Scoring Patagonia on its Sustainability and Ethical Track Record

A branded image featuring a man hiking in the mountains for the clothing brand Patagonia

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…is a real ad that the clothing brand Patagonia ran. In the New York frickin Times.

Jeez. Talk about making a statement.

For those who don’t really get it (like me, the first 3 times I read it)- it’s meant to be a meta-statement on shopping. The logic goes something like: shop less -> waste less -> less harm to our environment.

At first glance, it checks out. In fact, I think the point they’re trying to make is legit. Consuming less is 1000% better for the environment. But- Patagonia is also a clothing company. Whose business model is literally built on selling more clothes.

Still- I’m nothing if not open-minded. Maybe their hyper-focus on sustainability isn’t just a marketing gimmick. Maybe they really do want to make a difference.

I won’t be satisfied til I find out. So let’s do it.

Patagonia Started With Strong Opinions on Sustainability

Patagonia wasn’t just born in a garage – it was born in the wilderness. Founder Yvon Chouinard was a climber, and he wanted gear that wouldn’t wreck the very cliffs he was scaling.

And so, you guessed it: Patagonia sells outdoor clothing, from fleece to wetsuits to beanies – and of course- their meme-worthy vests.

A finance bro in a Patagonia vest, posting in New York
Seriously, head over to FiDi in NYC and you’ll be surrounded by finance bros in Patagonia vests.

One thing you should know about Patagonia- they’re an opinionated brand.

Patagonia actually decided to stop making branded vests for their loyal finance bros because they committed to only working with B corporations in 2019 (basically an environmental certification that companies can get).

In 2016, they pledged to donate 100% of Black Friday sales to environmental organizations. They sued the US Government and Trump for claiming they would reduce protected land in Utah. They even added labels to their clothing in 2020 with “Vote the Assholes Out” to target politicians who denied climate change.

This boldness in opinion though is not that simple. When you make bold public statements like that, it comes with expectations. And there’s been good reason to believe that Patagonia is mostly just virtue signaling rather than walking the walk. To break this down, let’s start with their worker treatment.

Patagonia Makes a Good Effort in Setting Worker Welfare Guidelines

When it comes to setting human rights guidelines, Patagonia has done a decent job. They scored 68/100 on the Policies and Commitment section of the Fashion Transparency Index. Which by itself doesn’t seem that great, but consider that most brands don’t even score 50.

In their own words, Patagonia claims that it only works with factories that are like-minded and share their philosophy. To their credit, they’re quite transparent with which factories they work with. They have all 61 listed out on a map on their site:

They use a “4-fold” approach, and a factory partner can be vetoed if they don’t meet the criteria for any of their “folds” (read: criteria). This includes their Supply Chain Environmental Responsibility program and their Supplier Workplace Code of Conduct. These both use data from their Material Traceability program, which is designed to trace the stuff they use to make their clothes through their supply chain.

But Sadly, Patagonia Probably Doesn’t Care Too Much About Factory Workers

But looking a bit deeper- things start to look less rosy.

  • Most goods are produced in low-wage countries where human rights violations are known to take place constantly- like Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
  • The wording in those Codes of Conduct is very loose. You’ll see a lot of “work towards”, “push ourselves to”, and “encourages”. Not enough “requires”, “we do not permit”, and “must”.
  • If you click into a factory to look at why exactly Patagonia chose to work with that factory, every single one contains the exact same corporate-speak message about how they “engage in a range of due diligence activities”. Ew.
  • Patagonia scored a 9/100 on the Governance section of the Fashion Transparency Index. That means even though they have all these guidelines, it isn’t clear who is in charge of making sure they’re actually met 🤔

Patagonia has its factories inspected at least once a year by an independent inspector, and 2 NGOs also do checks. But in June 2013, a Dutch investigative journal discovered that workers in factories that Patagonia sources from work up to 17 hours a day and more than 80 hours a week.

That sounds like something a company that claims to be a strong supporter of worker rights would care about.

There’s more. Almost a decade ago, the company promised employees that all workers throughout their value chain (basically every worker that contributes to their products) would earn a living wage. With only about a year left to live up to that- only 40% of its factories pay a living wage.


