Well Made

Ep. 52 Celebrating the Stories We Wear with Nellie Cohen

July 25, 2018 · RSS · Apple Podcasts

Nellie Cohen sees endless potential in worn-in clothing. Sure there may be a few broken zippers, but quality garments, especially those made by outdoor apparel and gear company, Patagonia are built for some wear and tear. In fact, that’s the idea.

Nellie oversees Patagonia’s Worn Wear program. Worn Wear encourages people to do more with the clothing they already have through repair, reuse, and responsible recycling. They do this by offering trade-in credits for pre-owned Patagonia merchandise that’s then resold online at a discount. While a smaller operation, Worn Wear is part of Patagonia’s larger commitment to ethical environmental responsibility. The repair center, for instance, patches over 40,000 garments each year. More than that, the program is about the true stories of people and their Patagonia gear and preserving the planet in a small way. 

“It's good for the planet if there's liquidity — if things are moving around and being used to their maximum value and lifetime.”

 Celebrating the Stories We Wear

On this episode of the podcast, Nellie shares the origins behind Worn Wear (6:24). She illuminates on the process of launching their ecommerce site (10:58), managing the logistics behind all the program elements (13:07), and creating cross-functional trainable systems (14:23). Nellie talks about the revenue goals of the program (17:56). Stephan asks about the organizational systems and values that enable Patagonia to implement programs like Worn Wear (23:10). Nellie shares how they’re still a scrappy startup under a larger parent company (34:43). They get big picture with sustainability in ecommerce and its impact on Patagonia (35:44); and finally, they dive into Patagonia’s case study on plastic packaging for garment delivery (38:48). Full transcript below. 

Shop Worn Wear and follow them on Instagram.

Also mentioned on the show:

Header image via 2025design.



Stephan Ango: You're listening to Well Made a podcast from Lumi about the people and ideas behind your favorite online brands. I'm your host, Stephen Ango. Nellie Cohen, welcome to the show.

Nellie Cohen: Hey, thanks for having me.

Stephan: So you are the Worn Wear manager at Patagonia. That is a program that Patagonia has been doing for a few years now, right? When was Worn Wear launched actually?

Nellie: Worn Wear really originated in 2005. That was the year that we launched our textile recycling program. We were actually the first brand to create a closed loop product and we worked with a mill in Japan called Taijin and their proprietary process called eco-circle and so we started in 2005 by asking our customers to bring back any of their polyester Patagonia polyester garments. That's the very initial origins of Worn Wear and the time the program was called the Common Threads Recycling Program. And it was really interesting experience if it's okay to go ahead and keep elaborating on that.

Stephan: Go for it, yeah. I would assume people know about Patagonia and for its entire history since it started has always been on the forefront of sustainability and repair as part of that. Worn Wear is focused on reusing, repairing and trading in your Patagonia products, right? Is that a fair way to describe it?

Nellie: Yeah. You know, we've been around for 45-years. We started as a company that made climbing equipment. We started in Ventura, California we're still located here and today we don't make climbing equipment anymore, but we do make plenty of clothing for outdoor pursuits and that lifestyle as well. Just in case people aren't familiar.

Stephan: I'm pretty sure 99.9% of people will know.

Nellie: I am surprised sometimes.

Stephan: Really?

Nellie: Yeah. Even I have met people in Ventura who don't know what Patagonia is so go figure.

Stephan: Well that's good. It means you still have some, some customers to find out there.

Nellie: Exactly. Exactly. It's a good thing.

Stephan: So with Worn Wear you got involved, it sounds like basically since the beginning of it?

