We had the chance to have a great chat with Bremen Schmeltz, the APAC Managing director of Patagonia on all things eco and environmental!
Q - Hi Bremen thank you for meeting with us today. How do you think your commitment to sustainability has contributed to Patagonia’s business success?
A – You know I think it’s an interesting question, I think that defining business success is the crux of this and for me I like to believe that we have a customer base that thinks consciously about how they buy their products in its simplest form. I like to think that these people go out and trust that we have done our homework and that we are doing everything we can to create a product that is at a minimum a more conscious purchase for them. As far as the financial aspect of the business I think it’s more of a philosophical thing for us. It’s not necessarily, what have we done, can we quantify x y and z for the company financially, this is what we do and it’s not a question. Even if hindered our financial success or growth, we would continue to do it. [Oh really?] Absolutely.
Q - Tell us about your participation in 1% For The Planet.
A – Yeah, this is one of the things that I’m most proud of with the company and you know Yvon Chouinard our founder coined the description as an ‘earth tax’. Yvon was one of the founders of 1% For The Planet and in essence this is a way for us to support grass roots philanthropic efforts, the thing thats exciting as from my perspective its people that are passionate and care and just need support to figure out how to achieve their goals. It may be cleaning up a trail in your backyard, a beach clean up or trying to develop a new biodegradable water bottle, whatever it may be, it may be a way for us to generate funds to support people who are passionate, because ultimately that’s success from my perspective. Success in this comes at the corporate level, but effecting the way people think and people consume will then lead to corporations to make changes. So 1% For The Planet for me is an exciting thing because it offers a grass roots support mechanism for people who are passionate about a cause. It’s probably one of my favorite things that Patagonia does as a corporation; it’s an incredible deal, we give away a lot of money. [Is it 10% or 1% depending on which is most, profit or turnover?] Yes, correct.
Q - Can you share about the new improvements to the Nano Puff Jacket insulation? (The 55% recycled Primaloft Gold Insulation Eco).
A – You basically nailed it right there! It’s not just this jacket, we’re looking comprehensively thought our entire product line and our goal is to create an entire product line that has the technical prowess but also has a sustainable component. I think the most interesting thing about this is the particular changes we’ve made with Primaloft, as a business model is that we’ve gone ahead and made this change within this jacket and from a technical perspective it’s a high performing insulation. Not only have improvements been made in fit and comfort along with the environmental standards, but also what’s most interesting is that Primaloft is now going to be switching all of their gold partners next year over to this fabric. I think something that’s really important for people to recognize that at Patagonia we don’t believe in creating these new platforms of environmental technologies and keeping them for ourselves, weather it’s Primaloft or its Ulex wetsuits, we develop this stuff and we open it up to the world and say ‘please take this technology’! It’s not a proprietary thing for us, we don’t want to be ‘hey we’re the only one who does this’, and we want everyone to make improvements. With technology we’re very vocal and essentially we give out how to manuals to companies that are interested in doing this stuff. [That’s very generous] Absolutely, it’s an important thing. I wont do it justice because I wasn’t intimately evolved with it, but we were at one point involved with Wal-Mart. [I wouldn’t expect that] Exactly, but Wal-Mart were interested in organic cotton years ago, I was a sales rep at the time, it was a long time ago but I do remember executives from Wal-Mart coming to visit us in Ventura and Yvon Chouinard meeting with them about the impacts on changing from non-organic to organic cotton and what it can do for the business. Someone like Wal-Mart coming in and switching to organic cotton would create a giant ripple effect in the supply chain. Anyway, that’s an example of how we have an open door policy with that stuff, the more people we can get on board using better materials, ultimately were operating within our mission as a business and doing our part to help. [That’s more than helping] Sure, sure.
Q - How do you manage the environmental impact of the import and export side of the business? (Airfreight, road delivery etc).
