some initiatives for better workers rights, like the Fair Labour association (FLA). They have been one of the first big companies to disclose the list of their suppliers and factories. 87 % of their production is Fair Trade sewn certified.
Patagonia is pretty open and transparent about their living wage policy. They have defined what is a living wage per country (with a global methodology and third party audits).
Yet, they are still pretty far from offering a living wage across all their supply chain. So far, 39% of their suppliers offer a living wage, with a goal of 100 % in 2025.
They have created a very elaborated internal system of screening, verification and social responsibility, with code of conduct, and evaluation along all their supply chain and new suppliers, with defined road map and transparent methodology. This system would be safer and more solid if Patagonia was auditing every of their suppliers with a third party independent audit on a yearly basis.
The brand still has a lot of efforts to do when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. They don’t have a specific section about it on their website, and have very few internal articles talking about this issue. They seem to have made some efforts recently on representation through their social media, and documentary subjects, but they are a bit late at joining the wave of change.
General conclusion on the brand. What we love about them and what they can do better.
Patagonia is an all-time favourite when it comes to outdoor clothing. And their numbers in the Thuja index speak for themselves.
They are leading the industry with countless groundbreaking initiatives, and frankly, it would take months to record all of it. They’re clearly not perfect, but we wish that all the big brands would follow their path.
Perhaps the main flaw of Patagonia is their popularity. Every new major campaign they launch turns out to be a genius marketing campaign. True activism and ideology or a smart way to increase sales ? It’s hard to be sure, but it definitely increases their sales volume every time. Will Patagonia be able to live the paradox of being incredibly successful, sell millions of new clothes every year, and be a sustainable role model ?