The idea seems so simple. Why can't apparel be as recyclable as, say, plastic bottles or newspapers? After all, many garments hang around in closets long past the point when anyone wants to wear them, only to wind up in landfills.
Patagonia has spent years tackling this problem—and is making progress. As of this fall, the outdoor clothing company has taken back 12,000 kilograms of clothing to be recycled. Some 47% of Patagonia's products are recyclable today. And the goal is to boost that to 100% by 2010, meaning everything from luggage to ski parkas will be both recyclable and made from recycled materials. But experts inside and outside the company say that to hit the new target, Patagonia has to overcome daunting technical challenges.
Patagonia's efforts date back to 2005, when it launched Common Threads, the first global recycling program for apparel. The company began with modest goals. It asked people to mail in or drop off at stores used Capilene brand underwear made from polyester. Patagonia was able to recycle these goods into new "base layer" shirts and pullovers. Encouraged by customer feedback and partnerships with clothing recyclers, it expanded the program to include organic cottons and fleece polyester products.
It's true that recycling cottons and polyesters adds to costs. But Patagonia executives say prosperity shouldn't come at the expense of the environment. And besides, they say, there is an economic payoff in the end: Using recycled polyester to produce goods that are recyclable reduces waste and leads to a 76% reduction in energy use, compared to identical processes that rely on new polyester. "The idea is to take responsibility for our products at the end of their lives," says Jill Dumain, director for environmental analysis at Patagonia.
Closed Loop Systems
And yet, as the retailer grows more ambitious in recycling, the hurdles get higher. The buzzwords in this area are "closed loop systems" and "cradle-to-cradle" design. Popularized by environmental architect and design guru William McDonough, these terms express the goal of turning castoff goods and industrial waste into new products that are just as desirable as the original goods. For example, rather than fuse plastic bottles into building materials that will wind up in landfills, the producer might turn old plastic bottles into material for new plastic bottles. That way, raw resources aren't needed to produce the same amount of goods. Environmentalists find this idea inspiring. But pioneers in the green business sector say closed loop systems are very much works in progress.
Patagonia realized that, in order to increase the supply of recycled materials for its own products, it needed to get other big apparel companies onto the same page. About two years ago, it teamed up with two of its biggest competitors, REI and Timberland (TBL), to discuss reducing all the companies' environmental "footprints" through recycling and other methods. "We view this as a collective challenge," says Kevin Myette, director of product integrity at REI. "Patagonia gets a lot of credit, but for this to move ahead it has to be a group effort."
Nothing highlights the challenges better than Patagonia's struggles with nylon, the fabric used in 15% to 20% of Patagonia's goods, from yoga gear to ski pants. Nylon turns out to be a real stumper. When Patagonia began looking at recyclable and recycled nylon, the one producer that could meet its requirements was Toray, a Japanese textile maker. But having just one supplier proved problematic.
Toray could only provide spun yarn, made from short pieces of fiber, rather than filament, which is made from longer strands. Spun yarn tends to pill, or bunch up into little balls, which led to unsatisfactory results when Patagonia tried to use it in certain knits and woven outerwear shells. Indeed, so far it has been usable only in two lines of pants, one line of shorts, and a limited-edition bag.
Toray's recycling process also can't make use of any of the old nylon garments Patagonia has sold over the past 30 years. It can only work with color dyes and finishing chemicals specially formulated for the process—ruling out Patagonia's old nylon products and forcing the U.S. company to rethink the dyes and coatings it employs.
Stuck, Patagonia tried another tack. Instead of nylon, why not make more garments out of polyester? For this, the company turned to another Japanese producer, Teijin, which creates polyester yarn out of old factory uniforms, industrial waste, and pop bottles. Teijin produces filament yarn that's suitable to a broader range of fabrics. But because polyester has properties such as being not as abrasion-resistant as nylon, Patagonia has only been able to convert some nylon products, like alpine shell jackets, to polyester.
Promising Fabric Prospects
By collaborating with a new group of partners, some of these obstacles might be overcome. In August, Greensboro (N.C)-based Unifi (UFI) introduced a high-quality, recycled nylon filament yarn. Patagonia is now working with knitters to produce fabric to see how supple and how dyeable it is. Another promising prospect is Chain Yarn, a Taiwanese yarn vendor that takes back the waste from weavers who use its yarn to make fabrics. It then turns the waste into new yarn.
But as much as Unifi and Chain Yarn solve one part of the problem—providing recycled yarn—they don't take back used garments. Instead they recycle the waste that comes directly from their machines or weavers. So for now, Patagonia's goal of a closed-loop system for nylon remains elusive.
There's a risk such stumbling blocks will prove discouraging to Patagonia's partners, such as REI and Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC). MEC launched a clothing take-back program a year and a half ago. But the Canadian company is having a hard time setting up an efficient system for sorting through clothing to send back to recycling partners. "Patagonia has raised the bar with their Common Threads program and made recycling a viable conversation," says REI's Myette. "It's not a viable business model."
REI and MEC aren't giving up on the closed loop idea. But they're focusing more on the production part of the equation. About 20% of the fabric used to make a shirt or a skirt is wasted, because once patterns are cut, it's hard to use that cut fabric. By working with fabric makers to recycle the waste they produce, REI and MEC hope that the industry will be able to increase the amount of fabric that's recycled and recyclable.
Patagonia remains committed to its Common Threads program. And it still aims to make 100% of its apparel line recyclable. But the company also recognizes that goods such as luggage, backpacks, wet suits, and shoes present challenges and will take more time. "We need to be aware of what we are making and what is done with it," says Patagonia's Dumain.