Plastics are essential to building durable, high-performance products. But they’re also accelerating the environmental crisis, from the fossil fuels used to make plastics to the pollution that piles up once they’ve been tossed. Find out why we still use plastics, what we’re doing to reduce our impact and why we need action at the individual, business and government levels to address the problem.
Our closets are filled with fossil fuels.
Plastic (aka synthetic) fibers are a literal thread tying the clothing industry to the oil and gas industry. Most plastic fibers begin as crude oil, which is distilled into chemicals like ethyne, and are then heated and transformed into everything from single-use plastic bottles to clothing fibers like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polyester. The UN estimates that 60 percent of clothing is made from these types of plastics. By 2030, it’s expected to reach 73 percent. That’s welcome news for Big Oil and gas. As transportation moves away from fossil fuels, experts say plastic will become a lucrative way for the industry to maintain demand.
But the problem goes beyond using petroleum as a source for raw material. Burning fossil fuels to create those synthetic materials is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions warm the planet, increase ocean acidification and release harmful—sometimes toxic—air pollutants.
Every piece of plastic ever made is still on the planet.
Plastic persists in our environment indefinitely unless it's been incinerated or launched into space via satellite or spacecraft. Less than 10 percent of plastic in the US is actually recycled, 16 percent is burned, and the rest piles up in landfills, releasing greenhouse gases, impacting wildlife habitats and posing a risk to air and water quality.
The percentage of our plastic fabrics that came from a recycled source in 2021.
We’re creating new products out of old plastics.
Plastics in clothing maintain durability and offer critical—sometimes life-saving—technical performance factors like weatherproofing and moisture-wicking. That’s why we use plastics in our products.
But we’ve been focused on reducing our reliance on virgin plastics since 1993, when we started making fleece out of recycled plastic bottles—the first outdoor apparel manufacturer to transform trash into clothing. Now we’re transitioning away from those well-established yet still broken recycled waste streams and thinking more systematically.
We’re investing in new and urgently needed infrastructure that enables products to be made from plastics that would otherwise be sent to landfills or end up in waterways. That’s what led to our 2014 investment in Bureo®, a California-based company that repurposes discarded plastic fishing nets into NetPlus® material. Through this partnership, we’ve diverted more than 525 tons of nets and used that plastic in our hat brims, jackets and shorts.
The future of plastics at Patagonia.
Our goal is to only keep synthetics in the most durable, longest-lasting products so they stay in play for more time—whether it’s in your closet or passed down to a friend’s. That concept of circularity is what prompted us to launch Worn Wear®. It’s created a platform for repair, reuse and trading in old gear (both synthetic-based and natural-fiber-based) so we rely less on virgin resources and use more of what’s already been made.
By 2025, we intend to make at least half of our synthetic materials using secondary waste streams—materials sourced from textile waste, ocean-plastic waste or bottle collection programs from regions without waste management systems in place.
We also have new partnerships in the works that will divert plastic waste from landfills and oceans, prioritize traceable and socially equitable supply chains, and support circular economies.
Our 2025 goal for the percentage of synthetic materials we source from secondary waste streams.
Decreasing our dependence.
We know recycling isn’t the fix-all. It still requires energy and generates its own carbon footprint. And then there are some synthetics that don’t yet have proper recycling solutions in place. That’s why to really address the global plastic problem, it is going to take more than just recycling.
We have to rethink how much plastic we use and find new ways to extract ourselves from the oil and gas supply chain. Aligning with science-based targets, we’re planning to stop sourcing virgin petroleum for products and instead use preferred materials by 2025, including organic and Regenerative Organic cotton, recycled polyester and recycled nylon, among others.
Our target year for eliminating virgin petroleum sources from our supply chain.
How we can all create meaningful change.
We’ve made strides to reduce our reliance on virgin plastics and are taking new steps to address the plastics we use in our products, but we can’t do it alone. Changing industry practices requires action on the individual, business and government levels. Here are some ways you can help:
What you can do Simply put, buy less and demand more. Reject the concept of fast fashion, buy responsibly made and durable gear only when needed and shop used if possible—then wear it, repair it and pass it on once you no longer need it.
But the activism doesn’t end in your closet. Ask your favorite brands how they’re thinking about their plastic use and what they’re doing to mitigate it. Are they switching to renewable energy sources? Prioritizing recycled materials? Being transparent about their supply chain and footprint?
Come election time, use the power of your vote. Elect leaders who are committed to addressing the climate crisis through targeted measures like cutting fossil fuel subsidies and investing in green energy.
What businesses can do Shifting an entire industry calls for collaboration. We share the names of many of our supply chain partners so other companies can invest in those secondary waste streams and amplify the effort. Other tangible steps include eliminating virgin petroleum sources from products, aligning with financial partners who are committed to a global energy transition and supporting grassroots organizations whose communities are most impacted by the climate crisis.
What governments can do Building and scaling broader, more meaningful legislation and regulation is critical to creating systemic change in the way our clothes are made, transported and treated after they’ve been worn. Measures like decreased tariffs for recycled and organic materials, documenting and disclosing supply chains (where clothes are made and who is making them), and incentives for companies who adopt materials from organic or recycled inputs won’t just create transparency. These laws and regulations would hold companies accountable for their impact and drive the urgent changes that the industry needs.