Dyeing Rivers

This essay is part of a series in Patagonia’s Our Common Waters environmental campaign.
Summer 2013

China’s Pearl River runs black from indigo dye discharged by denim factories in Xintang, Guangzhou – the “Blue Jeans Capital of the World.” A satellite photo from a well-known environmental group shows it quite clearly. The wastewater from dyeing 200 million pairs of blue jeans a year flows mostly untreated from the denim factories into the river. What it doesn’t show is that it’s laced with heavy metals, organic pollutants, carcinogens and chemicals that poison the Pearl and all who use it for food and water.

The photos and stories we and other brands use to market our products would never suggest such a grim environmental reality. But the textile industry is a dirty one, second only to farming as the largest polluter of clean water. Along with airborne pollutants and solid waste, an estimated 20 percent of global industrial water pollution comes from treating and dyeing textiles.

Most of us give little thought to how our clothing is made and what impacts its manufacture might have on the natural world, including fresh water, which is the subject of our current environmental campaign Our Common Waters. These are the questions we ask as consumers: Does it fit? Do I lookgood in it? Will it keep me dry or warm or comfortable? Can I afford it?

Here at Patagonia, we’ve long been aware and concerned about the environmental perils of our industry and have been working steadily to minimize them. We’ve done a reasonably good job with fibers, using recycled polyester, organic cotton, hemp and Tencel® lyocell in many of our products. But we always knew that dyeing and finishing, which uses a lot of water and produces a lot of wastewater, was our Achilles’ heel.

To be clear, we don’t dye our own fabrics at Patagonia. We buy them from the mills and finishers that do. We always ask them what chemicals they use, and we have a list of those that are banned, but we really have no foolproof way of knowing what actually goes into the making of a given fabric. Worldwide, regulations governing chemical use and wastewater discharge vary from nonexistent to stringent. It’s a tough environment in which to operate with confidence.

“There is no way we can account for every fabric, in every product, in every mill we use,” said Jill Dumain, Patagonia’s director of environmental analysis. “We have the ambitions of a larger company, but we don’t have the resources. So we have to be more clever.”

We were never more clever than when we began working with bluesign technologies in 2000. bluesign is an independent group of chemists, based in Switzerland, who audit the energy, water and chemical usage of “system partners.” System partners are primarily textile mills and finishers, which pay bluesign to help them achieve continuous, longterm environmental improvement and other, often costsaving, efficiencies.

Any fabric you see that’s bluesign® approved is manufactured
using best practices in the efficient use of energy and water, consumer safety, water emissions, air emissions and occupational health and safety.

Polartec was the first U.S.-based company we persuaded to become a bluesign system partner. It took some doing. The maker of performance fabrics, which you’ll find in Patagonia products throughout this catalog, prided itself on doing a really good job and didn’t want to be hampered by third-party dictates. Headquartered in Lawrence, Massachusetts, it was governed by environmental regulations that are about as strict as they get in the United States. It says it runs its mill in Shanghai to the same high standards.

But being a conscientious company like Polartec can be stressful. It’s one thing to not care or be expected to meet watered-down regulations and quite another to do the best you can. Like Patagonia, Polartec is leanly staffed, so checking every chemical it used was out of the question. And more and more of its customers wanted to know what chemicals it used.

Collaborating with bluesign, beginning in 2008, helped Polartec to improve its already high-level processes and brought it peace of mind, essentially answering the environmental questions before its customers even asked.

“Now we can say, ‘I’m bluesign certified,’ which means we don’t use restricted substances or any other banned ingredient,” said Jihad Hajjar, director of environmental health and safety for Polartec. “With bluesign, I now have a whole workforce out there looking at these chemicals in a really bright, smart way.”

To keep our rivers flowing free of the dyes and detergents, chemicals and hot water routinely used by the textile industry, we set a goal in 2011 to buy only bluesign approved fabrics by fall 2015. We’re pleased to report that beginning in fall 2013, 21 percent of our product line will be made with bluesign approved fabrics, and 45 of our material suppliers will be working with bluesign technologies.