Patagonia jacket

Did you know that Americans use 50 billion plastic water bottles each year, with a recycling rate of only 23 percent? From an environmental standpoint, it brings up numerous concerns. Kicking our bottled water habit can conserve resources, but what are we going to do with the billions of plastic bottles that are recycled? How do we boost stubbornly low plastic bottle recycling rates?

Recycling gets fashionable

Patagonia fabric samples
Patagonia’s product line has expanded from fleece jackets to include 82 products with recycled polyester, including insulated pants, down jackets, and beanies. Image Credit – Nicolás Boullosa (Flickr)

Luckily Patagonia has been looking at this issue for decades and has made considerable progress in turning plastic trash into polyester fabric for apparel. The company has found a way to actually upcycle plastic bottles, finding a good use for this waste stream by turning it into a higher-value good.

In 1993, Patagonia produced the first polyester fleece jacket from recycled bottles. It had a green tint, from green soda bottles. Now, manufacturing waste, plastic bottles and worn-out clothing is recycled into new apparel, literally closing the recycling loop. Patagonia’s product line has expanded from fleece jackets to include 82 products with recycled polyester, including insulated pants, down jackets and beanies.

This creates a great opportunity for the Patagonia brand to be known for green innovation. Many customers share a love for the outdoors, which often comes with increased environmental concern. The company has a very loyal customer following, I’m guessing in part because of the environmental stewardship values that it demonstrates and has incorporated throughout the company.

For more on Patagonia’s sustainability efforts, check out 10 Companies That Shun Waste Well.

Reducing our dependence on petroleum extraction

It is always a bit counterintuitive to me that petroleum is used to make plastics, including many types of synthetic fabrics. Since 1993, Patagonia’s recycling efforts have eliminated the need for over 20,000 barrels of oil as a raw material, while recycling millions of plastic bottles. This eliminates harmful incinerator emissions, saves space in landfills and reduces the use of new non-renewable materials.

Nylon recycling

Although recycled polyester has been around for decades, recycled nylon has been a more difficult undertaking for Patagonia. Years of research has finally yielded some results and the company is now swapping out virgin nylon for its recycled counterpart in some of its products.

This is good news as recycled nylon consumes fewer resources and opens up new possibilities for recycling worn-out nylon garments throughout the industry. New nylon garments can now be created with greater end of life possibilities.

Sustainable clothing

Patagonia work space
Years of research has finally yielded some results and the company is now swapping out virgin nylon for its recycled counterpart in some of its products. Image Credit – Nicolás Boullosa (Flickr)

Unfortunately, most clothing is not very sustainable and is plagued by environmental issues. In the U.S., it is common for people to wear a garment just a few times and then dispose of it, without donating or recycling it.

Synthetic fibers are not typically biodegradable, and have low recycling rates. They are also made from petrochemicals, which has quite a few sustainability issues associated with it.

  • Manufacturing nylon and polyester are energy-intensive processes and nylon manufacturing produces nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Making polyester on the other hand requires large amounts of water.
  • Natural fibers have their issues too. Leather has polluting tanning and dyeing processes and farming impacts, while wool is under growing concern due to sheep “dip,” a toxic chemical used to rid sheep of parasites and its associated disposal and environmental problems.
  • Cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop, unfortunately and has a huge water footprint, although there has been some progress in this arena by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a nonprofit organization that brings a variety of stakeholders together in the cotton supply chain to encourage sustainable cotton production.

What is inspiring about this organization is that it brings together organizations that might otherwise see each other as competition to collaborate and seek solutions. Sharing ideas and best practices to increase the sustainability of the garment industry is essential for more rapid development of more sustainable practices.

Clothing repair and recycling

Through its Common Threads Partnership, Patagonia aims to reduce, repair, reuse and finally recycle. If you have Patogonia clothes that are at the end of their useful life, bring them to a store or mail them in to be recycled. Patagonia has recycled over 82 tons of clothing since 2005, sometimes incorporating them into their own new clothes. The company even sells secondhand Patagonia clothing at its Portland, Oregon, store through a trade-in program.

Levi Strauss has also taken a similar approach with eco-labels in jeans and other garments. They are asking people to wash jeans in cold water, line dry and donate when no longer wanted. These practices all extend the useful life of the jeans, contributing to a slow-fashion movement. For more on Levi’s efforts, check out How Levi Strauss & Co. Is Embracing Slow Fashion & Sustainability.

A cultural shift in the fashion industry

Although these initiatives may not seem all that groundbreaking, it is a departure from “business as usual.” Most companies don’t encourage customers to use their products until the end of their useful life, repair them, or donate them. This is in fact the opposite of a mindless consumerism, the mentality that is particularly prevalent in the apparel industry (as fashion trends come and go). Collaboration between competing companies around sustainability improvements is relatively rare, but urgently needed to address the global environmental issues we face.

Sustainable apparel and waste reduction

Patagonia work space
Patagonia is just one company making headway in closing the recycling loop. Image Credit – Nicolás Boullosa (Flickr)

With a growing global population, addressing both waste reduction and sustainable fashion is crucial. Finding ways to successfully manufacture clothing from recycled materials and recycle synthetic clothing at the end of life are innovative ways to address two important and urgent global issues.

Although Patagonia is just one company making headway in closing the loop, they are developing processes that can be copied, especially if they collaborate with other companies to boost the impact.

Raising awareness about the value of plastics recycling through high-quality goods made from post-consumer recycled materials could also help boost stubborn U.S. plastic recycling practices. U.S. recycling rates have hovered just below 35 percent for the past 10 years, demonstrating that recycling progress has become stagnant.

The rates are much higher in the 11 states with bottle deposits, where the soda bottle recycling rate is at 75 percent. Sweden has achieved a recycling rate of 80 percent with a national deposit.

Raising awareness of the value of plastics recycling by demonstrating useful products is another tangible way to shift behaviors and encourage more sustainable practices. It’s inspiring to realize that a jacket is made from worn-out garments and plastic bottles, closing the loop between what we no longer need and what is highly valued.

Feature image courtesy of c pond (Flickr

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.