Nellie: Yeah. Well, in 2005 I was in between Undergrad and Grad school and I was working at one of our independently owned outdoor retail shops and I remember Patagonia shipping us this recycling box and it's like, oh man, that's so cool that this company is taking back their clothing to be recycled. My experience in the box over the couple years that I worked at that store was that they didn't get anything like one employee put some old base layers, like long underwear in that box. And that was it. So, we kept it out on the sales floor because it's an interesting story for sure. And I wound my way to Patagonia after Grad school and landed in our environmental department around 2011. And that was the year that we had published the sort of famous, I'll say humbly famous, for people in sustainability circles are familiar with the advertisement in the New York Times on Black Friday. It said, "Don't buy this jacket"(https://www.patagonia.com/stories/dont-buy-this-jacket-black-friday-and-the-new-york-times/story-18615.html). And really the fine print on that was saying if you need a jacket, that's great. You know, buy the best quality jacket you can, but ultimately like everything that goes into this jacket is so much more than you realize. So if you're not in need, don't spend the resources to do it. And that was really this very pivotal moment for what was still called Common Threads. So kind of going back to that, what's the origins of Worn Wear? When did Worn Wear start? So it had been five or six years that the program had just been focused on recycling garments and my personal experience with that had been was characteristic of the whole program. We really didn't get much back and that's when we really learned that Patagonia's commitment to quality really rings true. Like our stuff is not made to be recycled. And so that ad was offering a partnership with our customers to take mutual responsibility for the things that Patagonia was making and that they were purchasing from us. That responsibility was to see the product through its end of life, to see it be used to its maximum ability. And to that extent we partnered with eBay that year and we offered our customers an opportunity to sign what we call the Common Threads Pledge and we were shifting away now from this recycling program to including more artists. So, reuse, reusing items through reselling them on eBay. And when they sign this pledge, we actually cross listed the items that were posted for sale by Common Thread's pledgies, we put them on Patagonia.com and they were also featured on the Common Thread's storefront on eBay. That was also the first time we talked about our repair service, which we had had since the inception of the company effectively. We had always been repairing things, but we hadn't really talked about it in a public way aside from our guarantee. Our ironclad guarantee has always said, we'll replace or repair the product, but you didn't really formally say, "Hey, we actually have this repair center that can handle all this stuff". So we gave our customers all these opportunities: Send it in for repair, sell it on ebay or you know, continue to recycle it if it's truly worn out. And so that was the sort of the full buffet that came out in 2011 and then that's kinda when I joined the department there and after that ad we all kinda went, okay, now what are we gonna do? And then things started happening very organically. We started seeing a huge double digit year over year increase in the amount of repairs we were getting in our repair center. I think when I started then around 2011 when that ad came out, we probably had on the order of like 10 to 15 people working in our repairs department and today we'll have 80 to 90 in our peak season. So that was a boom. The eBay program was super successful for quite a while, for a couple years. But around 2013 we were still really struggling with how do you truly reach more people? They've signed this pledge, they're sort of in this club, but like what are they really getting out of it? And at that time, Lauren and Keith Malloy, Keith Malloy's one of Patagonia's surf ambassadors and his wife Lauren had started this blog called Worn Wear. And it was just very simply and very beautifully articulating the meaning that Patagonia clothes have to their owners. And I reached out to Lauren and I said, "This is really the heart of what we're trying to do with Common Threads, like would you be willing to work together on this?" And she was amazing and said, "Absolutely, let's do it". And so it took a little while for us to kind of figure out the positioning. But ultimately we decided to remove the Common Threads brand and sort of make the program a little bit simpler to our customers. We had kind of some other options that just in other areas under the whole reduce, reuse, recycle mantra. We said okay? Worn Wear is repairing your stuff. Worn Wear is reusing your stuff and Worn Wear is responsibly recycling your stuff when you're no longer done with it. But ultimately like the heart of Worn Wear is celebrating the stories we wear, was kind of the line that we came up with. These are the stories we wear of our clothing and our in house film team and Keith Malloy's brothers, Dan and Chris made this beautiful film that we shared, I believe it was 2014 on Black Friday. As three years later the followup to that ad. So Worn Wear's about five years old this year, a lot has happened since then, but I'll pause here and that's sort of the history that gets us to fairly present moment.

Stephan: We'll put the original ad, the 2011 ad in the show notes so that people can see it if they haven't. It makes me feel so old that it was in 2011 because it feels so brand new to me still. And then last year there was, I think probably one of the most successful campaigns I've seen from Patagonia in a long time with Our President Stole Our Land, a website. I forget how it was phrased exactly. But that was not part of that, that was probably a different division at Patagonia that launched that one.

Nellie: Yeah. But I think the company has a history of being provocative without being showy, you know, trying to get people to see the seriousness of our world's issues, but without being total downers at the same time. Because I don't think finger wagging at anybody makes anybody want to participate in a movement. It has to be inclusive. It has to be fun. Yeah. It wasn't part of Worn Wear, but it was amazing and it's been continued. We're still working on saving our public lands too. It's still a main story and effort around here.