A – This is a really difficult thing and ultimately we make products, we’re a global company and I think there is absolutely aspects of our business that you cant help but not have an ideal scenario and this is one of those things. There are footprints for our products that are huge; there are T-shirts that are made in China then flown over, it’s like millage plus award members! It’s all about creating a balance, making sure that we have a product that is the highest quality, that has the least possible environmental footprint that we can do, always knowing that we want to make improvements along the way and transparency is probably the one key ingredient in this. [Your company is very transparent] absolutely, as far as the footprint of a garment goes, being transparent and having an open door policy and letting people know that it’s not an ideal scenario and never will be, but we’re trying. We’re always open for new ideas and opportunities and looking for ways to make improvements, weather it’s factory direct so that products that are made in China don’t go to the US and then back to China. There are ways to make improvements on this stuff, but you also have to remember that we are a business, and for order for us to be a successful business and for us to inspire other businesses to do well, we have to do well ourselves and included in that is our financial success.
Q - Patagonia implements a ‘4 fold’ approach to pre-screen factories before you place orders. What are the 4 elements you look for?
A – This part of our business is incredibly robust and one of the other things I’m most proud about as a company and that is that our factory audits and the level of depth that we get into with our business partners globally. So as far as the 4-pronged approach goes, first and foremost is supply. What are the capabilities of the factory? We need to make sure that they have the ability to deliver in a manor that the volume would be appropriate for us. The quality is there, that’s the second prong, and do they have the ability to deliver the quality we demand? Because we pride ourselves on making the best product in the market, weather is a waterproof jacket, a ski jacket, a surf wetsuit or a t-shirt, we would never partner with someone that doesn’t have the ability to deliver the quality that we want. The third and the fourth prongs are social and environmental responsibility. They are an equal player, there’s not a hierarchy, and all the prongs are equal. The social and environmental aspect is massive. The amounts of information we have is huge, we have full teams that audit and make sure the factories that we are in and not just the factories that are in India, it includes where are they getting their fabrics from and the dye houses, we go though the whole ripple effect and that chain of supply. [So you look at every aspect?] Every single aspect and we find stuff we didn’t even know about. We’ve been called out by PETA and we’re grateful for it. [Was that regarding the wool?] Yes, the wool in New Zealand, they were right to call us out and we were very transparent about it and immediately made changes.
Q - Patagonia is a founding member of the Fair Label Association, ensuring workers across the world including here in Asia, work in a safe environment. What impact do you think this has had for your workers and for the whole company?
A – Obvious impacts for the workers are at factory level. For us it’s very important that we are not taking advantage of the supply chain in a way that a lot of companies do. So we have auditors in place and their entire job is solely dedicated to ensuring that there is a quality of life and there’s a pay scale that provides a living wage not a minimum wage, then there’s 20 or 100 things that go beyond that. One of the really interesting things that we’re working on right now is insuring factories aren’t necessarily in charge of the financial future of the employees. We pay the factory and the factory pays the employees and so on, but now we’ve set up a process that we pay a percentage premium to the employees that they can create an account on their own, they have a group that will decide on what to do with that. [Did one group set up a school?] Yes, they decide on what they will do with that, the employees decided. That’s a way for us to ensure that we are a part of their culture, we want to be able to support their culture and families and be gracious and reward them for their hard work. [I don’t know of any other companies that do anything like that] You can look at it from two different angles, one being that there are companies that do amazing things, some make all their things in the US and have complete control over everything in this tiny bubble, and that would work for a smaller company, but we’re a big global company. I think the thing I find interesting is that rather than try to do it all yourself and try to take control of everything, lets effect change on a bigger scale. Let’s get out and get involved with these global networks and be an example and if we can do it successfully we can show other companies you can be a profitable successful business and still use the same factories and still use the same supply chain. You don’t have to turn your business upside down on its head; you can do it the right way.
Q - Tell us about Patagonia Ambassadors, how do you choose them and what is their role?
