The Patagonia probe
Seeking bold environmental activists who run a profitable business, too
It’s not a bad idea to spend a day honoring this whirling dirt clod we call home. But it’s even better to make a commitment to protecting the planet all year long. That’s what at least one local business tries to do, and it shows up in dozens of ways.
“It’s kind of a cliché to say, ‘Every day is Earth Day,'” says Dave Abeloe, head treehugger at Reno’s branch of Patagonia, an international maker and distributor of clothing. “But that’s what we tell the TV stations. We don’t save our resources for just one day.”
Abeloe and I stand in Patagonia’s Reno division, at the top of some stairs built with recycled steel and hardwood planks made from either reclaimed wood or lumber harvested using sustainable methods. Huge pictures of outdoor sporting activities are hung on walls paneled with straw that’s been treated and compressed. The panels look a little like finely textured plywood.
“It’s a warmer look, instead of the usual vast expanse of white, textured drywall,” Abeloe says.
We walk a few steps into Patagonia’s carpeted office space. The carpet? More recycled plastic.
It’s actually amazing what you can do with used two-liter soda bottles. Patagonia’s Synchilla fleece products are made from a polyester fabric that’s created from chopped-up, melted soda bottle plastic that is pulled out into fine threads. More than 150 garments can be made from 3,700 recycled bottles. The company estimates that this saves a barrel of oil, and about half a ton of toxic air emissions are avoided. In six years or so of reusing this material, Patagonia also figures that it’s diverted enough soda bottles—which otherwise would have gone into landfills—to fill the interiors of 40,000 Chevy Suburbans.
I knew that Patagonia did many environmentally friendly things, from installing solar panels to using landscape techniques that don’t require a huge irrigation system. But I didn’t realize just how deep the commitment was until I visited recently.
Patagonia was born in Ventura, Calif., about 23 years ago. The company built a warehouse and outlet store in Reno in 1996. Abeloe recalls scouring the United States for the perfect Patagonia branch location. He spent three or four months on the road. Every time he came through Reno, he’d discover another reason to move here.
The cost of doing business in Reno is lower. The quality of life is higher. There are fabulous opportunities for outdoor recreation. So it’s easy to find good employees—the staff now numbers about 155—who fit the Patagonia bill: active outdoorsy types with a passion for grassroots activism and a commitment to living life the earth-friendly way.
“Reno stood out as ‘this is the place for us,'” Abeloe says. “Reno met all of our needs—and you can afford to buy a house here.”
The company picked a panoramic site for their warehouse, right on the banks of the Truckee River, in an area that has several other industrial warehouses. The company wanted to do something other than building a big box—"make four concrete walls and tip them up.”
“But we were clothing designers,” Abeloe explains. “What do we know about building buildings?”
Patagonia hired a company to design something energy efficient, something built with recycled materials or sustainables. Was it more expensive to build this way? Yes. It not only costs more to buy, for example, ceiling tiles made from recycled material, but it also can be hard to find a company that manufactures the item. And it usually takes longer to deliver these specialized items.
Was it worth it? After all, Patagonia is a business. Making profitable decisions is important to businesses.
“We weren’t blindly throwing money at unproven technology,” Abeloe says. “The capital cost can be higher. But each component had a payback, though [the paybacks took] longer than most corporations accept.”
Warehouses aren’t my idea of cozy places. The high ceilings. The rows and rows of boxes stacked to the 30-foot ceilings. Grumbling forklifts. Dark corners. Cold drafts. It’s no wonder Hollywood likes to use old warehouses when shooting scenes involving tortures, murders and bloody chases.
Warehouses can be downers.
Patagonia’s warehouse isn’t a downer. Sure, it has a few grumbling forklifts. But when I walk in, I see five guys boosting employee morale with an energetic game of foosball. The building feels light and spacious, with no cold drafts. The temperature differential from floor to ceiling in Patagonia’s warehouse is in the single digits, Abeloe says. He attributes the toasty comfort to the building’s radiant heating system and 1 1/2-inch thick Celotex insulation.
