PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONAS JUNGBLUT ✷ STORY BY SANDRA S. SORIA
Originally published in Winter 2019 issue of Naturally, Danny Seo magazine
Here’s a fact that isn’t fun at all: Per the World Resources Institute, one garbage truck’s worth of clothing is burned or sent to landfills every single second—enough tossed out textiles to fill the Empire State Building every day.
Fed by an influencer-driven society with a gotta-keep-up message—and a “fast fashion” industry that for the most part is happy to feed that beast as well—the average consumer bought 60 percent more clothes in 2014 than they did in 2000, and kept the garments half as long. Even though textiles can be recycled, 85 percent of textiles generated each year are thrown into U.S. landfills or incinerated, according to the Council for Textile Recycling. Each one of us on average is responsible for about 75 pounds of that waste.
The stats are staggering. But take heart: There are companies dedicated to reversing these ugly fashion trends, while educating consumers about the beauty of doing so. There’s a slow fashion movement building that is, for one, offering consumers many ways to avoid making apparel purchases in the first place. Following leaders such as Rent the Runway at the high end, you can now opt into subscription clothing rental programs from outlets like Bloomingdale’s and Banana Republic.
And of course, donating clothing to charitable thrift organizations such as Goodwill or Salvation Army is an important, tried-and-true option—one in which you can be assured that a large percentage of items that aren’t sold go to specialty textile recyclers that turn them into everything from carpet padding to paper to insulation.
Or you can take a decidedly old-fashioned approach, one that your grandparents would approve of:
Buy less, buy better, repair if needed, wear it until it’s threadbare.
To be sure, in this equation Grandma also had a mending pile and a darning needle. Today, however, we have the environmental trailblazers at Patagonia. “Our goal has always been to make the most durable and dependable products,” says Alex Kremer, who oversees the company’s Corporate Development, Tin Shed Ventures, and Worn Wear programs. “But our ownership of those products doesn’t end when we sell it to you, the consumer. It really never ends. If we’ve taken the resources to make something, just because it’s in your hands doesn’t mean our responsibility is done. We want to keep it in use, whether that’s repairing an item, trading it in, or buying it back.”
Patagonia has long been in the clothing and gear repair business; their store personnel are trained to handle minor repairs. About five years ago, they also started dispatching repair techs to college campuses or other pockets where Patagonia buyers tend to be—even if those customers happen to be in Latin America or Europe or Japan. They dubbed their repair excursions the Worn Wear Tour, pulling the name from a popular 15-year-old blog that allows customers to share the stories they’ve made while sporting their favorite Patagonia pieces. As you can imagine, apparel designed for adventure has some stories to tell—and the company found a compelling reason to host the forum. “It was all in the spirit of the more connection you have to a garment, the less likely you are to throw it away,” Alex says.
The Naturally team recently dropped in for a visit to the mother of all mending piles—the Patagonia repair facility housed inside of their Reno distribution warehouse. There, a team of more than 100 trained repair techs will patch holes and fix zippers (the bulk of the fixes needed) or even put your waders through a high-tech process designed to detect and patch the tiniest of pinholes (no breech is an acceptable one where waders are concerned). The vast majority of these repairs come without any fees attached, other than the cost of shipping your item there.
The number of repaired items is significant; last year alone they estimate that the team repaired more than 50,000 items in the Reno facility and 50,000 more through the stores, the tour, and some 70 approved repair facilities. You’re also encouraged to do your own mending at home or on the fly using one of their online video tutorials.
Encouraged by the numbers—and always striving to keep more Patagonia goods in play—they decided to kick the Worn Wear program up a notch. “About two and a half years ago, we asked ourselves again, What’s the next thing we can do to make it really easy for our customers to keep their gear in use?” Alex says. “Our overall goal was to buy it back from them.”
Though a handful of other companies now buy back their clothing to divert it from a landfill (Eileen Fisher and The North Face to name two), Patagonia’s program is a generous one by comparison. You can pocket up to $100 for forking over a jacket in great condition, for instance. And they actually close the loop: They take in the cast-off (either in-person at stores or shipped to Reno), make sure its fully functional, clean it using a CO2 process that’s easier on the environment than traditional methods, and then put the worn clothing up for sale at a fraction of the cost of new. You can find the items on wornwear.patagonia.com or in person at a new Boulder location.
It’s a win-win—buying used pieces with plenty of life left in them lightens the impact on your pocketbook and our environment. “We make sure the item is functional and clean,” Alex says, “so it should be as good as a new garment. So, if you’re okay with that, you’re reducing a lot of the impact of creating a new product. There is a lot of carbon, water, and energy savings by buying used, and so we’re really, really trying to make sure people understand that.”
Even cooler still is a nascent offshoot of Worn Wear launched last November, a program called ReCrafted, where bits and pieces salvaged from truly worn out—or well-loved—items are sorted and salvaged in the Reno Repair Center and restyled into one-of-a-kind fashions dreamed up by Patagonia’s top designers. These handsewn pieces—really, they are upcycled works of apparel art, such as patchwork tees and pieced-together packs—are then sold online. “It’s all part of our desire to give an item its next use,” Alex says. “If you’re done with it, don’t let it sit in your closet and don’t let it end up in a landfill. Give it back to us in whatever state it’s in and we’ll find the next, best home for it.”
Organizations dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of the apparel industry are encouraged by efforts by companies like Patagonia. “I do see greater levels of awareness among consumers who are beginning to see and understand the impacts of the industry,” says Lewis Perkins, president of the Apparel Impact Institute. “The conversation around apparel and the lifecycle of a garment is increasing, which is a good thing. I’m hopeful that we will continue to see greater shifts around consumption in the future.”
“If you’re done with it, don’t let it sit in your closet and don’t let it end up in a landfill. Give it back to us in whatever state it’s in and we’ll find the next, best home for it.”
Alex Kremer, Patagonia
Lewis agrees that, although much of the responsibility for cleaning up fashion’s act falls squarely on the supply side, cleaning out our own closets is the first, simple step to real change. “Consumers can start by checking their closets and determining whether they have items that they never wear,” he says. “They can then pass those items into the shared economy through resale sites.”
And when you do feel the need to put something back into your wardrobe, consume wisely. “Brands are becoming more transparent about their efforts than they ever have,” Lewis says. “We can demonstrate our purchasing power by supporting brands that are putting more sustainable practices at their core.”