At Patagonia, the Bottom Line Includes the Earth
By Diane Cardwell, The New York Times
JULY 30, 2014 -
VENTURA, Calif. — Early on a recent Friday, Mitch Taylor, a local surfer, paddled out at County Line Beach off the Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu, wearing a new Patagonia wet suit. After carving a few waist-high waves, he gave it a positive review, pronouncing it indistinguishable from other high-performance gear he had tried.
“I was really stoked on it,” he said. “There was actually nothing different about it than any other suit.”
And yet there was. The suit, which has begun hitting the market, is made not from conventional, petroleum-based neoprene but from a natural rubber derived from a desert shrub. It is one way Patagonia is trying to nudge along a sport that has not always been environmentally conscious despite its roots in the natural world.
Patagonia executives are also convinced that the many years of development and testing they have supported have resulted in a revolutionary material that will wind up not only in wet suits but also in everyday items like sneakers and yoga mats.
But if they have their way, only a few of those products will bear the Patagonia name. Instead of holding the manufacturer of the rubber, Yulex, to a yearslong exclusive contract, Patagonia is encouraging its competitors to use the product, hoping to see its use grow and drive down the price.
Other wet suit and athletic apparel companies have shown interest, and Quiksilver plans to have a biorubber wet suit on the market next year.
Patagonia’s promotion of Yulex is the latest example of its unusual commitment to advancing sustainability, sometimes at the expense of its bottom line. It introduced organically grown cotton into its products in the 1990s, pushing ahead even though it lost customers and money on the transition. It has rejiggered its corporate structure so it can count success in factors that benefit the public, like helping the environment, rather than simply maximizing profit, without the fear of being sued by potential investors.
The company’s motives are not entirely altruistic. Priced at $529 to $549 — expensive for wet suits but on a par with other brands’ premium gear — the suit will earn the company money and bolster its green credentials, an important part of how it tries to appeal to customers.
“This is not a charity case — we have our limits,” Rose Marcario, the chief executive, said, laughing, at the headquarters here, where employees store their boards under a staircase and can test wet suit prototypes across the highway at the C Street surf break.
The wet suit’s cost reflects, in part, the long-term development the company undertook, running more than 200 tests and field trials of the material to get the balance of stretch, weight and durability executives were looking for.
“I knew that if we could somehow change this process, change the way that this material gets made, we could take the biggest step forward environmentally for the wet suit industry,” said Jason McCaffrey, who directs the surf division. “But we have to prove it.”
That ethos has its roots in the beginning of the company, which grew from a rock-climbing equipment business that Yvon Chouinard, an avid climber, surfer and self-taught blacksmith, began in a tin shed on the Patagonia campus, where he still forges the occasional piton. As the business added outdoor clothing and equipment over the years, Mr. Chouinard continually pushed to help preserve the environment, whether through more mountain-friendly climbing gear or fleece from recycled materials.
To protect that approach, in 2012, the company, which is owned by the Chouinards, changed its structure. It became a benefit, or B, corporation, one of an estimated 900 in the United States. This form of incorporation, permitted in 26 states and the District of Columbia, requires executives to take into account not just how decisions will affect profit and shareholders but also how they will affect the public, generally defined as society or the environment. Though the rules vary among states, companies must produce an annual benefit report to demonstrate how they are adhering to the mission.
“Business can be the most powerful agent for change, and if business doesn’t change, then I think we’re all doomed,” Ms. Marcario said. “Business that puts profit above people and the environment is not going to be a healthy and sustainable way for us to live and for the planet to survive.” She added that Mr. Chouinard had said that every time he made a decision that was right for the environment, it had made the company money, though sometimes not for a while.
Still, the company introduced wet suits in 2006 but made them in what it considered an unsustainable way. Although Patagonia, like others in the industry, began using limestone-based neoprene to try to get away from fossil fuels, executives still complained in advertisements and a 2008 blog post that it was hardly green because it came from a nonrenewable material.
At Yulex, those complaints were taken as a challenge. Jeff Martin, the chief executive and co-founder, was building a company largely around making nonallergenic products like condoms, catheters and gloves from the latex of the guayule plants they grew in the Arizona desert. Around 2009, Jim Mitchell, the chief operating officer, ran across the blog post, and the two decided they could replace neoprene with their biorubber.
They approached Patagonia and, once the partnership yielded a product, found themselves at an important trade show, meeting with other wet suit manufacturers and athletic companies at the apparel maker’s booth. “It was more like a house,” Leif P. Christoffersen, director of business development for Yulex, said of the exhibit. “It had a second level.” In addition to wet suit makers, Yulex executives say, they are talking with other companies to market products using their rubber, including mattresses and bras.
“We had customers looking for safe alternatives for those with latex allergy, and then we had customers looking for alternatives to petroleum-based products,” Mr. Martin said, “so a number of companies had been approaching us.”
Patagonia’s wet suit is the first widely available consumer product derived from Yulex guayule rubber. Patagonia introduced suits with a blend of 60 percent Yulex biorubber and 40 percent conventional rubber in Japan at the end of 2012 and has been refining them ever since. The new suit, for men only, has added features like a thermal lining made from recycled materials and a slick external coating that keeps the wind out. Eventually, the company plans to use 100 percent biorubber in its surf gear.
The company also plans an elaborate, cheeky marketing campaign showcasing the qualities of the natural rubber from the guayule plant. That rubber is nonallergenic; it lacks the proteins commonly found in rubber from the hevea tree, the major commercial source of natural rubber. “We have the best weed in town and we’re giving it away,” proclaims one magazine ad.
But the extent to which this matters to surfers is an open question, and the company may again be ahead of its customers, as it was with the switch to organic cotton.
At Rockaway Beach in New York on Wednesday morning, surfers were largely receptive to the idea of a green wet suit, though some balked at the price tag.
“You could get a good board for $500, used,” said Dr. Walter Valesky, who works in an emergency room, as he emerged from the waves near the 90th Street jetty. “That’s probably going to limit my love of all things natural.”
Fletcher Chouinard, Yvon’s son and the founder of a line of surfboards made at the Ventura campus, acknowledged the challenge, though he said that environmental attitudes among surfers varied across a wide spectrum.
Over all, he said, the market could be tough to crack. “It’s inherently selfish as a sport,” he said. “I don’t think people care enough. People are starting to put their money where their mouth is, but it’s slow.”
Colin Archdeacon contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on July 31, 2014, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Bottom Line: Earth