Many warehouses have no insulation at all. This makes them heat up faster during the blistering summer months and cool off faster during freezing chills. The insulation, Abeloe says, was worth the extra $100,000 that it cost.
And the not-so-common radiant heating system may have already paid for itself. Hanging from the ceiling are white rectangular aluminum panels that do pretty much the same thing as the radiators in an old house—but much more efficiently. A conventional gas-fired boiler at Patagonia heats water to 165 degrees Fahrenheit and pumps it through 15,000 feet of copper pipe. As the water serpentines through the pipes in each aluminum box, the heat radiates to all the nearby material. The ceiling, the walls. Everything warms, much like the radiant heat coming from the blacktop on a sunny day.
Most heaters heat the air. Abeloe says this isn’t efficient—and it’s dusty, dirty, noisy and expensive. You’d think the cost of heating 171,000 square feet of warehouse would be about eight times as much as heating Patagonia’s 22,000 square feet of office space, but the company’s office space uses costly conventional heating methods. So when you work the numbers, heating the huge warehouse only costs about 10 percent more than heating the offices.
“We view that as a really big missed opportunity,” Abeloe says of the heating methods used in the offices. “But we’re not perfect.”
To keep cool in summer, the warehouse capitalizes on a trademark of Nevada’s climate, the chilly mountain nights. When Patagonia building designers found out that summer days in Reno might boast temperatures in the 90s, but that Nevada nights cool into the mid-50s or lower, they came up with a plan.
The warehouse chills out all night long with four exhaust fans mounted in the roof. When the temperature outside lowers to 67 degrees, the exhaust fans turn on, and motor-activated louvers open along the east and west walls of the building for cross ventilation. By morning, the building has cooled into the high 50s.
Workers don’t notice heat gain until late in the afternoon, Abeloe says. And the cost of maintaining this “night-flush” technology, again, is minuscule compared with air conditioning.
Patagonia’s warehouse lighting is similarly clever. Motion detectors allow lights to turn on and off only when an area is being used. A computer program controls light in different parts of the building based on use, too. And to shed a bit of sunlight on the warehouse, Patagonia has some high-tech skylights that pump in the light.
These skylights would look a bit like inverted pyramids, if you could manage to look at these ultra-bright lights at all. The units have four mirrored panels and photo sensors that set off a motor. When the sensors see the sun at the beginning of the day, the mirrors lock on to the light. The unit tracks the sun all day, then shuts down when the ambient light goes away.
“Since we have 300-plus days of sun a year, this type of device makes sense for this climate,” Abeloe says. By lowering the light bills, these units take only about three years to pay for themselves.
“Most companies build dull, dark warehouses with few skylights, few windows and barely enough lighting,” Abeloe says. “Warehouses don’t have to be caves.”
Some expensive upgrades, though, don’t pay off so soon. It will take nearly two decades for the costs of Patagonia’s new photovoltaic panels to pay for themselves. Though the 16 solar panels generate about five kilowatts of power—that’s enough juice for four or five homes—it adds up to only a small percentage of the company’s power use. But even though the payback is longer, Patagonia plans to be around long enough to realize some savings.
“You have to look at the long-term benefits,” Abeloe says. “We’re in it for the long haul. We want to show the world that renewables do make sense.”
The evolution of fashion drives our consumer society. The media tells us what beautiful people look like. We want to look like these people. We buy stuff in hopes that we will look like the lovely airbrushed ones.
What if we said no?
What if we bought clothes that we liked, that made us comfortable and expressed our personality? We could keep those clothes until the fabric wore thin or tore. We could even (novelty alert!) patch holes and sew up tears. When the garment passed the point of no return, we’d use the fabric for other things. Like dish rags. After all, humanity existed for eons without paper towels.
Patagonia’s fabric philosophy includes an admonition to customers to buy only what is needed and to wear it until it wears out, or pass it on to charities for redistribution.
That seems like kind of a counter-productive philosophy for a clothing manufacturer.
