Previously, I shared the story of my first encounter with Jill Dumain of Patagonia. Meeting Jill and hearing her speak not only opened my eyes to the good work that company was going; it opened my eyes to what is possible. Years of conversation finally resulted in a collaboration between Alabama Chanin and Patagonia, as part of their Truth to Materials initiative. By repurposing garments that have reached the end of their lives into new products—Reclaimed Down Scarves—we create a new product, with a life cycle of its own. We recently had the chance to speak with Jill Dumain about this project and about Patagonia as a company, and she generously took the time to answer some questions.
AC: Your title at Patagonia is Director of Environmental Analysis. That sounds like a pretty expansive area of oversight. How would you describe your primary responsibilities? What issues that you address are nearest to your heart?
Jill Dumain: Yes, it is certainly an expansive area, and that can be a little daunting at times. I think what also makes it especially daunting is that people look to Patagonia to see what we’ll do next. It’s a challenge and an opportunity to meet that expectation. I, personally, look at what we do from a business standpoint and examine how we can be doing better from an environmental perspective. It runs the gamut from evaluating new carpet to bioswale installations to new products to communication on our website. But for me, it’s really about how I do my job and empower people at the same time. I look for the projects that “teach people to fish” versus just giving people fish. It’s thrilling when I’m able to encourage my colleagues and get them excited about bringing environmental work into their lives. It’s good for the company. It spreads knowledge throughout the ranks and gets the greater Patagonia family involved in the process, not just my team. And they’ve really become experts in their areas. We recently switched our catalogue to be printed on 100% recycled content, and that decision came from within our creative department. It’s a huge win to see it work that way!
AC: Patagonia’s commitment to environmental issues has been around since the company’s birth. How has your focus grown and changed from those early days?
JD: Since the beginning, Patagonia’s focus has been on building a very durable product and looking at that as an environmental ethos—if it lasts a long time, consumers won’t have to replace it. We also regularly gave to grassroots organizations through our 1% program. But in the ‘90s we began looking more deeply into our products and their environmental impact. We asked ourselves about what shifts we could make that would diminish that impact. That’s when we began using more organic products, recycled polyester, and hemp. So roughly the first half of our history was focused on support through grants to grassroots environmental groups, while in the second half the granting did not lessen, but we expanded our consideration to include more internal changes.
AC: Many times, I’ve heard company founder Yvon Chouinard talk about leading “an examined life.” How can smaller businesses translate this philosophy on a manageable (and affordable) scale?
JD: Part of leading the examined life is really questioning everything that you do—what is the bigger impact? I like to give companies—big or small—a few pieces of advice. First, know what your company values. And then, come up with some quick wins that folks can rally around. Start with something easy to get the momentum going and give your colleagues something that empowers them. Make sure to implement programs that you know have some legs to them and can be sustained. For example, if you choose to begin converting to organic cotton, make sure it’s at a rate you can sustain and so you don’t have to backtrack on your goals. This will keep employees excited about what is next.
AC: We have found that customers want more information than ever about where their products come from and who makes them. Patagonia was ahead of the game on this front with the Footprint Chronicles, which allows customers to track individual products from their sources. It also lists each item’s negative environmental impact. What do you gain from revealing Patagonia’s weaknesses in addition to your strengths?
JD: The first answer is trust. When we started to talk about what challenges us as a company, what our obstacles are, it was uncomfortable. It’s not easy to be transparent. But, being open with our customers has built trust with them like nothing else can; if you only see the good side of all the issues facing companies today you’re not seeing the whole picture.
The initial outside feedback to the site was one of amazement that we would publicly call out our own shortcomings and problems. But people liked when we told them about the “bad” because then they really trusted us when we talked about the “good” we do. They felt we had no reason to lie to them. And it’s allowed us to address our problems head-on. We actually got called out by an NGO when we documented our struggles with sourcing down with traceable supply chains in the Footprint Chronicles. They taught us about some issues in our supply chain and we realized that we needed to change our supply chain to use down from farms that don’t use force feeding or live plucking. Working hand-in-hand with these organizations, we’ve solved our problems. And I’m very excited to tell you that our new products for this 2014 season use 100% traceable down.
