What lessons can the construction industry learn from a T-shirt?

What can the construction industry learn from a T-shirt seems a strange question; however, the answer is a lot.

It is not just any T-shirt; it is a Skyline Organic T-Shirt. Made with organic cotton, it uses 84% less water and creates 16% less CO2 than a conventional T-Shirt. It also cost £45!

Patagonia, an American retailer of outdoor clothing, makes the T-Shirt. Founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, the company is based in Ventura, California. Patagonia operates stores in 10+ countries globally,[as well as factories in 16 countries with $1 billion in sales

Yvon Chouinard transferred Patagonia's voting stock, equivalent to 2% of total shares in September 2022, to the Patagonia People Trust. Yvon and his family donated 98% of the shares to Holdfast Collective. This newly launched non-profit organisation will receive all of Patagonia's profits and use the funds to tackle climate change and secure the land.

So what can we learn from Paragoinias t-shirts? 

Firstly we need to compare it with other T-Shirts. This is a £45 T-shirt, and people are willing to pay this much just for a T-shirt with limited impact on the planet. The opposite is the £2.50 T-shirt from Primark, which is so cheap it becomes disposable and part of the fast fashion culture where clothes are worn only a few times and then discarded, impacting the planet in the manufacture and contributing to landfill.

The apparel industry is responsible for as much as 6.7% of the global greenhouse gases emitted and releases 2–3.29 billion tons of CO2 into our atmosphere every year.

The construction and property industries contribute 39% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a far more significant challenge. Like the Primark T-shirt, the sector has developed cheap buildings with short lifespans rather than investing for the long term to re-purpose in the future. 

Increasingly in the built environment building owners and developers are becoming aware of embodied carbon in their buildings. For example, many want to reduce concrete and steel, which use vast energy in construction. Previously the amount of energy used in construction has been given little thought.

In the textile industry, 10% of all agricultural chemicals in the United States were used to produce cotton grown on just 1% of all major agricultural land. Conventional cotton crops in California alone were doused with 3500 tonnes of chemicals yearly.

In construction, there is an opportunity to understand all our materials' environmental impact. Using organic cotton to manufacture the Patagonia t-shirt means it costs £45. However, the business's success demonstrates some people are willing to invest, minimising the impact on the planet. 

Low-carbon materials will likely cost more in construction in the short term; however, those commission buildings are increasingly considering environmental impact and making longer-term investment decisions.

Another feature of the T-shirt is Patagonia's commitment to recycling.

Most clothing industry is based on a take-make-waste model, which fails to take responsibility for what happens to clothes once someone no longer needs them. 

Global textile waste is expected to increase by 60% annually until 2030, estimated to hit 148 million tons annually. And the issue isn't just volume but what happens once those textiles are sent to landfills. Landfills release greenhouse gases, impact wildlife habitats and pose a risk to air and water quality—all of which disproportionately affect minority and low-income communities who often live near these sites

Construction is another wasteful sector. You only have to look at the number of skips on any building site. Increasingly there are opportunities to use recycled materials and design approaches to reduce waste.

Reusing existing buildings is the best form of recycling. The best building for building developers is one they already own.

Patagonia has a unique Worn wear programme. They provide a service where you can take your clothing, and they will repair it to extend its life. For a retailer, this seems strange as it is likely to impact new t-shirt sales.

Whilst the t-shirt is expensive at £45, this is the cost; purchasing a Patagonia T-shirt is based on value and minimising impact on the planet. The Primark T-shirt cost £2.50 but also has a cost to the planet. 

Construction can use cheap materials to reduce cost; however, typically, such buildings have reduced life and have a more significant impact on the environment in operation.

Patagonia's Supply Chain Environmental Responsibility Program aims to measure, reduce and eliminate the environmental impacts of manufacturing products and materials. It covers many impact areas, including environmental management systems, chemicals, water use, water emissions, energy use, greenhouse gases, other air emissions and waste. The program is implemented at supplier facilities worldwide.

Introducing Environmental Declaration certificates is an excellent way to manage embodied carbon in products. However, these are underused across the sector. Material manufacturers in the construction industry have a similar opportunity to understand their factories' environmental and social impact.

So there is a lot we can learn from T-shirts: people will pay more for products which have less of an impact on the environment, we need to recycle more of what we already have, we need to look to repair and refurbish our buildings, don't just consider cost, understand the value, better manage our supply chains….

The next time you put in a t-shirt, think about the environmental impact it has had.

Space is very fortunate to have Gabe Davies, the Ocean Marketing Manager at Patagonia, speaking at our annual _shift conference in November.

If you want to learn more about the Patagonia story and be inspired, I highly recommend Yvon Chouinard's book, Let my people go surfing.