The Patagonia Case Competition: Finding an Eco-Friendly Water Repellent

By Edmund L. Andrews

Few companies have tied their identities more closely to environmental responsibility than Patagonia, the outdoor apparel manufacturer founded decades ago by the rock climber Yvon Choinard.

Patagonia’s mission statement is “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”   It has launched three environmental philanthropies, contributes to scores of environmental causes, and invests heavily in innovations aimed at reducing its use of energy, water and dangerous chemicals.

But balancing environmental stewardship and product performance can pose vexing dilemmas, which is why Patagonia partnered with the Berkeley-Haas Center for Responsible Business on the Patagonia Eco Innovation Case Competition.

The challenge: to produce an alternative durable water repellent, strong enough for torrential rains and durable for years, that does not rely on toxic chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds or PFCs.

PFCs have been crucial for high-performance water-repellent outdoor clothing.  But PFCs are also considered a likely carcinogen, and they persist for years in the environment before breaking down.   Indeed, a study by Greenpeace last year found traces of PFCs in seemingly pristine, high-altitude lakes around the world.

It is a serious challenge for the entire outdoor apparel industry, so much so that it has put Patagonia and many of its rivals at odds with Greenpeace and other environmental groups.

The competition, which has attracted 74 interdisciplinary teams from universities across the United States, will reach the final round of judging at Berkeley-Haas on April 21.  The eight finalists come from the University of California at Berkeley, Duke University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University,  the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina, the University of Virginia, and Yale University.

Any viable alternative water-repellent obviously needs to meet high performance standards — it needs to hold up in extreme weather conditions.

But durability is important for environmental reasons as well as for customer satisfaction.  The more frequently a garment wears out and has to be replaced, the bigger its environmental footprint becomes. Each piece of replacement clothing requires  energy and water to produce, which in turns entails greenhouse gases.  Each discarded piece of clothing adds to global waste.

Even now, before the winners of the case competition have actually been selected, Patagonia executives say the competition has generated a slew of promising proposals that they are already exploring.

Patagonia has been searching for and testing potential alternative compounds for several years.  Indeed, it invested in a Swiss start-up company, Beyond Surface Technologies or BST, that develops bio-based alternatives to conventional chemicals used in textiles.

Patagonia has already switched to a type of PFC that is made with shorter-chain molecules and breaks down more rapidly, but those compounds still pose environmental problems and aren’t as effective in torrential rains.   Alternative water repellents, such as those made from waxes and silicon, have been both less reliable and less durable, which poses problems for both customers and the environment.

Durability remains one of the toughest hurdles.  A rain-shell with a short useful life will pose environmental problems both because of the need for more replacements and the disposal of old ones.

Given the absence of a good substitute, Patagonia and other outdoor clothing firms have yet to join an industry coalition that commits to eliminating all PFC’s in apparel by 2020.

In setting up the competition, Patagonia insisted that teams have cross-disciplinary expertise – ideally, a mix of technical knowledge, environmental science, and business.

Phil Graves, Patagonia’s director of corporate development, said response to the challenge has been better than he dared hope.  “Our original goal was to get eight proposals from eight top universities, and we got 74 proposals,’’ Graves said.

More importantly, the teams came up with a slew of plausible strategies, both technical and business, that Patagonia officials are now investigating.

“We got a long list of scientific alternatives, which we are already exploring.  We knew we wouldn’t get a drop-in solution, but we wanted to get some great ideas for paths that we hadn’t explored. That’s exactly what we got.”

The Patagonia winners will be announced April 21.  Those who want to attend the final round can register at these sites:

For more details on the competition itself, click here to visit the competition’s website.

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