INTERVIEW: Positive Impact Awards, Jill Dumain, Director of Sustainable Strategy, Patagonia

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Jill Dumain’s titles at Patagonia have spanned positions in the fabric testing lab, to leading the Fabric Development responsibilities for the company to her current role as Director of Environmental Strategy. Because of Jill’s lifelong commitment to envisioning a better apparel industry, her Positive Impact Award for “Brand Leadership in Advancing Sustainability” at Patagonia is well deserved.

Whether transitioning the company over to organic cotton, to creating the Common Threads Recycling Program, introducing Bluesign Technologies or implementing the award-winning Footprint Chronicles, Jill’s constant leadership in advancing sustainability at Patagonia comes from extensive travels throughout Asia, Europe, South America and the United States visiting farmers, fabric manufacturers and interfacing with other companies committed to environmental responsibility.

I caught up with her recently to discuss what she’d want most in a perfect, sustainably focused world.

DEB JOHNSON: At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit last April, Stella MacCartny called out fast-fashion as the “elephant in the room” what’s your take on fast-fashion?

JILL DUMAIN: I think that people have been slowly trained to fast fashion – taking it away isn’t going to happen. If H&M or Zara walked away from their business model another company would step into the marketplace– likely a company that isn’t thinking about the resources that are going into the apparel industry. So I don’t think you can let an elephant just “be” in the room. We have to find ways to work with the elephant.

It’s a complicated equation. How can fast-fashion start to re-educate their consumers to move them out of fast-fashion thus moving their brands out of fast- fashion. When you look at somebody like H&M, they have sister stores that are making more timeless fashion, maybe this is a start. Patagonia’s customers expect quality and durability in our products. Over the years we have trained our customers to push us to be better whether it is about performance, quality or sustainability. As a result, they value these things that we build into our products and our business practices. It harkens back to the climbing gear days when they were making equipment that they were going to hang off of from many feet in the air. Because this type of thinking is in our roots, it is in our DNA. Our designers wouldn’t know how to make a bad product.

DEB: If you had a magic wand what would you ask for?

JILL: I would get people to buy less. It’s the base of the systemic issue we’re dealing with. I firmly believe if consumers bought less, but kept their spending budget the same, so spending a little bit more on each piece – it would take away so much pressure on the supply chains around the globe. It would put less pressure on people’s wages being squeezed for every last penny and less pressure on environmental impacts like squeezing every last ounce of water out of a river. Consumption puts so much constant pressure on the supply chain.

DEB: Collaboration seems to be a strong value at Patagonia.

JILL: Collaboration is critical. No one company can do any of these things on their own. Even if you have the idea, even if you have the infrastructure your impact is finite. The goal is to influence the larger industry, so establishing collaboration that provides a mutual competitive gain provides a compelling reason for the rest of the industry to follow. The other benefit from collaboration is that you often learn from other perspectives that can reveal the weaknesses in an idea making it, so the idea gets better and better and better with each iteration.

The key to collaboration is bringing together like-minded people that share the depth of your values. Patagonia has more tolerance for controversy than most and so it’s important for us to work with people who are willing to go the distance. Sustainability offers a lot in this space.

DEB: Imagine that you’re standing in front of a group of young people, what would you offer them about their future?

Don’t take things at face value. Consider opinions but come to your own conclusions and NEVER, ever stop being curious. In school you’re being fed from a fire hose – and when you get out you have to become more intentional about learning. The world and the future are uncertain and dynamic so you won’t come out of school knowing the answers – so you need to ask the right questions and think critically.