Hikers, snow bunnies, comfy-clothes wearers, and cold-weather lovers: the Patagonia Lightweight Synchilla Snap-T Fleece Pullover engages in more sustainable environmental practices than its competing companies, but its labor choices are unclear and unsustainable. Patagonia needs to ensure that its factory workers are all paid a living wage. Without supporting the human rights of its employees, Patagonia’s recycled polyester fabric and progress toward reducing the environmental damages of its products do not make the fleece so sustainable for workers and the planet.
This best-selling Synchilla Snap-T Fleece is made of 100% recycled Synchilla polyester fleece––a Patagonia-trademarked fabric––and nylon and spandex. Polyester makes the fleece durable and quick drying, necessities for Patagonia’s customers that enjoy spending time outside. Unlike other active wear brands, Patagonia is making strives toward ensuring that its polyester-based fleece does not harm the environment and humans’ health. Petroleum is the base of polyester, so clothes made from this material depend on fossil fuel production, which releases a large amount of greenhouse gases into the surrounding environment and the atmosphere. Patagonia tries to decrease their dependence on petroleum by using recycled polyester as the base of its fleece. Not only does using recycled polyester reduce petroleum extraction and greenhouse gas production, but it diverts polyester clothing that consumers or producers would have thrown out from entering landfills. The impact of Patagonia’s polyester recycling efforts seems effective: in spring 2021, recycled polyester composed 84% of Patagonia’s polyester products.
The Synchilla Snap-T also contains nylon, a lightweight, moisture-pulling, petrochemical-produced fabric. While I was glad to see that Patagonia uses recycled polyester, the company uses non-recycled nylon, which is made from crude oil. Although Patagonia might be making progress toward reducing its dependence on petroleum with polyester, the fact that it uses non-recycled nylon diminishes its progress. The company states that it is making strides toward replacing virgin nylon with recycled, but I could not find any updates or progress information for this initiative, making me question how important this goal is to them.
The final material, spandex, gives fleece a stretchy feel. But, this material comes at the expense of petroleum production and its associated environmental damages. Patagonia says that it has experimented with pre-consumer recycled versions of the fabric, but its main goal is to find recycled and fossil fuel-free version of the materials that make up a larger concentration of its clothes, rather than focusing on more sustainable forms of spandex.
Patagonia’s website states that it uses polyester made from plastic soda bottles, pre-consumer waste, and post-consumer discards, but the company does not provide information on how it transforms discard into a skier’s, hiker’s, and cold weather-dweller’s favorite fleece. According to the U.K. website, Fashion United, recycled polyester, or rPET can be produced through mechanical or chemical methods. In mechanical methods, plastic bottles are washed, shredded, and turned back into a polyester chip, which manufacturers then take through a traditional polyester fiber production process. On the other hand, in chemical methods of returning recycled bottles to polyester fibers, chemical processes revert plastic to its original monomers, which resemble polyester monomers. While these methods don’t rely on petroleum for producing polyester, recycled polyester still releases microplastics into waterways. rPET provides an alternative pathway for bottle and clothing waste, but the fleece still has the same micro-plastic capabilities as virgin polyester clothing.
Unlike polyester, nylon is made from combining monomers into polymers through a condensation reaction. This process generates greenhouse gases, like nitrous oxide, and requires large amounts of water, both of which harm local and broad-scale environments.
Also a synthetic fiber, spandex is made from the polymer, polyurethane, through a polymerization reaction. As polyurethane is made from petroleum, the process of creating spandex, starting with extracting petroleum, has detrimental environmental consequences, ranging from polluted waterways, greenhouse gas production, toxic waste, and habitat destruction. While Patagonia says that it has experimented using pre-consumer recycled spandex, it still says that the material will be one of the last fabrics for which it finds a more sustainable alternative.
I commend Patagonia for using recycled polyester for most of its polyester-based products, but I would like the company making more progress toward more environmentally friendly alternatives for its other fabrics.
Patagonia is transparent about its labor choices, but not quite about its labor practices. While the company has extensive information on the the various labor problems faced by the fashion industry, writing that “... apparel workers are some of the lowest paid laborers in the world,” Patagonia’s products are not made in the U.S., which makes me wonder if they follow some of the same harmful labor practices as other businesses. Patagonia justifies its decision to make the Snap-T Fleece in Nicaragua because about half of its sales come from outside of the U.S., so switching its production to the U.S. would not drastically reduce its emissions from transportation. Patagonia does not own their factories, which means that they have limited control over how much factories pay its laborers. That said, Patagonia partners with Fair Trade, a global movement that aims to protect equitable labor practices and fair trade partnerships. Fair Trade claims that the premium from the Fair Trade Certified label, which is placed on Patagonia’s apparel, goes directly back to factory workers, in which employees decide how to spend the extra money. Despite this certification, some articles report that Fair Trade partnerships rarely make a dent in workers’ paychecks. Patagonia’s own reports seem to support Fair Trade’s hazy practices: “As of 2019, 35% of our apparel assembly factories are paying their workers a living wage, on average.” When less than half of Patagonia’s factories can maintain that they support the human lives of laborers, Patagonia’s labor practices are not sustainable.