Stephan: Yeah. So we'll put links to all of those so that people can check it out. And I mean, I think that since the inception of the company, there's always been a focus on educating customers, educating the world through originally the catalogs and the ads. And then most recently I read the book by Yvon Chouinard, Let My People Go Surfing, so it's expanding in every sort of different way to teach people about these values which are so which are so important. And Worn Wear I think is a very practical embodiment of that because it's things that you can actually do, you can actually go to this website and now over the past few months you've been launching the ecommerce side of that. Can you explain a little bit about what that is?

Nellie: So we decided after working with eBay and kind of learning a lot there and I mean again feeling old like 2011 eBay and maybe to some extent Craigslist, but by far eBay was like the only player in this reuse ecommerce reuse business. And now look around us. You know, it seems like everywhere you look there's a way to purchase used clothing. So it's really great to see the industry or the sector grow overtime. All these reports from ThredUP and stuff showing that used clothing, thrift is going to outpace retail growth. So it's very exciting to see that happening, but we ultimately wanted to own that experience for our customers. And so last year we launched the resale reuse portion of Worn Wear and so what we're doing is we're purchasing clothing back from our customers that functions perfectly and is in at least good condition and we clean it and we put it up for sale on one wornwear.com. And it's definitely a deep discount too. So, it's been great. It's been really successful. We haven't talked a lot about it yet. Launching a business like this we've been learning just a lot along the way. And so now I feel like we're in a position where we're ready to go forth in a bigger way and speak about it more with our customers. The trade in aspect of that inventory supply side, purchasing things back from people has been really popular. A lot of our customers have been purchasing Patagonia for a long time. They perhaps don't do the original sport that the product was intended for and they don't have as much use for it or they're just really tired of the color. Thing lasted too long and you didn't really think you're going to be stuck with a purple fleece for your entire life. So there's far more customers today at home going, "Gosh, I know I could probably take this back to Patagonia. They take anything back, but there's really nothing wrong with it". And so it creates this incredible conversation in our retail stores between Patagonia customers to say, "Hey, we get it. You're tired of it. No problem. Let us take it off your hands. We're going to give you a credit and that credit can be used in the stores. It can be used on Patagonia.com, but it can also be used on one wornwear.com". So people can buy something used. They don't necessarily have to buy something new with it, which is really important part of the program. So that's been a huge boon for the company. And it's also a great way to get people into our brand who can't afford Patagonia.

Stephan: So I'm very curious about the specifics of this. So people can return or trade in at the stores. Can they also ship their products back in?

Nellie: Not yet. We're figuring out the logistics of that. We absolutely know it's critical to the long term success of the program. But we definitely launched this thing, sort of the Patagonia way, like low investment in technology, a lot of good people behind it and sort of hand to mouth. So there is no secret behind what we're doing, essentially. It's a hand sorting process. We do have some backend support through a company called Yerdle Recommerce that's based in San Francisco that we invested in 2014 when they were pursuing a different kind of marketplace. They take the products off our hands after they've been cleaned and permanently stamped. We actually add a stamp into our garments. We wanted to ensure that any of the products that are sold through Worn Wear still offer the exact same level of customer service that somebody who would buy a full-price Patagonia product, like once you're in the club, you're in the club, no matter where you bought it, you're part of our family and we're going to serve you the same way.

Stephan: At what point do they determine or do you determine the value that the trade in has?

Nellie: That's a great question. So, because we're just doing this people to people interactions. We had to create a system that was very trainable across our retail stores. So that means training hundreds of people on the system. We have our minimum quality standards, right? But we basically just give a way the credits based on what the item is and you can actually download a pdf on what this is on one wornwear.com. So unfortunately at this time, we can't offer a greater credit for that down sweater that's in really good condition versus the down sweater that's in okay condition or passable condition. Again, I think that's another long term goal. The program is to become more nuanced, with how we're distributing the credits, the trading credits, but it's easy and it's clear and it's very teachable to say, this bucket of products, the trading value was $40, this bucket at $70, onward, onward. So, that's how we do it. It's very simple.

Stephan: And once that item comes into your repair center, I mean you have over the years made so many different skews, different colors, different garments, different sizes. Is there a pretty broad range of types of repairs that need to be done? How do you sort that and decide where things go or what's the process there?

