Patagonia - A History
More than 40 years making great clothing for those living, working and playing in the outdoors, Patagonia is now a massive international player in outdoor apparel but remains at heart a dirtbag climbing company. The spiritual home for mountain romantics, cutting edge alpinists, world adventurers and planet-saving environmentalists; of any brand Patagonia is the custodian of the heart and soul of outdoor sports.
When in 1957, Yvon Chouinard went to a junkyard and bought a used coal-fired forge, a 138-pound anvil, some tongs and hammers and started teaching himself how to make steel climbing pitons, he didn’t know that one day he would head-up one of the most powerful outdoor clothing brands in the world.
Chouinard’s approach to climbing equipment design was to always strive to find a better, more efficient and environmentally cleaner solution to climbers’ needs and when he turned his focus onto addressing the clothing needs of climbers, Chouinard and his team used the same mindset.
Patagonia was established in 1973 to specifically question current performance thinking and look outside of the traditional outdoor supply chain to source fabrics and solve the shortcomings of traditional outdoor clothing. Along the way they invented many clothing technologies that today we take for granted.
The story of the evolution of the iconic Patagonia Synchilla fleece jacket is an anecdote worth sharing:
"At a time when the entire mountaineering community relied on the traditional, moisture-absorbing layers of cotton, wool, and down, we looked elsewhere for inspiration and protection. We decided that a staple of North Atlantic fishermen, the synthetic pile sweater, would make an ideal mountain layer, because it would insulate well without absorbing moisture.
But we needed to find some fabric to test out our idea, and it wasn't easy to find. Finally, Malinda Chouinard, acting on a hunch, drove to the Merchandise Mart in Los Angeles. She found what she was looking for at Malden Mills, freshly emerged from bankruptcy after the collapse of the fake fur-coat market. We sewed up samples and field-tested them in alpine conditions. It had a couple of drawbacks: a bulky, lumbering fit and a bad-hair-day look, thanks to fibers that quickly pilled. But it was astonishingly warm, particularly when used with a shell. It insulated when wet, but also dried in minutes, and it reduced the number of layers a climber had to wear.
Improving pile was a gradual process. We worked closely with Malden to develop first a softer Bunting fabric, a synthetic boiled wool that pilled less, and eventually Synchilla, an even softer, double-faced fabric that did not pill at all. The final piece of the puzzle was to reduce the environmental impact of producing Synchilla fleece and in 1993, we adopted fleece into our product line made from post consumer recycled (PCR) plastic soda bottles. We were the first outdoor clothing manufacturer to do so."
Reducing environmental impact has always been key for Patagonia and today they have many strategies in place where they manage their own operational impact, the impact of their garment production and the impact on the outdoor space of the activities they promote. Key to these strategies are:
The Footprint Chronicles. Here you can trace your Patagonia garment’s manufacture back to source and check fabric and manufacture environmental impact and factory worker conditions.
1% for the Planet. Since 1985, Patagonia has pledged 1% of its sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. They've awarded over $70 million in cash and in-kind donations to domestic and international grassroots environmental groups making a difference in their local communities. On Black Friday 2016 Patagonia pledged to give 100% of the day’s global retail and online sales directly to grassroots non profit making environmental groups working on the frontline to protect air, water and soil for future generations, calling it a “fundraiser for the earth”. This initiative staggeringly raised $10 million, five times higher than originally forecast.
Worn Wear. One of the most responsible things a clothing company can do is to make high quality stuff that lasts years and can be repaired. Patagonia’s Worn Wear program celebrates the stories of their users and their kit and helps keep garments in action longer and provides an easy way to recycle what is beyond repair.
To read the history of Yvon Chouniard and Patagonia in what he describes as “The tale of an itinerant climber and the education of a reluctant businessman. "Get yourself a copy of “Let My People Go Surfing".