Kearney: Patagonia the world's most circular fashion retail brand

09 May 2022 6 min. read
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Patagonia is the world’s most circular brand in the world of fashion retail, according to a new study. Research from Kearney highlighted the company’s commitment to recycling materials within its supply chain, as well as the roll out of innovative new rental and second-hand offerings.

The fashion industry must undergo a much needed revamp if it is to see its sustainability efforts meet the demands of a world in crisis. After oil, fashion is the world’s second most polluting industry, thanks to the use of pesticides, formaldehyde, and carcinogens in the fabrics that make many of the clothes people wear around the world. A key step on the road to making global fashion sustainable in the future is circular economics.

Broadly, circular economics involves introducing recycling to the first step of any supply chain – raw materials – and thus eliminating waste.

Patagonia the world's most circular fashion retail brand

In the specific case of circular fashion, this sees clothes, shoes or accessories designed, sourced, produced and provided with the intention to be used and circulated responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form.

After that point, they are to be returned safely to the biosphere. In other words, circular fashion is reusing the resources the fashion industry already has, while ensuring those materials are biodegradable and free from harmful materials when they are finally discarded.

Since circularity is crucial to reducing fashion’s environmental impact, the industry also needs to educate and incentivize consumers to buy fewer clothes in the first place and keep them for longer. To help facilitate this, consultants from Kearney have prepared a report evaluating the world’s top fashion brands according to their circularity. With a median score of just 1.6 out of 10 across all examined brands only a few of the 150 brands across 20 countries showed credible efforts to reduce their environmental impact.

Fortunately, the study also picked out a number of firms leading the pack, in order to highlight their best practices – and encourage others to emulate them.

Top of the pile was Patagonia. With an overall rating of 8.5, the firm shrugged off challenges from Levi’s (8.2) and NorthFace (8.05) to retain top of Kearney’s ranking. All three improved their scores from 2020 – the last time the researchers examined them – painting them as clear leaders, who “see circularity as a strategic imperative rather than a margin sacrifice on the altar of green marketing”. But what is it that sets Patagonia apart from the rest?


Headquartered in the US, Patagonia provides a range of outdoor clothing and gear, as well as materials for sports including climbing, surfing, skiing, snowboarding to its clientele. It has long been known for its leadership in taking action to reduce environmental impact, with a mission statement to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”.

According to Kearney’s study, Patagonia uses a high share of recycled materials – for example, 36% of cotton or 90% of nylon. Meanwhile, a new equipment rental programme with the gear-renting platform Awayco has further helped its use of an even higher share of recycled fabrics.

The rentals initiative, which began with a pilot for mountain biking, trail running, hiking and fly-fishing gear, means that rather than buy a new set of waders, jackets and fleeces, customers can rent the clothes then send them back to Patagonia. The garments will be professionally cleaned so they can be rented again.

Considering supply chain accounts for the biggest slice of the firm’s carbon footprint – 97% with 86% stemming from raw materials alone – having to source materials for one particular regularly used jacket, instead of five sporadically used ones, is a big step forwards.

Summing up this new approach on Patagonia’s website, Ciara Cates, Patagonia’s lead material developer, explained, “We’re ahead of the pack, but brands in general are so behind, so that’s not saying much… We make practical things that have to function, and if function is short-lived, people stop wearing it, and it’s trash. So how can we reimagine how we build products to meet those criteria?”

Further illustrating how the firm sees circularity as a “strategic imperative” that offers up opportunities, Patagonia has also created its own mechanism to promote the second-hand sale of its goods. There is a real consumer demand and appetite for the second-hand market, with resale growing 25-times faster than traditional retail in 2019 – while it is projected to hit $64 billion by 2024.

Patagonia has moved quickly to take advantage of this demand. This has evolved into Worn Wear – a standalone store that enables customers to buy second-hand Patagonia online or in selected stores, as well as getting items repaired, to keep them in play. Worn Wear accounts for $5 million of Patagonia's business.

At the same time, Patagonia also supports a number of business initiatives to promote environmentally responsible behaviour among the corporate community. Earlier in 2022, this saw it become a certified B Corp firm. Established in 2006, by the US-based non-profit B Lab (the ‘B’ stands for “Beneficial”), B Corp evaluation measures a company’s social and environmental impact across various categories by analysing factors including employee benefits, charitable giving, supply chain practices and input materials.

To gain certification, Patagonia had to answer over 200 questions about the company, providing documentation and data for further verification, and an independent evaluation with a business auditor. During the evaluation, to gain certification, a company must reach a minimum of 80 points out of 200 in an online assessment, before verifying their claims with supporting documentation. Patagonia was among the highest ranked entrants, at 151.

On top of this drive to be more sustainable in-house, Patagonia also uses its status as a retail heavyweight to give climate justice messages a platform. Beyond challenging consumerism by extending the lives of its products, this sees the firm even put out ads with catchlines like, “Don’t buy this jacket” alongside one of their products, reminding shoppers about responsible consumption. The outdoor apparel producer has even supported climate education for young consumers.

For example, the company’s Japanese conducted a “Climate Activism School” in late 2020, for 100 young people nationwide aged 15 to 24, who were concerned about the environment and wanted to do something about it.