Nellie: Yeah. So, the stuff that we take in for trade in, we ask that it doesn't need a repair because our repairs department is so impacted. They have so much demand our demand exceeds our ability to repair to be quite frank with you. But how we kind of handle that on the repair side, and I'm not an expert here, we try to tackle the sort of easiest repairs first. If you get stuck doing a very difficult repair, you might sacrifice the time it takes to do six small repairs. And so, it's kind of easier to hold off on that more difficult one and stoke out the six customers that sent their jacket. And we have a huge trims library on hand. So by trim’s I'm talking about zippers, velcro, patch material, all the cord locks, all the sort of bells and whistles on your jacket, right? Besides the main body fabric. And we literally have a library of those. So when an item comes in for repair we can identify what that item is. There's a style number season and a color on your garment tag. You could look inside there and probably kind of figure out what it is and we can look back in our database or our product line management database and know what trims we need and pull those out of the library and they get attached to that jacket. And so then when it reaches the repair tech in our repair department, they're sitting there with the card that says this is what's wrong. The trims are ready to go and actually we have a prep step in-between too. So somebody probably already removed, say the broken zipper or something. So then it just gets fixed and back out to our customers as fast as we can.

Stephan: Yeah, that's so cool. I don't know how many people have had to solve that logistical problem, but I imagine that it's not a really common process to solve for. And I think it's fascinating to see how you've done it. With the store that you launched for Worn Wear, is the goal there to make that profitable? Do you think of it more like it needs to break even and it's part of our values as a company or what's the goal there from a revenue standpoint?

Nellie: Yeah. Our goal is to make it profitable. Patagonia as a whole has always tried to perform like a publicly held company in the sense that we are profitable and I think that proves our model that you can do well by doing good. It takes away any excuses that any other company can say, "Oh, you know, Patagonia does it. Oh, they're privately held". You know? Whatever, blah blah, blah. Like we're going to do this. We're gonna give away through 1% for the planet. Worn Wear is going to be profitable. We are going to make money selling used clothing. I think our long term strategy. We're really seriously thinking about how can we be regenerative in nature? How can we make products with the smallest footprint possible? Could we have a carbon cap at Patagonia? We just had a case study and the winning team suggested why don't you guys cap it? You know, and that would push us to sell a greater proportionally, a greater percent of Worn Wear products to contribute to our bottom line and products with the smallest footprint possible or fewer maybe pinnacle products that are really performance oriented but maybe have a larger footprint. So, we're thinking about all that and Worn Wear is absolutely part of that strategy and we were profitable the first year and we're continuing. We are going to grow it. That will really prove to any other company out there that this is possible and it's good for your bottom line and it's good for the planet. There's no excuses basically.

Stephan: I'm curious, when you sort of started designing the actual mechanism for returning and trading in products, how does that work? Because presumably, I mean Patagonia is a large company. How did you actually approach the retail team on here's a new training process that we need to implement? How does that work when you're launching something new at Patagonia like this?

Nellie: Oh yeah. Well, this was a really huge team effort and the call came from the upper echelons of the company that this was something that we wanted to do. So in my experience here, that's what really works best is when the green light comes from the top and everybody can kind of feel, they can follow suit. And I think it's funny, I was just thinking about this the other day. It's not that people don't want to help you, that they don't believe in your mission, but everybody has a lot on their plates. Everybody has their own goals they're trying to meet and when a project pops up that maybe wasn't on their radar, it's hard for people to shift directions, right? You know, I mean, they're busy. They're busy folks. And so what was great was to have the support of our CEO and she was the one who said, let's do this and you know, it's okay like you can turn away from maybe your other task and put some time towards this. And so not only our retail team but our ecommerce teams. Gosh, there are so many people, our distribution center teams. So many hands that had to lift to make this come to life. And in particular our retail teams have a great couple of folks that are in charge of training and anything new that comes out to the store be it like a campaign that you mentioned earlier to something operational. It goes through them and they have a system of disseminating information to our store employees. So, that was how we did that one piece of it.

Stephan: I'm looking this up as we speak. How many people work at Patagonia today? It's like thousands or something.

Nellie: Yeah, we're like about 700 people in our corporate office in Ventura. And then I think another 600 or so in our distribution center in Reno. That's just kind of US operations. Plus retail, plus we have smaller but again, corporate offices in Europe, Japan, Latin America. And it's growing. It's growing quickly.

Stephan: Yeah. So, I just think about that in the context of how you're describing building out this program and I think that it just seems from the outside at least that everyone at Patagonia seems quite aligned on the goals of the company and making sustainability such an important part of it. But when you have something like this where you're saying that profits are important to the Worn Wear program, but you're saying part of it is that we need to make sure that we're collecting things properly through the stores that introduces a new cost to the retail store because they have to spend time with the customers who are coming in and walk them through how it's going to work. And so the decision that you're making on your side to implement this new program has an effect on a different team who might be tracking their metrics in a different way. I find it fascinating that you sort of described this coming from the top, but I'm curious if there's anything about the culture of Patagonia or the functional organization of Patagonia that allows you as a company to develop these new systems that are like cross team that relies on a lot of teams collaborating together?

