Steps to a carbon-neutral future: Lessons from the 2018 Patagonia Case Competition

University of Michigan ERB Institute

What does an apparel company do when it’s already a leader in environmental manufacturing and has summited the peak of sustainable clothing? If it’s Patagonia, it decides to not only become carbon neutral by 2025 but also build a plan that inspires change across the industry.

This was the challenge set before us as Team C02 Fast 2 Furious in the 2018 Patagonia Case Competition. Such an ambitious goal would require a cross-disciplinary team of strategists, and it included Michigan graduate students Madeleine Carnemark (MS/MBA), Matthew Carney (MS/MBA), Tae Lim (Ph.D. Mechanical Engineering), Neal Patel (MBA) and Kathy Tian (MS/MBA).

As one of the 100+ teams competing, our team dived headfirst into the world of apparel value chains, regenerative agriculture, carbon offsets, material innovation and consumer decision-making. We developed a recommendation that addressed both enterprise integration and market transformation. Central to our recommendation was the launch of a Net Neutral Collection. This new collection of apparel would be an external and internal catalyst for scope 3 (indirect) carbon emission reduction. Embedded in the manufacturing of this collection would be 1) consumer appeal through enterprise crowdfunding, 2) collaborative renewable energy investments at supplier sites, 3) investment in carbon capture technologies for material production and 4) strategically offsetting carbon in partnership with The Nature Conservancy.

Our product-centered strategy, which built a carbon reduction road map for Patagonia and the industry, earned us one of the 10 spots at the competition’s finals. While specific recommendations ranged from modular clothing design to squid ring teeth polymer solutions, almost all the teams acknowledged that progress toward a carbon-neutral future would require three main challenges to be addressed: getting consumers to care, building stronger relationships with supplier partners and peer companies, and addressing the “last mile” of carbon emissions.

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