“If it’s broke, fix it!” is a Patagonia company motto, and the company takes the motto seriously. It has operated a recycling and repair program, Worn Wear, in various permutations since 2005.
In its Reno, Nev., service center, Patagonia operates the country’s largest outdoor gear-repair shop. During the 2017 fiscal year, it made 50,295 clothing repairs.
Josh Schill, the repairs department manager, oversees 69 full-time employees working at 48 industrial sewing machines on a mezzanine in the natural-light-filled warehouse. Many employees in the repair area grow plants, which thrive under the extra task lighting at their stations.
Fourteen employees are deployed to replace zippers, which accounted for 30,000 of last year’s repairs.
“Patagonia developed a machine to help remove old zippers faster,” Schill said. “Even so, some can take 15 to 20 minutes to remove.” An average repair, start to finish, is 90 minutes, he said.
Stores send up to 600 items a week. Others are mailed directly by customers. The company receives items that have been chewed by dogs (dogs have a thing about the plastic snaps at the back of ball caps, it turns out), faded by sunlight, burned by campfires and ripped by sharp rocks or sticks.
Even after years of wear, garments get fixed, no questions asked. Items have been returned that are nearly a half-century old, dating to the infancy of the company founded by Yvon Chouinard in the mid-1970s.
The repair shop maintains a “boneyard” of old Patagonia garments from which technicians can snip pieces of fabric for patching. The shop also has hundreds of rolls of fabric left over from when garments were made. There are three 50-foot-long aisles devoted to “trims” – zippers in many lengths and colors, seam tape, buckles and buttons.
“When it gets cold, we get busy,” Schill said. The shop is swamped most of the year, slowing only for a few weeks in late summer.
Patagonia also has a small fleet of repair rigs that travel to dozens of college campuses and ski resorts, advertising these excursions much like band tours.
Patagonia staffers offer to make free repairs (even to non-Patagonia items) and teach students and skiers how to make their own fixes.
In addition to putting on learn-to-sew clinics, staffers organize events where students learn how to repair an item and then get to keep it for free. They also promote campus clothing swaps.
The repair efforts are global. Worn Wear trailers have visited 10 countries in Europe; Argentina, Chile, Peru and Costa Rica in Latin America; and six cities in China.
Worn Wear has an Instagram account with before and after photos of repaired items and stories about the items.
The company’s trade-in program, also under the Worn Wear umbrella, allows customers to bring used items in good condition to a store and receive Patagonia credit ranging from $10 to $100 in return. Board shorts, women’s dresses and skirts get the lower rate, and three-layer snow shells and some other jackets and parkas bring top dollar.
Patagonia cleans the items, and puts them for sale online at wornwear.com, priced at a discount from the company’s new items. Much like car dealers selling certified pre-owned vehicles, Patagonia markets such items as “certified pre-owned gear.”
The company’s clothing resale program, begun in 2016, started with 100 square feet in the Reno service center. Now, said Stacy Weaver, the Worn Wear operations supervisor, it has taken over 9,000 square feet and has a staff of seven.
If items returned by customers are too damaged to be resold, they are designated for reuse. Patagonia works with several entrepreneurs who “upcycle” old garments into purses, scarves or other items.
“We get to be creative,” Weavers said, “and save the life of a garment.”