Nellie: Yeah, that's a great question. When I started with Patagonia, I actually started in our retail group. I was actually hired originally for six weeks to work the holiday season on the sales floor. And so I've kind of seen the company from various vantage points. And I think we've gotten by for so many years on really good people. We have relatively low turnover in our retail stores compared to probably regular retail. We have people that are just so passionate about working here that they will take on these extra projects. And I think we're getting a lot better about leveraging technology, and that's helping us in many ways. But I feel like for a long time it was just really strong, competent, dedicated workforce. And that still exists and just saying those people now have some good tools in their back pockets to take to the next level. We knew that there's a lot of issues that brands could face starting this kind of reuse programs. So you kind of have to address each group one by one and error those fears and error those concerns and validate them because they are valid. You don't know what you don't know, you kind of got to try things and see if the data proves it this way or that way. And that's a little bit what we're doing right now. So what I'm talking about there specifically is like in retail, yes, we're asking them to do a new operation. We're asking them to train people. And yet you hit it, you characterized it perfectly. This is a lot to ask, but the advantages is they're getting traffic into their stores. Today when I mentioned earlier, is retail a dying industry? I don't know if dying is the right word. Someone the other day I was talking to characterized it yesterday as a transitioning industry and I think that's a better way of putting it. But at the end of the day, you want people walking through your doors in retail and so this is one more reason that you can come into a Patagonia store. And then in the same breath you are issuing somebody a credit that could be used in their store. So you're putting somebody in the store with money that's a good thing for that team. So that has to work for them and you have to do all this stuff so it does work, right? Let's talk about the same thing for ecommerce, right? You're now putting things on a website that are effectively the same things. For a company like Patagonia, where we've been making the same product for 30, 45 years, like iconic products. Like a snap-t pullover or down sweater, or a nano puff. I mean we have plenty of those for sale on Patagonia.com, so when you put these products on a new website next to it, there's fear of cannibalization. But we're also able to identify the one wear customers is a younger customer that probably right now isn't able to afford to buy full price Patagonia items and so the way that person is participating in our brand is outside of our direct to customer walls, right? They maybe find something at a local thrift store which is awesome, but maybe they're shopping eBay or a super deep discounter somewhere else on the web. Through Worn Wear we can now bring that customer into our customer base. And that's kind of the carrot there for like an ecommerce team, right? It's saying, well hey, at least at least you're going to get this data now, this purchase information and things. And we can talk to these people directly. You have to find a reason to help everybody's business when you're introducing a new business.

Stephan: I think of Patagonia as being very innovative as a business in terms of always pushing the boundaries of especially these sustainability initiatives. You said technology is an area where you're trying to continue improving things, but I guess you mentioned thredUP earlier. Do you have a chance to look outwards at other companies that are doing interesting things that inspire you? Or is it challenging to be so unique? There's not that many people doing what Patagonia does as a company. So does that make it harder I guess is my question?

Nellie: Right? And in all honesty, I used to spend a lot of time looking externally, especially as we were building or considering thinking about building this ecommerce business and now that it's built, I kind of just like heads down keeping it going. But, yeah, in the beginning looking at a ThredUP or Poshmark, even the buy sell trade Facebook groups organized by parents for their kids Patagonia clothing. There's a lot of action there, a lot of movement and I mean at the end of the day we make these things such high quality, such incredible durability, like they just shouldn't sit in anybody's closet or garage going unused. So ultimately it's good for the planet if there's liquidity. If things are moving around and being used to their maximum value and lifetime. But yeah, there's not a ton of other people doing it. I would say our big inspiration and we've traded a lot of learnings back and forth, is actually with Eileen Fisher. That company and also REI are partnering with Yerdle as well to do their backends just similarly to ours. Not exactly the same. I've learned a lot through the years with wonderful people from Eileen Fisher who opened their distribution centers too and said the same thing that I said on this podcast. There's no magic here. We're just sorting used clothing. We're washing it, you know, that's what we're doing. Which has been fun. The other great player in this space is the Renewal workshop and they have a lot of brand partnerships going and they're cropping up all over the place and it's exciting to see. I just bought a yoga mat the other day for my husband and when I was checking out on the Manduka site said, "Hey, do you want to include a free return your yoga mat thing. If you buy this new yoga mat, we'll send it the renewal workshop". And I was like, oh my gosh, that's so cool that the renewal workshop is in working with yoga companies and they're working with Homewares with Kouichi fabrics and they just launched with the North Face. So they're getting a lot of brands on board too. So I don't know if that really answers does it make it harder? I think I love problem solving. So for me on a day to day existence in my job it doesn't really matter too much to me if we're the only one or one of a few. I just want Worn Wear to be the very, very best experience for buying used Patagonia clothing on the Internet.