A – Our ambassadors are a unique thing that we do; it’s different from other companies. I view our ambassadors less as marketing tools for us but more as employee role models or product testing models. Steve House, Brittany Griffith and our alpine and climbing ambassadors are intimately involved with our product development process. We call it ‘The Forge’ which is the laboratory where we test stuff, they’ll send Steve House a jacket, which is basically cut down the middle where half of it is soft shell and the other half is a 2.5 layer something else. He’ll go and climb a mountain and he’ll be able to give us instant feedback on what worked. Our ambassadors are less about putting big pictures of people doing things out in a magazine and more about you’re on the sharp end of the spear, we want to work with you to know about the products we create. The messages we give through our enviro ambassadors make sure it’s the highest quality technically and from a philosophical perspective. These are people that are out on the field and that are closet to the sports and the activism we love, so we want to make sure what we are doing is learning from them and being as close to that as we can.
Q - Patagonia employees helped to create a new national park in the Chilean Patagonia. Do you have any plans for similar initiatives in Asia?
A – That was done through Patagonia board members and good friends of the Chouinard’s. They were intimately involved with setting up funds for that and it’s such an amazing thing, it’s one of the largest donations of land ever done. Are we going to do that in Asia, I would love to. The Asia Pacific team and myself are having different convocations around different things to support ideas around this; we are working with national parks in Korea to raise money for support for national parks. For us, the Asia Pacific business for Patagonia is an emerging market for us, so we have some time ahead of us before we really get our full swing going on stuff like national parks. We want to get involved and we’re here to support and meet people and try to connect and try to get involved as much as we can. The goal in the long term is if we can do something like that in Asia we’ll be 100% in, it takes time though.
Q - You separate a ‘living wage’ and a ‘minimum wage’ for your factory workers; can you tell us the significance of this?
A – Going back to what we touched on earlier, it’s about ensuring that the employees are provided with a lifestyle that gives them the capabilities to live and be rewarded for their hard work and not just survive. Our website, under the social responsibly section has an astounding amount of information on there. As I’m on the business end of things it’s not exactly in my lexicon, but you can find a ton of information in detail about why we do what we do and how we support these guys. Circling back to the question, for us, what we’re trying to do is create from suppliers through customers, an experience that is worthy of the price you’re paying and the quality of our products. The pride in who’s making our products and where there making them, also celebrating the fact that we make our products in India or in China and not hiding from this. These are the best factories and the best people making these products, we’re proud of that and we want them to proud of it, they are part of our story.
Q - Is there anything else you’d like to share?
A – I‘ve been at the company for nearly 14 years and I guess for me, the consistent thing that I feel is as an employee and part of the Patagonia family, I don’t feel that I’m hear to sell stuff, that’s a small part of what we do. We have great partners in Hong Kong and China and we have amazing business platforms in place. Ultimately, for me what’s interesting in where I see the opportunity for the future of Patagonia is to educate consumers and to help support people to make better decisions on how they buy stuff. So for me, why I work at Patagonia is ultimately that. I want to be able at some point of my life to look back and say ‘we made difference’ and I think that’s a thing that everyone at Patagonia thinks too, weather it’s our business partners overseas or us at the corporate level. Selling stuff is pretty easy, it’s not that complicated. We have a great product, a great story and great stores, people walk in and give you money, and it’s not complicated. What’s exciting about Patagonia is in my mind; it’s like an iceberg. The selling stuff is the tip of it, and the enlightening part about us is the whole iceberg is underwater. I’d be curious to see if there was data on how many people buy our product because of the iceberg verses the color for example, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter which, they like our stuff and they are buying it, weather they know it or not they are part of the solution. [Everyone that buys something is helping] Sure, I’ve always said that. Sales can have a dirty connotation, but growth of a business is a good thing, each Patagonia jacket that people buy is one less not Patagonia jacket and it’s all part of the solution I hope.
For more information about all the great things Patagonia does, take a look at their website.