Patagonia seeks more sustainable wool in Patagonia

The Gunther Report

Patagonia seeks more sustainable wool in Patagonia

Illustration of a herd of sheep in Patagonia via Shutterstock.

Editor's note: Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard will be a featured speaker at the GreenBiz Forum in San Francisco, which is scheduled to take place February 26-28.

The more I learn about Patagonia Inc., the more impressed I am with the way that Yvon Chouinard and his colleagues run their business.

The outdoor gear and clothing company supports what it calls the "silent sports" of climbing, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running -- none of which require a crowd or a motor to be enjoyed. It's an enterprise that lives up to its mission: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Until recently, though, Patagonia did no business in Patagonia -- a remote region of South America that includes temperate grasslands of Argentina, about 400 million acres (nearly three times the size of California) that are said to be among the most threatened, most damaged and least protected habitats in the world.

Now the company has embarked on an unusual partnership with a network of Argentine ranchers and The Nature Conservancy that is intended to build a sheep-grazing business that will not only protect, but restore parts of the Patagonian grasslands.

It's a test of an intriguing idea -- that a company that sells stuff to people can not only do less harm to the earth, but use the power of business to do environmental good.

"Can a company ever be regenerative?" asks Jill Dumaine, Patagonia's director of environmental strategy. "We aspired to it, but we couldn't envision what that would look like."

Last week I talked to Jill and Todd Copeland, who works on the environmental impact of the company's products, and to Carlos Fernandez, a project manager with The Nature Conservancy, to learn more about what they are calling sustainable wool.

The partnership took root, Carlos told me, when he met Kris Tompkins, Patagonia's former CEO, and told her that selling organic wool isn't enough. The organic standard doesn't take into account grazing practices, he told her, and overgrazing can lead to erosion and desertification.

Unsustainable grazing has already turned 20 million acres, the equivalent of 10 Yellowstone national parks, into desert-like lands, useless for supporting ranching or many species of native wildlife. 

[Organic cotton is similarly limited in scope. The organic label certifies farming practices but says nothing about the environmental performance of clothing factories, or how garment workers are treated.]

In any event, Patagonia (the company) soon sent Jill and Todd to Patagonia (the place) where they spent a couple of weeks with Carlos, meeting sheep farmers and touring the countryside in a small van.

"We decided that if we could survive two weeks in a van together, we can make this work," Todd told me.

On the trip, they met a company called Ovis XXI, which works with a network of about 140 sheep farmers in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay who are committed to sustainable grazing.

Building a new supply chain was complicated. Patagonia Inc. doesn't buy raw wool, which has to be spun and dyed and fashioned onto the socks, base layers (a.k.a. underwear) and sweaters that the company sells. So the company had to stipulate that its suppliers, and their suppliers all specify sustainable merino wool from Patagonia.

This fall, Patagonia Inc. will create and market a new line of consumer products made from the sustainable wool. The company aims to restore 15 million acres of Patagonian grasslands by implementing a sustainable sheep-grazing protocol under which sheep are moved from pasture to pasture, to protect and encourage more diversity of native grasses. In a press release, The Nature Conservancy says that "when flock sizes, lands, and streams are properly managed, ranchers, sheep, native plants and animals can thrive together."

All of this will be monitored carefully, on the ground and from the air, according to Carlos Fernandez of The Nature Conservancy. "We are able to monitor the advance, the halt or the reversal of the desertification of the grasslands," he said.

The economics of the project don't quite work yet, he added. Ranchers required a premium -- about $80,000, paid to about 21 ranchers -- to adopt the new grazing practices. The Patagonia Foundation and The Nature Conservancy contributed that money, viewing it as a payment for ecosystem services. "The hope is that the market will take over," Fernandez said. Consumers might be persuaded to pay extra for sustainable wool, or farmers could absorb the higher costs if they see that the value of their land increases.

Patagonia Inc., meantime, says that all of its merino baselayer products, including socks, will by this fall be made with sustainable wool that is fully traceable back to the ranches of Patagonia.

Said Dumain: "We have often sought to be sustainable but this is the first time we have actually been able to improve an environment by placing business there."

Illustration of a herd of sheep in Patagonia by Eduardo Rivero via Shutterstock.