Stephan: Yeah. I think maybe where my question came from was actually from the book Let My People Go Surfing. And I think the thing that I got out of that that I enjoyed the most was the idea that what Yvon wanted Patagonia to become more than anything was just an example as a company. That beyond making these various products being an example of what a good company should be like was what he was trying to build. And I think that's the part that gets hard because if you are trying to put yourself at that level and really raise expectations from your employees, from your customers, from what other companies have to look at as a role model, you're automatically sort of putting yourself in a category that is, first of all, you don't have very many other role models to look at, which is difficult. And then you're in a position where it's easy to disappoint. And I wonder how people at Patagonia deal with that?

Nellie: Right. And then there's, I think it's in that section, this is like leading the examined life is a pain in the ass. I feel like maybe I'm just in the bubble at this point, but if we're not in that position, if we're not the innovator, if we're not problem solving, if we're not taking a hard look at ourselves and going, wow, we're making a lot of stuff, we should probably make sure it's all being used well. How are we going to solve for that? If we're not doing that? I don't think we're doing our job in the industry.

Stephan: Yeah, I agree with that.

Nellie: But again that might be from the bubble.

Stephan: No, it's good. I think it's good to sort of raise expectations and when you raise those expectations it's better to, maybe I'm just a masochist, but I'd rather disappoint people and have high expectations then everybody just looking at you and saying, "Yup, it's just that old crappy thing". And like giving up on everything. That's just not a very optimistic outlook on the world.

Nellie: Totally, I mean we could have delayed the launch of this Worn Wear ecommerce site, right? You've asked some great questions and all I can tell you is all we have a chart that tells you how much to give a customer and we publish that online. You know, we don't have a fancy smancy system that says, "Oh, this item is worth $12.49 '' We're like, it's $10 bucks take it or leave it. We are managing our inventory in excel. We could have waited and we could have had ability from the get go for people to mail in things to us to trade them in. We could have delayed it by three years. I think there's a very Patagonia outlook we all share here, as much as we are perfectionists, we also don't let it get in the way of good. And it's like we could launch this thing really fast. Not totally perfect, but functioning pretty darn smoothly. Again, a lot of work to do. But for the most part we feel like our customers are having pretty good experience from some of the surveying and things we've done. We are keeping things in use longer. And we did that last year instead of waiting til 2019, '20 or '21. So, we'll get there, we will get those better things in place and it will only become better and better and smoother and smoother. But I'm glad we just went out there and tried and we're learning and picking ourselves up and trying and learning again.

Stephan: I think that's a great philosophy and it shows. This is something that I hear all the time from small companies which is, they are startups, they're just trying to survive. And so it's like when you are on a plane and it's the safety instructions say like put your mask on before you help somebody else. I think a lot of small companies feel that way, that they maybe can't have as much impact because they are just literally trying to survive. But it's not going to get easier when you become a big company like Patagonia is today to introduce these new initiatives. You kind of have to build them in from the beginning and you have to do the best you can at every stage and you're starting something new. Well, you have with Worn Wear in itself and starting small, even within the context of a big company seems like the right thing to do.

Nellie: Yeah, I mean I always think we have the best and worst world's. Like we are a startup and so we have a lot of the same issues as startups. Like you know, we don't have access to as much funding. We're not as well established. But we have this amazing big brother Patagonia. I mean the only reason that one Worn Wear exists I just have to say too is because the quality of our clothing. So, that's a pretty huge help. But yeah, we also have those challenges of trying to steer what would be a very small and nimble ship on its own, or in a larger ship. So yeah, there's those sort of internal work throughs that you have to go through to get everybody on board. But at the end of the day just on that point, I think that the program becomes stronger the more feedback you get and then there's a lot of wise people have been around the block a few times here who can really help shape Worn Wear into something better.

