Helena Barbour of Patagonia

There is no shortage of challenges facing fashion business, but approaching sustainability realistically can contribute to progress.

That’s what Patagonia vice president of global sportswear Helena Barbour is doing. Not expecting manufacturing and purchasing decisions to change on a dime, Barbour mapped out initiatives that are making a difference. From minimal tillage to ramped-up circularity, she detailed what needs to be done on greater scales.

“We live in a world with so many serious problems, from climate change to social justice,” Barbour said in her “Taking Action, Driving Change” talk at WWD’s recent Culture Conference: Sustainability and the Human Element. “It’s really up to each of us to try to make a difference individually, in communities and in business.“

Highlighting Patagonia’s mission statement she said, “‘We’re in business to save our home planet.’ This sounds utopian and idealistic, and it is. But the bottom line is that making clothes has so many negative impacts from the extraction of fossil fuel to create polyester and nylon, to sometimes the exploitation of people in our supply chains. We really need to use business as a tool to tackle some of these problems. However, daunting and overwhelming it seems. We need to draw down carbon. We need to reduce waste. We need to tackle the problem of microfiber pollution.”

First, though, it’s about addressing fashion’s ultimate problem: consumption.

Neither perfect nor problem-free, regenerative organic agriculture is one of the projects that is making Barbour hopeful during the pandemic. Making the point that cotton denim and T-shirts require farmed cotton, Barbour said conventional agriculture “with its reliance on scale and chemistries is one of the greatest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions.“

Patagonia first shifted to an organic cotton supply chain. Showing a slide of Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark, Calif., which was featured in the documentary “The Biggest Little Farm,” Barbour said Patagonia brought a few of its key cotton suppliers there a few years ago. Having visited some of the suppliers’ farms, Barbour enthused about some of their practices, like low tillage, sowing inter crops and multicrops and using beneficial alternatives instead of pesticides and herbicides, all of which enhance biodiversity and improve soil health.

On another front, there is an increasing need to use waste streams to create durable, lasting products such as by repurposing plastic bottles for polyester, Barbour said. Patagonia’s partnership with Bureo in South America involves gathering damaged fishing nets and upcycling them for Bureo skateboard decks and Patagonia hat brims. The aim is to introduce the concept into Patagonia’s largest nylon program next year. “It really is imperative that we look beyond extraction and growing new things” in favor of innovative ways of using waste streams, Barbour said.

In light of the abundance of cotton, cashmere and wool garments that are discarded annually around the world, Patagonia works with some far-sighted companies turning some of that into scraps, repurposing them into new yarns, spinning and knitting them so they can be used by the brand for new T-shirts, sweaters and fleeces. “It really is an exciting space as we think of circularity and how we can use increasing waste streams as inputs for garments,” she said.

Well aware that most consumers purchase items based on the fit, fabric and color, Barbour said there is so much that can be done to inform them of the many hands needed to make a garment. Partnering with Fair Trade USA, Patagonia set up a program where additional premiums are sent directly to workers, not through factory management. The workers organize committees and decide how to use the funds for health, appliances, scholarships for their children and cash payouts, among other things.

In an effort to offset overconsumption, Patagonia’s focus is on driving home the point that long-lasting, high-quality garments can have multiple lives. Patagonia’s Worn Wear, for example, is a platform that sells used Patagonia items, and, according to Barbour, “we need to do more” especially for garments that are only worn seasonally or for a short term. Along with buying used clothes and the rental model, Barbour said “we need to recycle and build a really robust circular model.”

“We’re in it for the long term,” Barbour said of Patagonia. “These problems took decades to be created and they’re going to take a long time for us to move beyond. We need to persevere. It is long-term commitment. There are no easy road maps. We need to take risks — some things fail. I’ve been associated with many projects that go nowhere. But we need to learn those lessons and move on to the next ones.”

Adding to that, she said, “We need to recognize that we are living in this space of tensions — the ultimate one being we’re trying to use business to tackle issues that in many cases have been created by business. There are no silver bullets to solve these issues. We need to take many small steps in order to keep going forward.”

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