AC: Patagonia went organic long before many people even understood what that term meant. Did you initially try to educate your customers on what organic meant or why it was important? Did your use of organic cotton have an impact on sales in those early days?
JD: When we started using organic cotton, we certainly tried to educate our customers about what “organic” meant. And you’re right; when we began the transition to organic cotton in the early ‘90s the word “organic” didn’t have much equity. We had hours of internal conversations filled with questions about what to call it. Is “organic” the right word? What about “non-industrial”? Or “pesticide free”? It was very tricky. We started the conversation talking about what motivated us: minimizing the synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that you find in your clothes. But we found that we ended up bumming out our customers in telling them the truth about farming and manufacturing processes. So even though we were motivated to change because of the negative environmental impact we saw in the cotton fields, we learned we needed to equally talk about the benefits of organic farming.
It did have a slight impact on our sales in the early days. In the spring of ’96 we fully switched over to organic cotton and, due to our new sourcing practices, we dropped about one third of our cotton styles from production. As a result, our inventory contracted causing an immediate impact, only because we had fewer products to sell. But we were quickly able re-build up to where we were before and within 3 years we were making better products than we were before. We’ve developed stronger relationships deep in our supply chain and found we could impact product development in a whole new and exciting way.
AC: As part of our own plan for sustainability, we urge customers to buy fewer, higher quality goods. Patagonia has used a similar approach (see the “Don’t buy this jacket” advertisement). How do you balance your need for growth with the desire to consume less?
JD: That’s a tricky question—it’s straightforward question, but tricky to think about. There’s this internal tension between environmental and business pursuits. We need to have growth to sustain business; we need to expand our customer base because customers come and go; etc. But we also have a strong desire to stay true to our core environmental values. We’ve found that the push and pull of these two sides encourages careful thought on how to grow. It all goes back to leading an examined life. In my 25 years at Patagonia I feel like we’re constantly checking on how we grow and do things. It helps us to put growth on a more responsible path.
AC: Storytelling has always been important to our brand. People connect to products emotionally when personal experiences are shared. How important is it to Patagonia to create an emotional connection between consumer and goods? And what aspects of your “story” tend to resonate most with consumers?
JD: It’s incredibly important to have this emotional connection. And like Alabama Chanin, storytelling is integral to the Patagonia experience. We’ve always had a repair service offered to our customers and through that, we’ve noticed how attached people become to their Patagonia products. They have been through experiences together with their products and they become almost like a travel journal full of memories. We’ll often offer to replace items, but it’s a more common reaction for people to want to have items repaired. Through our Worn Wear initiative, we hear stories about kids’ clothes lasting through all the kids in family and are still in great condition to be passed to friends. We see this emphasis on quality over quantity as another similar connection to Alabama Chanin.
And as far as stories that resonate, our consumer base is really broad. I’m a good example. When I look at myself as a customer of Patagonia, I’m not a hardcore climber, I’m not out every weekend looking for new routes, but I still resonate with the company. When you look at what we do with environmental and social issues, it expands our base beyond more than just athletes who value our quality. We’re lucky to tell a lot of different stories and are held accountable in all these areas. We can’t let our guard down, in a positive way.
AC: Whenever possible, Alabama Chanin attempts to source and produce products and materials within the United States. As a smaller company, that is a difficult goal that we’ve (mostly) managed to maintain. How much of your production takes place in the US vs. abroad? What are the benefits of manufacturing in other countries? And how do you ensure ethical practices?
JD: The majority of our product is made abroad and not in the US. That partly stems from our early days when we were too small to do anything with US manufacturers. In the early ‘90s, we were trying to bring a woven cotton product back from Hong Kong, and I could barely get a domestic dye house to talk to me for a 100,000 yard order. There were a lot of doors closed in my face because we were so small. We needed to find more flexible manufacturing. We’ve always strived to find the best quality product for whatever we make and this act drives all our product choices. And unfortunately, NAFTA only made finding US manufacturing more challenging.