Stephan: I want to end on one topic here which is just we've been sort of talking around it, but I'm curious, how has ecommerce changed Patagonia as a company and what are you seeing in terms of the shifting way that sustainability fits into the supply chain? Because retail versus ecommerce is quite a different things in terms of how things are delivered to people. What are you seeing there? Obviously you're on an ecommerce side of that equation with the Worn Wear store. Do you all talk about that as like a bigger focus?

Nellie: You know, from where I sit, what I see at least, it seems to be a pretty equal dedication to both areas. I think Patagonia and this was really a vision of the Chouinards very early on that our retail stores should be gifts to our community. They should be gathering places, they should be rallying points, they should be places, not just where people can buy Patagonia, but they can experience the brand through events. So obviously Worn Wear we have tours across the world now that we're repairing clothing and having that experience, but our stores are hosting not just yoga classes, but they're also having environmental nonprofits, local nonprofits coming in and educating the community about environmental issues in their area. So these stores are so multidimensional now and we're seeing growth in those areas. We just opened a store in Pittsburgh like a little while ago. Our retail footprint is growing, but we also in the same breath acknowledged that people want to shop online and you have to have an amazing experience in that way too. Going back to this competition we were talking earlier about, the startup versus what size you are. I'm looking at it, obviously Worn Wear has a much smaller inventory to draw from than Patagonia right now, but hopefully, it will be a very good size chunk of that overall inventory. But ecommerce is the way to go. Our stores are small footprint, they're unique. They can't really afford the space to put garments in them that have already been in that space once before. Making sure that you're well stocked in sizes of used clothing across a network of retail stores is challenging. We at one point had Worn Wear going actually in about eight stores. It's doable for sure, but it's pretty nice to have it all on one website to have that selection all in one place for people too. And there is that same element of brand experience and you can integrate content and you can start an online conversation with people. We have an amazing Worn Wear community on Instagram. We can build that up potentially through email. I mean there's amazing online tools as well to use. So I think it's a multipronged approach continuing the conversation with our customers. There's just different ways to reach different people in different places.

Stephan: Yeah. I would be remiss if I didn't mention this amazing blog post. So it's at least amazing to us at Lumi because it gets mentioned pretty regularly that you wrote almost four years ago now with one of your colleagues. We'll put a link to it. It's called "A Study On the Challenges of Garment Delivery"(https://www.patagonia.com/stories/patagonias-plastic-packaging-a-study-on-the-challenges-of-garment-delivery/story-17927.html) and it talks about, I guess some of your customers having been questioning the use of poly bags to deliver the garments. I'm not sure if this was Worn Wear related or something else, but maybe you can just give a high level explanation of what that investigation was all about.

Nellie: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I love our customers and I don't know if customers are the right word, but our Patagonian community is so responsive and they never hesitate to tell us exactly what we're doing right or wrong and I really mean that in both ways. We get love letters and hate mail and so this came out of our customers being really frustrated with receiving every Patagonian garment in a plastic bag and we were speaking about this before we kind of hit record, but both of us having scientific training. And so we really use the scientific method to write a study and had several hypotheses about if this yes or no. Would this work or not? And what we came to at the end of the day is that plastic bags, polybags are critical for our distribution center. We run on conveyor belts and when we ran our products outside of the polybags, they were marked in an unsellable condition. And the impact of having to recycle a full garment versus the impact of making a polybag, there's no contest. So it's a little bit of the forest through the trees. Like you hate to say, yeah, plastic's really necessary, but then plastic, at least some form of coverage is really necessary. We tried paper mailers too, I should say that and they didn't survive as well as the plastic. But we are in the process still. It's kind of long, we're talking about training retail stores. This is about training factories so at the end of the day we learned that we could fold our things so much smaller. We're talking about folding things, two-thirds smaller, reducing that plastic and by a considerable percentage. So it's like if we're going to use plastic, let's use the absolute smallest amount of plastic possible. And what was really cool about that finding is that of course people immediately and went, well, gosh, what if we squish the garments and what if we wrinkle them and all this stuff. Well, we turned our retail teams, this is a great retail ecommerce partnership kind of thing. And we learned in our very, very small stores that they actually roll products and tape them because they need to preserve as much space as possible. And then we also learned that all of our garments are steamed on the floor. So anything that really gets wrinkled badly will be taken care of right away. And so that gave us the confidence to go forth with that recommendation, that items could be packed much, much smaller, reduce the plastic, but keep them in plastic. So it's kind of like we had to strike that balance. I kind of thought when we started the project that we would be able to get rid of the plastic. And then when we did it it was like, no, we're going to waste so many more of the world's resources if we're not throwing away, not throwing away but if we're recycling or setting aside products that are getting marged so badly on a conveyor belt so badly that they're not sellable. And then the other finding was that we can work with our supply chain is that we can more efficiently pack things. We found a lot of boxes that were barely full and there'll be a huge cost savings on the other side of that, which is that if we know all of our boxes and our distribution center are full of product, it means we're maximizing space we're not paying to store air effectively. So there are a ton of great learnings that came out of that.

