A mountain climber who stumbled into business, and a kid who grew up near Philly and geeked out on materials science. While seemingly from different worlds, these two men now work out of the same building: the Ventura, Calif., headquarters of Patagonia.
Yvon Chouinard didn’t intentionally set out to build a business that’s become a marvel within the industry for its ability to have navigated scale while also trumpeting the environment. However, that’s what happened. And that’s how director of materials innovation Matt Dwyer came to find himself at the outdoor firm about five years ago, now heading up the roughly 30-person team that focuses on everything from materials development and long-term innovation strategies to consulting for Patagonia’s corporate venture capital fund Tin Shed Ventures.
The materials director went to Lehigh University for materials science and engineering, driven by an interest in understanding how things are made and what he said is “solving tricky problems using materials.”
Dwyer comes from a family of mostly paramedics, but chose a different path.
“I’ll credit my ADD for wanting to keep me in something that was very dynamic, always changing and intellectually stimulating,” he said.
It’s a big role overseeing a division of the company that plays a significant role in Patagonia’s environmental footprint, yielding products that back up its broader mission around advocating for the planet. By fall 2019, nearly 80 percent of the company’s synthetic materials will be made with 100 percent recycled material.
Dwyer chatted with WWD about the challenges and opportunities facing the apparel industry when it comes to getting above board on the environment. What follows is a set of key strategies for how businesses can approach the subject of green and if there’s one takeaway from Dwyer’s perspective, it’s on the subject of plastic.
“I’ve been telling anyone with ears lately that plastic is the problem,” he said.
Shift your values
Being environmentally minded versus paying lip service to the concept requires a change in what many companies value, Dwyer said.
“I think the fundamental issue is that the environmental impact and the solutions that you need to reduce that impact are not valued by those folks out there,” he said. “We put the carbon emissions or water savings of fabric content at the same level as margin or net income that we’re going to generate because we value it. We’ll sit there with our board of directors and they’ll say that that is more important right now than making another dime in net income.”
A people solution
The onus isn’t just on boards and those in the C-suite to bring the change within an organization. It’s far more holistic and sits within every single person. Certainly it’s critical, Dwyer said, that Patagonia ceo Rose Marcario and founder Chouinard are telling everyone internally and externally what needs to get done but, “It has to be at every level in the company.”
Going green and scaling a business are not mutually exclusive.
“I’d encourage any of those folks who think that because they have to report to external shareholders…to come talk to us and see how we do it. Our financial statement is as good as anybody’s out there.”
“We get this question all the time, which is great because people need to be thinking about it more,” Dwyer said of the opportunities the industry has in utilizing recycled plastic.
“We’ve, over the past five years, significantly increased our uses of recycled materials and there’s also this paradigm out there that you can’t have one without sacrificing something else.”
Dwyer pointed out some of Patagonia’s most technical product is comprised of 100 percent or nearly 100 percent recycled plastic, so the idea that garments made from recycled water bottles sacrifices quality is an old-school mentality, the Patagonia materials team would tell you.
“At this point, I think technology’s really caught up with the needs of high-performance, quality apparel,” Dwyer said.
“It takes the ability and fortitude to ask more questions about it,” Dwyer said, more specifically on the subject of plastics. “Where did it come from? How do I know it’s from a clean recycling stream or a bottle?”
Questioning everything is how the industry reaches new solutions, the executive pointed out, and that goes beyond asking what to do with excess plastic.
“I think that that’s where a lot of folks, because they don’t know what questions to ask, it becomes a hurdle,” Dwyer said. “We even find sometimes we’re the only ones asking for these things.”
No one has a tool that makes precise calculations on how much product to make each season. There’s always a level of guesswork on inventory, whether it’s a fast-fashion business or a more traditional model. Neither approach is a free pass not to be more conservative in how much to produce.
“For us, in the Nineties we got into a pretty bad state because we had over-purchased inventory,” Dwyer said of the company’s business model at the time that ultimately forced a round of layoffs.
“For us, we take a really conservative approach to growth,” he said. “We could have hit $1 billion or $2 billion by now, if we just made more stuff and sold it in more places,” Dwyer said.
The company’s mindful of how many new doors it wants to get into and how much product is in there. It also comes down to creating product that’s coveted and something a consumer wants to wear for more than a few months.
Instead of producing a T-shirt that’s going to fall apart in a few washes, providing a consumer with durable goods where “you’re going to have that attachment to that rain jacket that you got stuck on Denali soaked to the bone,” Dwyer said. “It’s more than just that thing hanging in your closet.”
Know your supply chain partners
Get to know who you’re working with. For as much as companies want to explore dye processes using less water, the starting point should be around supply chain partners.
“There’s always flash and glitter around water-free technologies and how do I dye with less water but, really, it starts with good chemicals management and supply chains,” Dwyer said.
Closing the loop
Even a neophyte on the subject of greener garments can get behind the idea utilizing more recycled materials is good practice. Productive conversation should be around the aim of producing carbon-negative garments and not just a focus on steps at the beginning stages of a product’s life cycle.
“Part of that is investing in materials science and technology,” Dwyer said. “Part of it is making sure it has somewhere to go.”
Not only is there research and technology applied into creating fibers and materials from recycled materials at the beginning of the process, but also the end-of-life stage. That is, where does a garment go when its user is done with it?
Patagonia this year has been working on Regenerative Organic Certification from the Regenerative Organic Alliance and moving away from a focus on organic cotton to looking more carefully at farming practices and building up carbon in the soil. This is important because plants use carbon dioxide to grow and plants are, in turn, used to produce organic materials.
“Those are the things you can do now to end up with a material that doesn’t just consume resources,” Dwyer said, “but actually contributes resources to the planet.”