In short, the company has learned a whole lot about what it takes to make clothing and other outdoor gear recyclable, but it's unlikely Patagonia's entire catalog will be recyclable by fall 2010. However, it just might make all its apparel recyclable by then.
The Common Threads program collects only certain Patagonia products or types of clothing; the company takes back only what it knows it can recycle.
It All Started With Underwear
The first product collected and recycled through Common Threads was Patagonia's polyester-spandex Capilene underwear, chosen because underwear is simple, has no buttons or zippers and isn't typically handed down.
Teijin, a Japanese textile company, developed a garment-to-garment recycling process for the underwear, and Patagonia found out that using Capilene underwear as a raw material instead of petroleum uses 76 percent less energy and emits 42 percent less carbon dioxide.
The Common Threads program grew in spring 2007 when other Capilene apparel was included, along with 100 percent cotton T-shirts, Patagonia fleece and Polartec fleece jackets from any clothing brand. A year later Patagonia started labeling clothes that were accepted through Common Threads with instructions on what to do with them at the end of their lives. The collection program also expanded to include some board shorts, polyester jackets and nylon items, and later that year Patagonia unveiled the first recyclable nylon waterproof and breathable shell. Around that time Patagonia also started working with another company, Toray, which developed a recycling program for items made of nylon 6.
Results, Tempered by Challenges
Since the start of Common Threads, Patagonia has recycled more than 13,200 pounds of garments, and collected much more. But that is still nowhere close to the amount of items Patagonia sells or that get tossed in the trash.
The amount of recyclable items in Patagonia's spring collection has gone from 28 percent last year to 38 percent this year. And for it's fall collection, the amount is expected to increase from 45 percent last year to 65 percent this fall. Patagonia is not confident, though, that it will increase both of those to 100 percent by fall 2010. But it has a much better chance to make all of its apparel recyclable, since 80 percent of the clothing in its fall 2009 collection will be recyclable.
Along the way, Patagonia faced a host of challenges. Some of the recyclers it works with use chemical recycling, which dissolves products into chemicals. Another uses mechanical recycling, which physically, not chemically, rips apart fabric and spins it into yarn.
While chemical recycling systems can be easily tainted if too many different materials are combined, mechanical recycling can take a greater variety of inputs, but that also limits the variety of products Patagonia can make with the resulting fiber. Patagonia's products are expected to meet certain performance levels, and any alternation to the amount of certain fabrics in them can affect that.
Patagonia is also reaching the limit of how much material it can handle. The amount of items they collect now is about what they are able to recycle. Increasing the amount of recycled materials would force its recycling systems to expand, which would require capital investment, more employees and more expenses for shipping garments overseas.
And some of the garments it receives are so old or worn out, with missing tags or faded labels, that it takes some serious investigating to find out what material they're made of. But that only means that a piece of clothing has lived a long, useful life. Patagonia sees Common Threads as a last resort for clothing, and will even donate to non-profits usable clothing that customers return through Common Threads.
"If, after a lifetime of use, a garment can be reused or handed-down no more, we provide Common Threads as a final destination, so that worn, used, and abused products can be recycled and made into new garments," Patagonia says in the report on Common Threads.
Patagonia jackets - CC license by nicolas.boullosa