Stephan: What I loved about this study was first of all, which you mentioned, which is it tickled all my geeky science tickle points or whatever you want to call them. Because you know, you approached it in this manner and tried to provide a few hypotheses of what you were trying to go after. It was very open, you know, it's rare that people get to see kind of the inside of how you're making these decisions and doing it at a large scale so that you actually have good sample data, good actual like at scale information to share. And so the answer is nuanced. And that's the thing that I think we always struggle with at Lumi in particular. But in general around sustainability, which is, is it better to use a box or a poly mailer? Is it better to use a paper mailer versus a poly mailer? The answer is it depends on the situation. And you know, maybe if you didn't have this conveyor belt system, things would be different. There's a lot of factors going on and so the answers are always so unsatisfying because they're always gray. They're not like, you should do this or that. It's like, well, you know, it depends.

Nellie: It depends, yeah. But it also creates opportunities, right? Yeah, it is case by case and then just being able to like convey that information of why as a business you've decided to go with option A over B and C or whatever it is. And hopefully people start to kind of understand that the forest for the trees and yes, your stuff came in a plastic bag, but aren't you glad it arrived intact? And I've heard over the years from our customer service team in Reno where our distribution center is that they will share the link to the blog post with people when they get these angry letters and they're like, here it all is. Because if somebody is willing to take the time to write you and tell you what a poor job they think you're doing, hopefully they'll actually take the time to read your answer. You know, your rebuttal to that. But yeah. Then it just sort of reminded me like this is like a whole other podcast talking about recyclability of plastics too of course and how that's changing now with China's import ban. And I mean the landscape is constantly changing and I think that's kind of a neat place that we're in in sustainability overall as an industry is that I feel like sustainability practitioners are starting to feel like they're working in more of like a dynamic place rather than being like, okay, let's check these boxes, let's get a recycling program for our products. Let's reduce our packaging or whatever. It's shifting constantly and the world is changing so quickly and staying really informed about what's going on. And constantly question yourself like leading that examined life. Is our messaging on point? Are we really driving people to make the choice we want them to make? Are we giving them options that are as easy as the alternative and making it easy for them to make those decisions?

Stephan: Cool. So if people want to learn more about Worn Wear, they can go to wornwear.patagonia.com. Is there anything else you want to point people to know?

Nellie: No, I mean, I think I'll be pointing people towards this podcast. I think we've given up all of our secrets here. So I do get a lot of inquiries on how we do it and now everybody knows there's no magic in how we do it.

Stephan: And if people want to find out more about you? Do you share more on social media or anything like that, that people can look at?

Nellie: The best place to learn a lot more about Worn Wear and really join the community and the spirit is our Worn Wear Instagram: @wornwear and wornwear.com. And we are always happy to engage in conversations Worn Wear Instagram there.

Stephan: Cool. Pull out the stuff that's in your closet. Bring it over to the store, get yourself some new color scheme, some new old traded in worn clothes from wornwear.com. Thank you so much Nellie. This was awesome.

Nellie: Oh Gosh. This was really fun. And I'm really serious, I am going to tell people to go listen to the podcast. This is probably going to save me like a call a week now.

Stephan: Great. We'll do a part two on the next set of questions that people have after that one.

Nellie: Yeah.

Stephan: Alright. Thanks.

Nellie: Thank you. Have a great day.

Stephan: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed the show, if you got something useful out of it, I would love to hear what that was. Consider writing a short review. Could be just a sentence long by going to iTunes and searching for Well Made. I want to hear it all. I want to hear good, bad. I want to hear your constructive criticisms. I am just trying to make this show as useful as possible for you. So tell us what you think that is the very best way that you can support the show. Thanks and see you next time.


You can find this and all future episodes on iTunes, Google Play, and here on the Lumi blog. This episode was edited by Evan Goodchild.

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