In an industry where companies guard innovations more closely than the gold in Fort Knox, the idea of actually seeking out one's competitors to share information is nearly unheard of. But now there's a new life for environmental initiatives in the outdoor market, and it's being fueled by cooperation.
Prana, Patagonia, Timberland, Nike, Blue Canoe and other outdoor industry organic cotton users top the list of companies that share details about the organic cotton they buy, including latest technology, sourcing contacts, and how to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.
Beaver Theodosakis, Prana founder, recalls his company's recent entrance into organic, "Patagonia opened their books to us, told us where to buy organic, and provided us with training materials that helped us get our employees excited about organic clothing."
Patagonia, which committed to making all of its cotton products with organic cotton in the mid-90s, invited Prana to a meeting of the Organic Exchange, a non-profit that networks everyone along the organic cotton supply chain from farmers to spinners to mills to manufacturers.
"Thanks to Patagonia and the Organic Exchange, the pieces came together and we were able to introduce 19 styles using organic cotton last summer," Theodosakis said.
Jill Vlahos, Patagonia's environmental analysis director, told SNEWSÂ® that the idea of working together isn't really a new one.
"In 1994, Patagonia talked internally about working together with other companies, but there was concern about what would happen if something went wrong. But as we continued to have internal discussions about our mission statement, 'to use business to inspire and implement solutions to environmental crisis,' we realized that to fulfil our mission we needed to help grow the organic cotton market," Vlahos told us. "We acknowledged that to have far reaching impact and to truly walk our talk, we had to help others make the transition to organic too."
In the 1990s, Patagonia fielded calls from anyone interested in organic. Now, non-profits like the Organic Exchange and the Organic Trade Association's Fiber Council have taken on organic cotton information dissemination. That has allowed Patagonia and other organic apparel leaders to answer tricky technical questions from those who have already made the commitment to organic manufacturing.
"Now we give swatches and sources," said Lu Setnicka, Patagonia's public affairs director. "We help companies like Prana talk to their employees and we help companies like Timberland sort out their sourcing issues and production logistics."
Nike, one of the world's largest cotton consumers and another leader in organic cotton advocacy and cooperation, has made huge contributions not only to increasing the world supply of organic cotton through its vast buying power, but to moving the industry forward and bringing cotton-curious companies into the complex origami of organic fiber, mills, yarns and fabrics. Nike made an internal decision to use a minimum 3 percent blend of organic cotton in 1997. It's since changed that commitment to 5 percent organic cotton in every Nike cotton product produced globally by 2012.
Nike has also shared formerly proprietary materials and product tracking software with the Organic Exchange and its members. This software is the framework for a system that will allow manufacturers and eventually consumers to track organic material from the field to the factory, and from the retailer's rack back to the farmer, giving the organic cotton story a human face.
Nike is also taking the organic cotton message to consumers and letting them know they have choices that make good ecological sense. As a marketing machine with a worldwide infrastructure, Nike's information campaign will deliver an impact broader than the big swoosh.
With others in the outdoor industry taking note of how their traditional manufacturing processes contribute to environmental degradation, strategic commitments to run greener companies, including but in no way exclusive to using organic cotton, are becoming more common.
Where, though, does a company draw the line? Is all information an open book? Or, at some point, does a company send other companies home without the answers they seek? While companies involved try to be as open as possible, there are some secrets that simply don't get shared.
"We never talk about pricing, for example. And we expect other companies to respect our proprietary innovations as we do theirs," Setnicka said. "We'll tell people where to buy flannel, but not, for example, the secret recipe that makes our flannel special."
Cooperation in the apparel industry, at least in this instance, is not totally altruistic on the part of Patagonia, Nike or any of the other major players.
"The more business our suppliers have, the more willing they are to develop yarns, fabrics and organic cotton-specific technology. And the greater the economies of scale," Vlahos said.
The other issue is that of marketplace differentiation and consumer demand. The more the message gets out there about how toxic conventional cotton production is, and the more organic choices that are made available to consumers, the quicker consumers will understand how their buying decisions affect the environment, positively or negatively.