Don’t buy this sweater

It’s a truthful generalization to posit that most of us have no problem recalling how much we have paid for our possessions. We have no problem recalling what we have purchased versus what we put on our ‘wish lists’ and receive as gifts. We have no problem identifying a product’s brand or how beautiful an item is perceived.  What perhaps we find difficult to name: an item’s life expectancy. The truth is, I can really only approximate because more often than not, an item leaves my ownership before the end of its lifetime or is long forgotten after it has been replaced. What drives us to rid ourselves of these items—minor wear and tear, changing trends, better technology, or simply wanting something new? I kept finding example after example of more quality products remaining longer in my possession regardless of cost (though it tended toward more expensive). Of my possessions, I found cheap products, poorly made products, items bought on impulse, and indulgent non-necessities to be less aesthetically pleasing, owned for a shorter period of time, and disposed of without thought. I was interested to see the correlations that exist between products I love, their quality, how much they cost, and their life cycle in contrast to items that end up in landfills.

Though none of us inherently want to be materialistic, we all have possessions that we love. For me, it’s certain items of clothing, specific accessories and shoes, special pieces of furniture, personal technology, and items with sentimental value. When we love an item, we do not replace it because a replacement would simply not be what we’re used to—or what we want. People would panic relentlessly if Coca Cola changed their formula, and I would panic relentlessly if a favorite pair of shoes couldn’t be repaired. In this mentality, buying objects that we become attached to (in other words, become materialistic about) is not only economically beneficial for a buyer, but discourages rampant consumerism and embraces conservation of resources. But how is this responsible materialism achieved, and how does it play out in the business climate?

It simply isn’t in a company’s best interest to create products that last forever. The cheaper a product is made, the higher profit is made, and the less time it takes for a consumer to wear out and re-purchase it. But we can learn a valuable lesson from the actions of General Motors in the 1980s-1990s: making something of lesser quality has a negative economic impact and detrimental environmental effects on the planet. Even when GM was making record-high profits, CEO Roger Smith closed the Flint, MI assembly plants to gain cheaper parts and labor in Mexico. To date, around 80,000 people have lost their jobs (Roger & Me). Decades later, the Obama administration initiated the “Cash for Clunkers” deal to encourage Americans to get run-down, fuel-inefficient vehicles off the road. Poorly made cars (including the ones manufactured in Mexico) had questionable safety standards, horrible gas mileage, and unreliable plastic parts that cut corners as well as dollars. A friend still drives a 1993 Volvo in amazing condition, while my parents were forced to sell a more recent GMC car with fewer miles due to countless mechanical problems. The difference in price between them was not outstanding; in 1993 a new import like the Volvo was sold for around $20,200 while the domestic car was averaging $16,000 (“Average Price of a New Car”).

While it’s hard to compare such an obviously devastating issue to problems of manufacturing and consumerism at large, this example does demonstrate that products of quality are more cost-efficient in the long run because they prevent consumers from re-purchasing products that should stand the test of time or accommodate repairs in the first place—as well as preventing unnecessary landfill pileup.  The same is true, I would argue, for items we love. We use them until they are literally broken beyond repair. I will take care of them and invest in their survival. Among these items: a vintage wooden drafting table that was a gift from my dad, a pair of Sorel winter boots, a pair of Chaco’s outdoor sandals, a pair of Hunter rain boots, a Burton skateboarding backpack, a Fossil chronometric watch, vintage Ralph Lauren blazer and Pendleton Co. blazer, winter coats, and a Patagonia fleece.

Unfortunately, all of these items are priced far and above the average for similar products—a pair of Chaco’s sandals costs $110.00 and I’ve spent more than I’m willing to ponder on various types of winter insulation. The difference, though, is that I haven’t had to buy any of these items again in the multiple years that I’ve owned them, and because of the companies that make these products, I likely will never have to purchase a completely new item. One example is my fleece produced by Patagonia, which is an excellent example of an item supported by a company that stands for economic frugality, lowering personal consumption, and reducing humans’ impact on harvesting environmental resources and creating waste.

We want to act responsibly, live within our means and leave behind not only a habitable planet, but an Earth whose beauty and biodiversity is protected for those who come after us. We think that business can inspire solutions to the environmental crisis, and that we owe those that work in the textile industry fair labor practices and safe working conditions,

Patagonia writes on their website. They support that statement entirely—their “Common Threads” partnership encourages consumers to not consume, a backward concept that drew a lot of attention, especially through their ad in the New York Times pictured below.

dontbuythisjacket

Beyond a complete care guide to their products, the partnership guarantees Patagonia pays for repairs they’re responsible for, and charges customers a fair price for repairs from normal use. Several Patagonia stores buy back used clothing and gear or facilitate sales on eBay. As far as recycling products and materials, the company has been doing it since 2005 and boasts that it’s recycled 56.6 tons since then.  Beyond this consumer-directed encouragement, Patagonia has been donating 1% of sales to preservation and restoration of the environment since 1985—now totaling over $46 million (all facts taken from http://www.patagonia.com).

