It seems like a typical Southern California scene: On a sunny afternoon, a camera-toting woman has tracked her subjects to an obscure corner of South Los Angeles, and she's snapping photos like a paparazzo. But she's no celeb stalker — her subjects are towers of Turkish cotton and pallets of organic yarn. Jill Dumain, director of environmental analysis for the apparel company Patagonia, is investigating one of its T-shirt suppliers, Nature USA, for an initiative called the Footprint Chronicles, an effort to document and share with customers information about the environmental effects of every link in the supply chain.
Going green is an increasingly big part of business these days, but you wouldn't expect Patagonia to have to worry much. It's a longtime leader in sustainable manufacturing, founded by environmentalist Yvon Chouinard in 1973. Yet in this new age of consumer awareness, as customers have become eco-savvier, Patagonia has gotten more and more questions about its products' provenance that it can't answer. "The green marketplace has become crowded," says Dumain. "We've had to learn to communicate in circles that are very different than they were 10 to 15 years ago, which is good." In more ways than one: The footprint project, intended as a consumer-education experiment, has put the company's design and manufacturing process under the microscope. Patagonia has been forced to examine how green it actually is — and where it can improve.
In May 2007, Chouinard challenged a group of 10 employees to track five products from the design studio to the raw-materials stage to Patagonia's Nevada distribution center. His gumshoes canvassed the globe, observing yarn spinners in Thailand, visiting a 50,000-employee footwear factory in China, touring a fiber-manufacturing facility in North Carolina. A microsite at patagonia.com, featuring short videos (also available on YouTube) and detailed information, quietly went live last fall. The paths of 10 more products, including the Nature USA organic-cotton T-shirt, will go up this year.
Patagonia vowed to share whatever it found, good and bad. One positive surprise was the low energy expenditure of transporting its products, usually thought to be a dirty part of the process. Patagonia discovered that shipping by sea represented less than 1% of the total energy use in its supply chain. "If we had followed environmental chatter and spent all that time shortening our supply chains, it would have had a huge impact on our product quality," Dumain says. "To realize that our conservation efforts needed to be focused elsewhere was really freeing."
The actual manufacturing, though, devoured more energy than expected — and sometimes created eco-unfriendly by-products. For instance, as the team tracked the production of the Eco Rain Shell jacket, they focused on perfluoro-octanoic acid (PFOA) — a chemical that accumulates in the bloodstream and may be toxic — which is found in water-repellent membranes and coatings used in Patagonia parkas. The company believed that PFOA-free materials would sacrifice performance. But that was little comfort to consumers who learned about PFOA through the Web site — one wrote an email demanding that "Eco" be dropped from the product's name.
The footprint-chronicling process highlighted the complexity of modern technology. Patagonia is trying to remove PFOA from its lines — by fall, the PFOA-containing membranes will be replaced by polyester and polyurethane, with no performance lost, it says — but it has not found a viable alternative to the existing coatings. "We don't want to sacrifice quality for environmental reasons," Dumain says. "If a garment is thrown away sooner due to a lack of durability, we haven't solved any environmental problem." Patagonia's efforts reflect a more nuanced understanding of corporate social responsibility, according to Joel Makower, executive editor of the blog Greenbiz.com. "You're now responsible for the impacts of your suppliers," he says, "and sometimes your suppliers' suppliers, your customers, and their customers."
Patagonia admits that its findings are limited; only the primary materials are traced, and no packaging is evaluated. It also allows that by putting production information in the public domain, it gives its competitors access too. Dumain concludes that the benefits of openness outweigh the costs, because the company wants to spur others to action: "Our influence is larger than our impact. If we're willing to share that information, it becomes exponential."
Dumain notes that a group of firms with progressive sustainability agendas — Stonyfield Farm, Aveda, Ben & Jerry's, Seventh Generation — have long informally shared best practices. "These companies have been working together for years to raise the bar," says Andrea Asch, manager of natural-resources use at Ben & Jerry's. "That's where Patagonia is with these Footprint Chronicles — that's the new bar."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.