The outdoor clothing brand has carried out a number of feasibility studies on its polybags, the main packaging it uses for garments before they are shipped out. The company’s own research revealed that only one-fifth (22%) of its customers perceived the bags to be environmentally friendly.

Several tests were conducted at Patagonia’s finished goods and distribution centres. These showed that use of polybags were critical in ensuring that the garments remained clean and were protected through supply chain process – creating a sustainability trade-off.

According to two of the company’s leads on product responsibility, Nellie Cohen and Elissa Loughman, eliminating the use of polybags would increase the likelihood of garments being damaged during the transit process, resulting in both financial and environmental costs.

“Energy, water and resources are used to make each product and we want them to be worn. A damaged product that is unwearable has a far greater environmental cost than manufacturing a polybag,” they stated within they study.

Various options were considered. One was for the distribution centre to remove the polybags before being shipped out, so they could be retained and recycled. However this proved a time-intensive process – an estimated 5,555 hours of work each year in labour to unbag every product sent out.

A trial was then undertaken to see if bag size could be reduced to save on material costs. By folding each garment into smaller shapes, the research team realised this was not only possible but could potentially result in plastic weight being reduced by nearly 50% per product level.

Another experiment involved replacing plastic mailers (shipping containers) with paper ones, but the paper materials trialled suffered considerable damage during the logistical process.

“We found that the two types of paper mailers we tested were barely strong enough to survive the journey through the distribution centre. We expect that they will not consistently reach customers unharmed,” the study reported.

The plastic mailers currently used are made of 40% post-consumer waste content and they have also been reduced in thickness by a millimeter, cutting plastic use by 30%.

The company has since put forward a series of recommendations based on these trials. This could see packaging and folding guidelines being introduced at the finished goods factory for smaller polybags.

Patagonia is also now looking into sourcing recycled polybags to reduce the amount of virgin petroleum its uses in packaging, and may work with its wholesale dealers to increase the recycling of these bags.

Maxine Perella

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