Patagonia is an unusual workplace in many ways, and the fact that employees are encouraged to incorporate environmental activism into their daily work is just one of the characteristics that sets our company apart. The realities of running a business are important, but we’re always aware that our business has to serve the more pressing goal of keeping our planet habitable in the present and the future.
The third clause of Patagonia’s mission statement asks us “to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” We’re all still learning to act on that in our own ways, and for Chris Teig, our Director of Graphics and Illustration, it has recently meant incorporating more art-based activism into the colors, textiles and graphics that appear on our clothing. Including six T-shirt designs and a range of patterns and prints, the new Wilder Waters collection is one of the first results. Paying tribute to the important work of dam removal and river restoration, the Wilder Waters artwork began with a trip to the Elwha River in Washington State, the site of the world’s largest dam removal project to date.
Healthy, undammed rivers—like the recently freed Elwha—are the arteries that keep our planet’s circulatory system alive, and it’s Chris’ hope that this collection will help inspire more people to support river restoration and rewilding projects in their own backyards.
There’s no art without imagination, but this collection began at a very real and specific place. Why did you choose a trip to the Elwha as a starting point?
Most environmental issues are super depressing, and they almost seem to make people even less convinced that change can happen. The Elwha restoration is a massive effort that began with the removal of two huge dams, and it’s still ongoing with smaller projects like the re-introduction of native plant species and the construction of debris fields to protect salmon smolts. It’s been a massive success story, and we wanted to celebrate the achievement through the art in the Wilder Waters collection. It’s a story of hope, and our goal is to inspire more dam removal and river restoration around the world.
Patagonia has produced plenty of graphics over the years that highlight particular issues. With Wilder Waters, how did you hope to advance the environmental aspects of your work?
I think the company does an amazing job at improving the social and environmental aspects of manufacturing, but those of us in the art department saw an opportunity to add another layer of activism. We wanted to see what would happen if we sent a group of designers to an environmental hotspot, rather than taking seasonal inspiration from art trends or retail markets. The designers and their work were super inspired by the experience, and the collection began to have a more cohesive voice as they worked on the art. Most us came to Patagonia to have a direct influence on the environmental crisis, and with this collection it felt like we could really make change with the art we were creating.
What was the most vivid aspect of the Elwha trip for you?
It’s really amazing how quickly the river has rebounded. When we walked into one of the former Elwha dam sites, at first it was hard to even see where the dam had been. We were all blown away by how wild the river had already become. Patagonia was instrumental in the dam removals, so we all felt like somehow we’d played a small role in bringing this river back. It was a proud moment.
After your trip, what was the design process like?
We wanted to narrow in on a few themes that would give a consistent direction to the collection, so we focused on running water, salmon and the flora and fauna of the Olympic Peninsula. The Patagonia textile team creates art in-house, by hand, so we can really go after these themes in an authentic way. For the T-shirts, we wanted to create and source artwork that connected to the Pacific Northwest, but still conveys a message that matters everywhere. In this case, it was taking inspiration from the success of the Elwha to promote river restoration around the globe.
What action do you hope people will take to help restore rivers in their own areas?
I think we need to win the battle of apathy first. If people see that change can happen, it opens up all sorts of possibilities. And that’s the beauty of the Elwha story. It doesn’t hurt that the beauty of the area has been greatly enhanced by the dam removals—and that’s probably the biggest motivation to get people to support river rewilding in their backyards.
Are you planning more initiatives like Wilder Waters that connect art and activism?
Absolutely. It’s an approach that not only inspires great work from the design teams, but it also creates opportunities for our design and environmental teams to collaborate on projects that can make real change in the world. We’ve already got two more seasons coming up, next spring and next fall, with visual themes based on specific environmental issues.