Plastics are essential to building durable, high-performance products. But they’re also accelerating the environmental crisis, from the fossil fuels used to make plastics to the solid waste pollution that piles up once they’ve been tossed. Here’s why we still use plastics, what we’re doing to reduce our impact and why we need action at the individual, business and government levels to address the problem.
Our closets are filled with fossil fuels.
Plastic (aka synthetic) fibers are a literal thread tying the clothing industry to the oil and gas industry. Most plastic fibers begin as crude oil, which is distilled into chemicals like ethyne, and are then heated and transformed into everything from single-use plastic bottles to clothing fibers like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polyester. Polyester, in particular, is one of the most in-demand materials, accounting for roughly half of global fiber production. That’s about 61 million tons of polyester produced every year, according to a 2021 Textile Exchange report. For Big Oil and gas, this is welcome news. As transportation moves away from fossil fuels, experts say plastic will become a lucrative way for the industry to offset that reduced demand.
But the problem goes beyond using petroleum as a source for raw material. Burning fossil fuels to create those synthetic materials is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions warm the planet, increase ocean acidification and release harmful—sometimes toxic—air pollutants.
Every piece of plastic ever made is still on the planet.
Plastic persists in our environment indefinitely (unless it's been incinerated or launched into space on a satellite or spacecraft). According to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 10% of plastic in the US is actually recycled, 16% is burned, and the rest piles up in landfills, releasing greenhouse gases, impacting wildlife habitats and posing a risk to air and water quality.
What are secondary waste streams?
We’re creating new products out of old plastics.
Plastics in technical clothing offer critical—sometimes life-saving—performance, like weatherproofing and moisture-wicking. That’s why we use plastics in our products.
But we’ve been focused on reducing our reliance on virgin plastics since 1993, when we started making fleece out of recycled plastic bottles—the first outdoor apparel manufacturer to transform trash into clothing. Now, we’re beginning to transition away from those well-established, yet still broken recycled waste streams and think more systematically.
Supporting and scaling secondary waste streams.
We’re investing in new and urgently needed infrastructure that helps create products from plastics that would otherwise be sent to landfills or end up in waterways. These secondary waste streams range from textile waste to ocean-plastic waste and bottle-collection programs from regions without waste management systems in place. And it’s what led to our 2014 investment in Bureo, a California-based company that collects discarded plastic fishing nets that our supply chain partners then turn into NetPlus® material. Through this partnership, we’ve helped remove more than 2,000 tons of material from the ocean, as of Fall 2023.
Turning plastic waste into our own durable, high-quality products is a powerful way to reduce environmental impact, but our goal has always been to develop and strengthen these waste-based supply chains so other brands can use them, too. Given the massive scale of the plastic problem, it’s going to take industry-wide collaboration. We can’t address it alone.
But being an early adopter means digging into the hard, complex work of building new supply chains—ones that aren't yet robust or have a consistent supply. (For perspective, it took about 25 years for plastic bottles to become a widely used secondary waste stream.) Our partnership with Bureo highlighted some of these challenges and affirmed why this work is so important.
In Spring 2021, we first used NetPlus material in seven products and have continued increasing the number of items each season. We believe the proof is in the product, but in this case, the proof was a little more complicated to come by. Our product team works several seasons in advance, which meant we didn’t have time to understand and iron out potential kinks in the new supply chains. At the same time, COVID-19 dramatically impacted our global supply chain, including shipping container shortages, factory shutdowns, permit delays and other challenges. Ultimately, we had to be more selective about which products we make with NetPlus.
We’re also expanding our use of other secondary waste stream materials, including recycled nylon made from old fabric scraps, carpets and other synthetic materials, as well as recycled polyester from cafeteria trays and other pigmented plastics, which are harder to recycle than clear types. We also have new partnerships in the works that will divert more plastic waste from oceans as well as prioritize traceable and socially equitable supply chains.
We believe that each industry should take responsibility for its own waste. Beyond recycling plastic, we’re figuring out new ways to transform material from our own apparel and gear back into like-new fiber that can be used again and again. In other words, make new clothing from old clothing. Most recently, that’s led to working with JEPLAN, a Japan-based recycling company that chemically recycles pre- and postconsumer polyester textiles into virgin-quality clothing.
The future of plastics at Patagonia.
Our goal is to only keep synthetics in the most durable, longest-lasting products so they stay in play for more time—whether it’s in your closet or passed down to a friend’s. That concept of circularity is what prompted us to launch Worn Wear®. It’s created a re-commerce platform for repair, reuse and trading in old gear (both synthetic-based and natural-fiber-based) so we rely less on virgin resources and use more of what’s already been made. By 2025, we intend to make at least half of our synthetic materials using secondary waste streams.
Turning waste into new clothing
Decreasing our dependence.
We know recycling isn’t the fix-all. It still requires energy and generates its own carbon footprint. And then there are some synthetics that don’t yet have proper recycling solutions in place. That’s why to really address the global plastic problem, it is going to take more than just recycling.
We have to rethink how much plastic we use and find new ways to extract ourselves from the oil and gas supply chain. We’re planning to stop sourcing virgin petroleum for products and instead use preferred materials by 2025, including organic and Regenerative Organic cotton, recycled polyester and recycled nylon, among others.
Extracting ourselves from oil and gas
How we can all create meaningful change.
We’ve made strides to reduce our reliance on virgin plastics and are taking new steps to address the plastics we use in our products, but we can’t do it alone. Changing industry practices requires action on the individual, business and government levels. Here are some ways you can help:
What you can do Simply put, buy less and demand more. Reject the concept of fast fashion, shop only when you really need something and choose durably made gear that can be repaired for generations. Then wear it, care for it and pass it on once you no longer need it.
But the activism doesn’t end in your closet. Ask your favorite brands how they’re thinking about their plastic use and what they’re doing to mitigate it. Prioritizing secondary waste streams to replace virgin plastics? Being transparent about their supply chain and footprint?
Come election time, use the power of your vote. Elect leaders who are committed to addressing the climate crisis through targeted measures like cutting fossil fuel subsidies and investing in green energy.
What businesses can do Shifting an entire industry calls for collaboration. We share the names of many of our supply-chain partners so other companies can invest in those secondary waste streams and amplify the effort. Other tangible steps include eliminating sources of virgin petroleum from products, aligning with financial partners who are committed to a global energy transition, and supporting grassroots organizations whose communities are most impacted by the plastics and climate crisis.
What governments can do Building and scaling broader, more meaningful legislation and regulation is critical to creating systemic change in the way our clothes are made, transported and treated after they’ve been worn. Measures like decreased tariffs for recycled and organic materials, documenting and disclosing supply chains (where clothes are made and who is making them), and incentives for companies who adopt materials from organic or recycled inputs won’t just create transparency. These laws and regulations would hold companies accountable for their impact and drive the urgent changes that the industry needs.