If you have an old Patagonia jacket or sweater in your closet that you no longer wear, Patagonia now wants it back.
In a new take-back program that will launch in April, the company will begin offering store credit for used (but still usable) clothing. At its repair facility in Reno, Nevada–the largest garment repair center in North America–it will wash used clothes with a new waterless technology that helps restore the fabric, and then make any needed repairs. The refurbished garment will be sold on Patagonia’s website.
Patagonia has long offered repairs–if a shirt you bought in 1983 tears in 2017, they’ll fix it (for a small fee). Promoting reuse between customers was a logical next step, in line with the company’s aim to limit environmental harm.
“If we can make really durable products, and we can work with our customers to keep them in service and in good repair, then we’re providing a solution to the environmental crisis,” says Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s vice president of environmental affairs. “Because then the overall footprint of the products that we make, and our customers buy from us, is as low as we can possibly make it. That really is intrinsic to our motivation for doing this.”
It’s possible that the company might sell fewer new clothes if refurbished versions are available a click away. But Patagonia isn’t concerned about losing profit. In 2011, when it famously ran a Black Friday ad that said “Don’t Buy This Jacket”–along with details about the environmental impact of a particular jacket, and an essay about the challenges of consumption–it didn’t hurt sales.
“We have a model that is attracting enough people, an increasing amount of people, that want to align with our value proposition,” says Ridgeway. “That is a business for us. It really works well.”
When the company initially asked customers to buy less in 2011, it experimented with various programs, including a partnership to help people resell old Patagonia clothing on eBay. At the time, the company launched a new program called Common Threads, which promoted four “Rs”–recycling, reusing, repairing, and reducing consumption.
In 2013, the program was rebranded as Worn Wear, and the company decided to focus on one “R” at a time, beginning with repair. The repair facility in Reno hired more staff, retail stores opened simple repair centers on site, and the Patagonia website added 45 videos teaching consumers how to fix zippers, sew buttons, and make other DIY repairs. In 2015, the company started sending a converted diesel truck around the country on a mobile repair tour. With the new take-back model, Patagonia will move into a phase of focusing on reuse as well.
The repair and refurbish model would be unlikely to work, Ridgeway says, if Patagonia didn’t also design clothing to last. “You couldn’t have a program like Worn Wear without products that are really durable,” he says. “It just wouldn’t work. This isn’t something that some fast-fashion company could probably embrace very effectively.”
H&M, notably, also collects old clothing from customers, and though some of it is resold in the secondhand market, H&M is particularly interested in recycling. While recycled fibers are now typically used for lower-grade products such as insulation, H&M is supporting the development of more advanced recycling techniques that can reuse fibers in new clothes.
But keeping clothing in use longer has a bigger benefit for the environment, and amplifies sustainability decisions in manufacturing. Every piece of clothing Patagonia makes is designed to minimize environmental impact when it’s made. It was the first outdoor retailer to turn recycled plastic bottles into fleece (in 1993); it also uses recycled nylon and wool and plant-based polymer in its wetsuits instead of neoprene. Extending the use of those clothes makes the overall footprint even lower.
The company calculates that if clothing stays in use for nine extra months, it can reduce the carbon, water, and waste footprint by 20% to 30%.
“You can graph that out, and when it goes from 10 to 15 years of use in service then its footprint over its lifetime logarithmically goes down,” says Ridgeway.
[Photos: via Patagonia]
Correction: Due to an editing error, this article used to state that Reno is in California, but it is actually, of course, in Nevada.