It’s exciting to see a company taking such a stance against rampant consumerism and assuming some of the responsibility of controlling their products after they leave the store. They make more expensive items, but also contribute a vast amount to their consumers, who they source material from, and to the planet. Sadly, everyone can’t always afford to support companies with such a pro-social agenda because these services come with a higher cost. But looking at my inventory, I can pick out a few items that were given as gifts, or that I rarely use, that I would gladly give up to own a more sustainable product that would last a long time.

The more companies realize that we value products of quality regardless of price, perhaps we will have a healthier planet and economy in the future. Volvo still seems to be thriving, as well as The North Face, Hunter, Toms, Warby Parker, and Chaco’s. It might make my wallet happy to pay only $7.00 for a nightstand at IKEA, but a table made of paper and particleboard cannot possibly withstand the test of time. Where will my nightstand end up? In someone else’s home? Recycled? Or in a landfill?

Patagonia continues to set examples in innovation and transparency. Patagonia conveniently has an extremely helpful Supply Chain website to navigate the myriad of locations and producers their items are made by across the globe. Each individual product listing also has a link to its individual footprint, outlining the suppliers that make each particular product possible. The map of all Patagonia textile mills and factories can be found here: http://www.patagonia.com/us/footprint/

The fleece I own, called the “Synchilla Snap-T Pullover,” is made of recycled polyester, which contains soda bottles, unusable second quality fabrics and worn-out garments. The textile mills involved in producing this material are in Taiwan, New York, and Massachusetts. While emissions are lower for products from Taiwan coming over by ship, emissions by truck travel are much higher and unfortunately constitute most of the traveling the fleece does during its production. Finally, the fleece is sewn together in a factory in Nicaragua. My fleece does not have a pattern, but many styles do; Patagonia states that patterns require two separate dye baths, which greatly increases water consumption in the process.

To put the external costs into perspective, Patagonia described a similar product’s inputs in the previously mentioned advertisement: it

required 135 liters of water, enough to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. Its journey from its origin…to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. This jacket left behind, on its way to Reno, two-thirds its weight in waste

As for the price of actual fleece put into the product, I researched Polartec Fleece, the wholesaler that provides the raw material for the majority of the body of a Synchilla product. Wholesale prices were available by the yard; at $12.30/yd for a standard one-color piece and assuming 3 yards per sweater for production, the raw material would be approximately $36.00 (www.milldirecttextiles.com). Patagonia likely gets a large discount for bulk purchasing, but there’s no way to guess how much. In terms of the total cost to produce the product, Harvard School of Business casewriters interviewed Julie Ringler, Patagonia’s VP of Production. The bill of materials, including the fleece as well as buttons and zippers, “makes up about two-thirds of the cost of a garment” while manufacturing of the garments takes up about a third. Assuming Patagonia pays no more than $30/garment for fleece, we can assume it would cost around $15 to manufacture it. Coming in at an approximate total cost of $45 per garment and for sale at a price of $99.00, Patagonia’s profit margins are substantial—and explain their monetary ability to be so heavily involved in environmental advocacy. Patagonia charges roughly 20% than its outdoor apparel competitors, like The North Face.

I believe Patagonia’s practices represent a shift in the way successful businesses must think about their products and social location. The company’s founder Yvon Chinouard articulates it best:

We’re not in business to make clothing. We’re in business to ask questions and make choices that prove to the rest of the world that it’s possible to be environmentally responsible and profitable, too

Patagonia has capitulated on the concept that instead of letting public demand dictate change, companies have the power to pioneer and implement the changes scientists suggest to save the Earth. Other companies have no reason to change profitable business models that destroy the environment; as long as profit is being made, do they care? This means concerned citizens are the only people voicing concerns over poor business practices to pressure change. The corporate world doesn’t need to operate in that frame of mind, and Patagonia is among the first to take steps toward socially and environmentally cognizant models of conducting business.

Right now as individuals we are burdened with making active choices to support companies that align with our beliefs, or taking the cheaper route and ignoring the consequences to come. Hopefully more producers and sellers in the near future will catch on and embrace the idea of higher prices for higher quality products—maybe then we won’t be feasibly able to collect a small library collection of shoes. Probably made by kids in sweatshops. Shipped across the world. Companies should embrace their power and ability to create change, and then we can follow suit.

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