And, if we’re going to be transparent about things, it’s cheaper to get things manufactured abroad. But we believe we can have just as big an environmental influence in overseas factories—and a social one as well.
It takes a lot of work to ensure our ethical practices and standards are met. We conduct a lot of 3rd party audits and our team regularly visits the factories, but it needs to be stated that being in the US does not ensure ethical practices. We’ve exited relationships domestically that were with challenging partners with questionable ethics.
But there’s some renewed excitement in global manufacturing right now. There is this up-and-coming generation in textile and apparel business around the world. In the beginning, our worlds were so different, but now the owner’s children have been schooled in the global/collegiate society and are bringing this global approach back to the family businesses all over the world. They more closely mirror our own up-and-coming generations. And tack the Internet onto that, and the commonalities are stronger than ever before. We also see the factories starting to take more responsibility and putting in place their own environmental and social departments. We’re helping them understand how to do that. It’s really wonderful to see the ownership of this work starting to take place around the world.
AC: Your Common Threads initiative is ambitious. In addition to your pledge to make long-lasting products and encourage consumers to buy less, you also provide repair services for worn out goods, offer to re-home goods consumers no longer want or need, and recycle worn out Patagonia goods when they are returned to you. How often do customers take you up on these offers?
JD: Customers are taking us up on this at an increasing rate. And there are even more repair requests that come in as we continue to get the word out about the program. But I can’t say they’re necessarily buying less. We’ve been growing, so hopefully they’re buying more of us instead of from less responsible folks. When we get returns that are too worn out, we need to figure out what to do with them. That’s actually where these jackets came from for the Alabama Chanin project—otherwise, they would’ve been in a landfill.
AC: Alabama Chanin is honored to participate in a repurposing/recycling project with Patagonia. This partnership has been years in the making, and we are excited to see it come to fruition. We find it valuable to partner and collaborate with other like-minded companies and individuals. How often does Patagonia partner with other businesses?
JD: Not very often. Honestly, to put something with this level of co-branding in our catalogue, online, in retail outlets…this is the first time we’ve ever done it. We’ve embarked on other, smaller initiatives where we’ll give our old worn out products to another company, but we don’t go out and promote it and talk about it externally. We have worked with other companies to consult on performance-ware, but never in this co-development way. This is the first time we’ve done something like this in this arena.
And I’m very excited, actually, that our initial idea of quilts didn’t work. They would’ve been beautiful, but at a high price point. These scarves are relatively accessible for $99 and I’m so happy with where this project landed!
AC: We want to help other sustainable businesses grow—and continue to partner with other companies and individuals through Building 14, one member of our family of businesses. Do you lend your resources and knowledge to other companies seeking to produce sustainably? What role (if any) does Patagonia play in the future of responsible commerce?
JD: We try very hard to share our resources as much as we can. We try our very best, but are not an enormous company.
One thing we do try to do is put a lot on our website. It’s quite rich and deep in information and we’ve tried to put as much as possible out there to share our key learnings. It’s nearly impossible to take individual questions at the rate folks ask them.
Yvon Chouinard also penned two books, Let My People Go Surfing and a second one with Vincent Stanley called The Responsible Company, to share knowledge in a bigger way than we can do on an individual level.
I think we do play a role in the future of responsible commerce. As a private company, our shareholders are bold in their opinions and will put them out there. Being privately held also allows us to be bolder than most public companies can be. And I’ve seen over the years that we can be a catalyst for big ideas that seem crazy at first, but years later become the norm. Like with the organic cotton and our transparency with the Footprint Chronicles. The role of a catalyst for change is an important one for us.
AC: What is the best advice you can offer to consumers who want to shop responsibly?
JD: Buy less and buy better, for sure. Value your things and think about your stuff and what you have.
But the other piece is to challenge the companies you buy from. If you like a brand but don’t like what they’re doing, challenge them. Companies have a track record of listening to loyal customers.
And when you “need” something new, buy something “low on the food chain” (like a tee shirt instead of a raincoat). It’s not entirely unlike a Meatless Monday. We should think about these philosophies when we buy everything in life.
Photos of our Patagonia collaboration from Rinne Allen