What’s worse, the company encourages customers to send in damaged garments for repairs. In one corner of the Reno warehouse, a group of people sit at sewing machines, patching and mending garments. The area is set apart from the returns department by shelves of new fabric and “the Frankenstein rack,” where returned items that can’t be resold hang. Menders can use material from these partly disassembled garments to make patches and repairs.
“Many customers have favorite hats that sailed around the world, or jackets that they wore to climb that peak,” Abeloe says. “It has sentimental value. So when it tears or gets a hole, they don’t want a credit or an exchange. We can fix anything we’ve made in the last 15 years, and the cost is usually little or nothing.”
How does this fit into the fundamental capitalistic principal of turning a profit? Glad you asked.
“The returns department is not a profit center,” Abeloe admits. “But in the long term, we think it’s extremely valuable. If we can extend the life of a product, then when it does wear out, maybe the customer will want to buy from us again.”
Futons make me happy. I think all offices should have futons. Futonless offices are icky places.
Once, I had a boss who wanted a futon in her office. But the idea was nixed in short order. A futon implied slacking. It seemed to corporate managers a decadent symbol of some productivity lapse. Give ’em a futon, their logic ran, and they’ll take the day off, sail around the world, download pornography onto the office computer or even (gasp!) curl up in comfort to review those quarterly reports.
Patagonia has futons. In the lunch room. Upstairs in the offices. The futons have wood frames with comfy fabric cushions. One reclining futon sits near a window looking out at the Truckee River, and there’s a copy of last week’s Reno News & Review on it. This pleases me.
“We have futons all over the place,” Abeloe notes.
I tell him the story about my former boss and her desired futon.
“It’s amazing how just a simple thing makes management get all twisted,” he says.
The futons are one part of the company’s laid-back culture, part of a strategy to boost morale by doing something that costs essentially nothing. This culture is evident on every corner of Patagonia property, from the employee garden to the new permaculture food forest. Huge bike racks just inside Patagonia’s main doors hold dozens of employee bikes. Looking out the window, I see a man playing horseshoes with a toddler across the parking lot.
The executives at Patagonia don’t have their own little offices, or any offices at all, really. All the desks are grouped together, without any cubicle walls for the most part. Abeloe’s desk is in one corner of the large room, but he can see and talk to anyone else in the room, just as others can see and talk to him.
“Nobody has a private office at any Patagonia location,” Abeloe says. “We believe it’s easier to communicate if you don’t have to bang on a closed door.”
Activism at Patagonia can be as mellow as employee recycling efforts. The company recycles everything. They even compost food garbage from the employee kitchen to fertilize the employee garden. They throw so little away that it takes nine months to fill a 35-square-yard trash compactor.
“We don’t spend a lot of money going to the dump,” Abeloe says.
Company profits—gross profits—are subject to a self-imposed “Earth Tax.” Patagonia gives this money away mostly to small grassroots environmental groups.
For employees with a larger mission, the company offers an internship program that pays employees up to two months of their salary to go work for non-profit environmental groups.
One former employee, Kevin Mack, who now runs the Nevada Wilderness Project out of office space donated by Patagonia, helped begin a project to map out possible wilderness areas in Nevada. After getting the attention of lawmakers, especially former Sen. Richard Bryan, the group won wilderness designation for 750,000 acres of Nevada, now the Black Rock Desert High Rock Canyon Conservation Area.
“That says something about the caliber of people who work here,” Abeloe says.
Mack praises the company for its support.
“Patagonia’s influence has allowed us to act more quickly on things,” Mack says.
Though it is a business, the management holds a campaign each year to call attention to an environmental issue that may otherwise go unnoticed. They’ve taken on dam removal cases, the plight of the salmon and the preservation of old-growth forests. This year, they’re expressing concern over genetic engineering. This kind of sounds exhausting. But these people are passionate. Every day at Patagonia is a day to engage in intraplanetary activism.
“We’re not afraid to stick our necks out and get involved," Abeloe says.