It's Not Easy Being Green

Are environmentally committed companies hitting the wall?

Outdoor clothing company Patagonia Inc. has worked hard to be one of the greenest businesses around. It was the first apparel maker to sell synthetic fleece sweaters and warm-up pants made from recycled soda bottles. Last year, it switched to organic cotton for shirts and trousers--and ate half of the 20% markup that organic production added to the garments' cost. Its glossy catalog, printed on recycled paper that is 50% chlorine-free, uses pictures of adventurers in wild places to promote environmental causes.

But Patagonia still has a troubled conscience. In a surprisingly public mea culpa, the company's fall catalog opens with a letter to customers that is a stark critique of Pata-gonia's reliance on waterproof coatings such as Gore-Tex, which contains chemical toxins, and bright dyes based on strip-mined metals. It is only by using such "dirty" manufacturing processes, the company confesses, that it can offer the "bombproof" outdoor gear and striking colors that customers love. As the letter laments: "The production of our clothing takes a significant toll on the earth."

Turns out it's not easy being green. Patagonia and a handful of other companies that have made protection of the environment a central tenet of their businesses are running into a new wave of polluting problems that require tougher trade-offs than those of the past. Whether it's Ben & Jerry's Homemade coping with massive amounts of high-fat dairy waste, Stonyfield Farm searching for an affordable way to convert to organic fruit for its yogurt, or Orvis, the fishing-gear maker, trying to build a new headquarters that won't threaten bear habitats, green pioneers are struggling for ways to balance environmental principles with profit goals.

None are backing off their commitment to the environment. Instead, the greenest companies are testing the limits of what can be done cleanly. "We want it all," Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia's president, told a meeting of the company's suppliers last year. "The best quality and the lowest environmental impact." But it's getting tougher to push the green envelope without compromising business goals. "Our whole system of commerce is not designed to be ecologically sustainable," says Matthew Arnold, director of Washington-based Management Institute for Environment & Business. "These guys are showing the limits of the system to respond."

fewer options. Patagonia has worked the system well so far. When the company decided in 1994 to switch to organic cotton, it bypassed conventional growers that use fertilizers, pesticides, and heavy watering, and ordered cotton grown organically in California, Texas, Arizona, and Turkey. Patagonia has pressed Nike and Levi Strauss to purchase organic cotton as well--crucial support for a fledgling industry.

But Chief Executive Officer Dave Olsen says the options are fewer when it comes to solvent-based coatings for clothing meant to fend off harsh weather. Patagonia wants to use water-based coatings, which release fewer volatile compounds in the manufacturing process, but they aren't durable enough to stay waterproof. "For now, the market's owned by Gore-Tex," Olsen says. And customers have made it clear that quality comes first, even if it means passing up the chance to have less impact on the environment. Patagonia surveys show that just 20% of its customers buy from the company because they believe in its environmental mission.

ENDLESS GLOP. Like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry's has also made much of its environmental do-goodism. Still, it hasn't been able to come up with a satisfactory solution to the high-fat dairy waste that is a byproduct of making ice cream. The company's oldest plant, in Waterbury, Vt., relies on a series of lagoons where microorganisms break down milk solids before they enter the local wastewater-treatment plant. But the remaining fat can still overwhelm the sewage system, so the company uses giant paddle wheels to scoop out 60% of the waste. Every other day, the glop fills a 3,500-gallon tanker truck, which hauls it off to compost pits.

In 1995, Ben & Jerry's built a new ice-cream manufacturing plant in St. Albans, in northern Vermont, in part because it was one of only two communities in the state that could handle untreated dairy waste. Ben & Jerry's managed to reduce the amount of dairy waste at the St. Albans plant by 53% in 1996 and an additional 35% so far this year, but it's still not satisfied. "It remains a perennial top item on our agenda, along with reducing solid waste," says Andrea Ashe, natural resources manager for Ben & Jerry's. An overhaul of the Waterbury plant this winter will include a new pipe-cleaning system that should help cut waste even further, Ashe says, but the company has yet to come up with a waste-free way to make ice cream.

One reason Patagonia and Ben & Jerry's agonize publicly about their shortcomings is that their environmental commitment is equally public. After all, though both Nike and Levi Strauss are using organic cotton, it amounts to less than 3% of their cotton total--with no public hand-wringing. Still, continued efforts by green pioneers set the standards for others to follow. "Unless these companies are the vanguard, we're going nowhere," says think-tank director Arnold. Good thing they remain true believers.

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