Q&A: Patagonia's Jill Dumain on why brands should share environmental-friendly tech with rivals

The best formula for environmental-friendly practices and products is to make them profitable says Patagonia's director of environmental strategies.
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“Businesses have more buying power than individuals, even at small companies,” says Jill Dumain, director of environmental strategies for Patagonia.

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That’s why outdoor brands need to be on the leading front — and working together — for real change to happen.

Dumain, who helped lead the charge for organic cotton decades ago, argues that today’s environmental solutions should not only be profitable (to encourage their widespread adoption), but also shared across the industry to build momentum and support.

When it comes to sustainability, what power do businesses have that individuals simply don’t?
Voting with our purchases sends a powerful message to our supply chains and creates demand for alternative materials and processes. The power of businesses working together to support initiatives moves the meter much more than any one company or individual trying to do it on their own. The efforts the Outdoor Industry Association has made with the Sustainability Working Group are moving companies in the right direction.

You’ve said before: “If you’re not profitable, you’re not inspirational.” Can you elaborate on that sentiment a bit?
Working to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis is the final line of our mission statement at Patagonia. I have been working on projects that support this line for the majority of my 25 years at the company, and there aren’t very many environmental and social initiatives that begin from an economic goal. However, it is important to eventually have the environmental and social work be competitive in the marketplace if we have any hope of the majority of companies adopting these practices.

The company’s recent Truth to Materials capsule collection included recycled down, undyed cashmere and reused cutting room scraps. Was moving that project forward easier or harder than earlier initiatives, like the shift to organic cotton?
Compared to the shift to organic cotton, almost anything is easier! I remind people that the switch to organic cotton was done through faxes, telephone calls and visits — no email or internet. Truth to Materials was a capsule collection that was meant to experiment with some items that weren’t ready for a wholesale distribution. Compared to converting 100 percent of our cotton production, this was an easier initiative. Still, there were some real breakthroughs with this line. One of the best industrial scale examples is the recycled cotton from cutting room scraps. Scraps are a big problem in the apparel industry. If it was even possible to obtain a 90-percent yield of all the fabric purchased, you are still throwing away 10 percent of all your raw material. The TAL group is now able to take this scrap, blend it with new organic cotton for strength and spin a good yarn. This is a huge step in the right direction — now we just need other companies to support it.

When it comes to next steps, you’ve started talking about one-upping “sustainable,” and becoming regenerative. Where are some places where business leaders can start evaluating their processes to make a change in that direction?
I worked on a video about seven years ago and posed this question to many experts in the sustainability field and everyone had a hard time imagining what this would look like. But in industry terms, it goes beyond “leave no trace” — we can actually benefit an area by bringing business to it. Our merino wool project in Patagonia is a great example of this “regenerative” business practice. Business leaders can start to think about the places they are doing business and imagine if they were to live in the middle of the production location. We need to start thinking about our supply chain and business locations in the same way that we think about bettering our local communities.

Patagonia has been sharing some of its evolving production techniques with rivals. How do you decide to forgo a competitive advantage for the greater good?
We have a long history of sharing information with our competitors. It goes back to organic cotton in the 1990s. I can remember walking around the trade show asking for conversations at different booths to talk about the benefits of organic cotton and why they should adopt it. Now we are doing the same thing with Yulex, the plant derived wetsuit raw material, our Restorative Wool project in South America and our Traceable Down. We are willing to talk to anyone about these projects. It is for two reasons. First to meet the environmental, social and animal welfare goals, but we also know that these projects need to scale if they are going to be successful.

Patagonia has been working with ranchers in Argentina to trace wool in apparel from the source. You recently traveled to South America and gave some early samples of finished product to the farmers. What was that like?
With this wool project we are starting to see regeneration in the Patagonia grasslands. Farmers are changing their grazing practices and seeing real changes on their land. The biggest problem is desertification and trying to protect the thin topsoil from the winds. We started this project about four years ago with socks by Nester Hosiery. Soon after, we visited and I brought 150 pairs down to South America to give to everyone that had worked so hard to make it a reality. For many farmers, this was the first time they held a product from a global company that they knew used their wool. One farmer was so overcome, he started weeping and had to excuse himself for a moment. The humble socks held so much for him in thinking about all the work they do on the ground to make this project a reality.

--SNEWS Editors

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