The US drags its feet in climate negotiations. A few hours after being harassed into signing the Bali accord, the White House started to distance itself from the hazy targets agreed by the rest of the developed world. But some American companies lead the world in environmental policies. The best businesses disclose more about their manufacturing processes and their carbon footprint than almost any European or Asian companies. One of the best examples is Patagonia, a highly-regarded maker of specialist outdoor clothing. To jaded European eyes, its environmental plans look almost embarrassingly earnest and idealistic. The admissions of its own weaknesses are delivered with a humility that we rarely see on this side of the Atlantic. What UK business would voluntarily describe the production processes of one of its key products as ‘not sustainable’? Or admit that a complex chemical in the water repellent used in its outer garments (and those of all its competitors) is highly persistent and building up in the environment?
Patagonia’s latest innovation is to document the full environmental impact of five of its products. Part of the company’s website is devoted to analysing each stage in the production of these standard items. A polo shirt is tracked from the organic cotton farm in Turkey to the spinning factory in Thailand, eventually ending up in a warehouse in Nevada. From the cotton field to the warehouse is 14,000 miles. Patagonia says the CO2 produced is forty times the weight of the garment. The energy taken to make and transport the polo shirt could have been used to run a low-energy light bulb non-stop for 77 days. The waste involved in getting the product to the consumer is as great as the weight of the garment. If the polo shirt looks bad, the woollen sweater is even worse. The energy used to make this product would power the average US household for 20 hours.
The average UK shopper buys about 35kg of clothes a year, not very different from the US consumer. If Patagonia’s figures are correct, our clothes purchases account for at least a tonne of global warming gases a year, or not far off 10% of our total carbon footprint. For a clothing company to advertise openly the high environmental costs of its products is brave indeed.
Patagonia has also allowed its customers to comment on its manufacturing processes. Some of the comments are highly critical, but remain on the website for others to see. Customers complain about the chromium used to tan its shoes. Or question why Patagonia’s polyester products still contain antimony. Others attack the company’s motives, or criticise it for producing almost all its clothes in the Far East. The comments are patiently answered and the company’s flaws candidly acknowledged. The openness and apparently genuine transparency seem to stem from a view that Patagonia can admit to its mistakes and still have a far better environmental image than its competitors.
Anyone reading the Patagonia site must take away a message that clothing manufacture is far more environmentally damaging than its relatively benign image suggests. The true costs are hidden from view in a Chinese factory or Bangkok spinning mill. Patagonia acknowledges this, almost implying that we might choose to buy fewer items. Only a company with a deep self-confidence could possibly suggest that customers should defer buying its products.
Patagonia’s mission statement openly acknowledges that the world faces ‘an environmental crisis’. Unlike the many companies who have built a veneer of environmental respectability and then made exaggerated claims for their virtue, it simply says ‘as yet, there is no such thing as a sustainable business’.
As a privately held company, Patagonia can perhaps more easily afford to pursue a strategy of genuine environmental transparency. Its customers will almost always be loyal buyers who love wild open spaces, and who have noticed the creeping impact of climate change and environmental despoliation on the places they love. Nevertheless, it seems a risky business strategy to identify the severe impacts of your manufacturing processes and to be willing to engage openly with critical customers. But I was convinced. I know that next time I need to buy outdoor clothing I will be actively looking out for the Patagonia label. As ethical considerations become more important to the British consumer, UK companies should think about following Patagonia’s painfully honest lead.