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EARTHWATCH

Wanted: Individual to Help Save Planet, Resources : A famous clothing maker joins the effort and hires a director of environmental assessment.

June 24, 1993|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" That's a question often addressed to little boys and girls by adults. These days, it's also asked of adults--quite often the one in the medicine cabinet mirror. It's also a question hanging in the air at this time of year because people of all ages are graduating from school and don't know what lies ahead for them.

Well, here's a new one to add to the list of butcher, baker and candlestick maker: director of environmental assessment.

What's that, you ask. Is that a job or a joke? Well, it depends on what you think, for instance, about helping the boss make clothing from ever fewer raw materials by urging her to throw a lot of plastic pop bottles into the process. That's one local example of this sort of thing.

In other Earthwatch columns, I have discussed eco-professionals, whose job is to prevent things from happening so the environment will be preserved. Today's column is about people who produce things, but in a way that helps the planet. As one practitioner put it, reporting about an aspect of this new profession in the Bryn Mawr College Alumnae Bulletin, they "suck up fugitive emissions so they can be put back into the process."

Patagonia, the famous clothing manufacturer headquartered in Ventura, recently hired a director of environmental assessment.

"It's a brand new job," said Patagonia's president, Kris McDivitt. "I wanted to know exactly where we stand on everything (environmental). I've been here 22 years and I couldn't tell you where all of it (our materials) came from."

McDivitt hired Michael Brown--who had distinguished himself as an environmental adviser to the city of Irvine--to assess the company. "He has a scientific, not an activist background," she pointed out.

We're talking business here, not crusading. This is a company that contracts for the manufacturing of a $100 million worth of stuff each year. Seventy percent is made in America, by the way.

To make sure I didn't get to thinking that Patagonia is anything but a regular company where regular folks are making regular products while thinking about environmentally friendly changes in day-to-day operations, Brown reminded me, "We sell lots of winter underwear."

In fact, he made a point of praising Wal-Mart, the giant of every-day retailing for its efforts to be planet-friendly. "What they're doing is incredibly difficult (opening a huge store built from recycled materials--with plans to build more) and that's the way the world is going."

As a director of environmental assessment, Brown has to devise a benign regime for turning everybody on the payroll into a clone of himself. As I see it, it is something we all can be doing when we grow up or after we graduate.

The job is to figure out ways to save the planet while saving money, time and materials. In the old days, that used to be called efficiency, and before that, thrift. About the time that last quaint word was in use, folks were also trying to make things that would last a lifetime--no annual model changes.

Late last year, Patagonia astounded the American business world by announcing just such an antique scheme for the company's future. The Wall Street Journal gasped, "A Company Decides Not To Grow," then went on to report "Patagonia takes stock of the consequences of its business and opts to remedy what it sees."

Brown was brought in, not to stand around with a stopwatch or to plug the leaks in some chemical pipes. He helps the Fab-Lab, where Patagonia tests the fabric it uses, find ways to improve the "feel" of the jacket stuffing that's being made 80% from recycled pop bottles.

This fall, the company will market the result. Brown thinks it has the same durability and "hand" (the feel of wearing it) as jackets made years ago. "It's the same high quality and same guarantee--that you can return it at any time, even years down the line."

Brown says he was one of the first on his block to buy a Synchilla (a trademark term) pile jacket made by Patagonia. "The new ones really have evolved since then," he said, comparing the process of product development to the evolution of a species.

"Our thinking is to create an industrial ecosystem. An economy should look toward nature and mimic it," he went on. "Usually, business practice is linear. We take things out of the forest or the land or water, create waste and spill it onto the ground or try to bury it. We never use it again. But in nature, everything is a byproduct." Such thinking was behind Patagonia's decision to use recycled pop bottles.

Brown again stressed that this sort of thing is not just for California eco-pioneers. "The ones who are famous for this are at 3M (the makers of Scotch tape, etc.) . . . everybody on the payroll is looking at their production processes and improving them." 3M is the company that reprocesses its industrial detritus and sells it to other companies who have an ongoing need for various solvents. Previously, they had to spend money to dispose of it.

Patagonia is looking around for ways to do something similar with the scrap fabric that piles up during its manufacturing process.

Got any ideas? If so, you're already thinking like a director of environmental assessment.

* FYI

For information on environmental professions, call (800) 526-NAEP, The National Assn. of Environmental Professionals. There is also a useful trade journal, Environment Today--The Newsmagazine of Environmental Management and Pollution Control (703) 448-0322.

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