One positive is that Patagonia does pay a premium on every item of clothing made to be Fair Trade Certified. This means that the premium (extra money) goes back to factory workers. According to Patagonia, this has touched 66,000 workers in 10 countries around the globe.

Are You Really an Animal Lover, Patagonia?

For a company built around saving our environment, you’d think Patagonia would be vegan and/or cruelty-free. They aren’t.

Here are my thoughts after ingesting what they say about animal welfare:

The Ugly:

  • They claim that “it’s not acceptable for animals to suffer in the name of performance, luxury or fashion” but they admit to using animal fibers for their products.
  • Most of the animal fibers they use are byproducts of animals raised for meat. They claim they are not directly responsible for animal slaughter because of this. I completely disagree. They are enabling horribly inhumane factory farms to continue to exist with this type of support.
  • They use Down (feathers), wool, and leather.
  • PETA leaked videos from one of their wool farms of sheep getting cut, stepped on, tied up, and castrated.

The good:

  • They actively support a bunch of conservation organizations and initiatives. For example, they’ve partnered with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, supporting efforts to protect the beautiful Bears Ears National Monument. They’ve also backed the Alaska Wilderness League, standing up for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
  • They don’t use fur or anything from endangered or threatened species.
  • They built their animal welfare policy on The Five Freedoms policy from the UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Council. This provides an outline to try and ensure farm animals have a life worth living.

My unfortunate rating here is that they are clearly not good enough. They have vegan clothes but don’t even label them for easy shopping. They’re clearly okay with animals suffering to make their clothes cheaper and more attractive to wear, and that’s something I’ll never stand for. And you shouldn’t either.

Patagonia Sustainability and Eco-Overdrive

This is Patagonia’s bread and butter. It’s their strongest argument for being an ethical clothing brand- and I have to say, they’re doing a pretty good job here.

First, the bad:

  • They have said they want to be carbon neutral and use 100% renewable or recycled materials in their products by 2025. They have not given any sort of update or way to track their progress.

Now, the Good:

  • They launched their own recycling program, “Worn Wear,” encouraging people to buy and sell used Patagonia gear.
  • Patagonia donates 1% of its annual sales to environmental causes.
  • Patagonia’s recycled polyester is made from used plastic bottles. Patagonia’s recycled nylon is made from used fishing nets and other nylon waste.
  • In 2022, Patagonia recycled over 1 million pounds of clothing through the Worn Wear program. This saved over 10 million gallons of water and prevented over 100 million pounds of waste from going to landfills.
  • The founder moved the entire company to be owned by a nonprofit dedicated to using profits to fight climate change (it was also a nice way to pass on control to his family and avoid taxes while doing so, but whatever).

It’s hard to say much here other than it seems like they’re doing a good job. They have a lot of great initiatives but are not very transparent about how those initiatives are actually performing.

Patagonia’s Altruism Score

Look- Patagonia says most of the right things. They at least put in the effort to create guidelines and loose standards. And their recent commitment to climate change and ethics gives me hope.

But they’re nowhere near being an ethical clothing brand yet. Until they make real strides in demonstrating worker welfare, take a stronger stance against animal cruelty in the making of their clothes, and provide updates on the status of their climate goals- it’d be hard to recommend purchasing from them.

All that being said, most clothing companies are just so awful. If you must buy from a big brand, they’re one of the better ones to buy from. So with that being said, drumroll please- here’s the verdict:

Altruism Score:

6/10: Pretty Good
Patagonia sneaks into the happy tier of our Shopping Altruism Scorecard.
Patagonia sneaks into the happy band of our Shopping Altruism Scorecard

Don’t get me wrong- I’m not encouraging you to start throwing money at Patagonia- but they seem to be one of the lesser of many evils. And if you do buy from Patagonia, look for the vegan items (they’ll be more sustainable as well)!

One response to “Scoring Patagonia on its Sustainability and Ethical Track Record”

  1. […] isn’t everything! Check out our Patagonia Brand Ethical Overview that looks at ethics, worker welfare, animal treatment, and […]

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