A Chat with Alex Kremer of Patagonia Worn Wear

A Chat with Alex Kremer of Patagonia Worn Wear

May 6, 2021

May 6, 2021

Finch's founder, Lizzie Horvitz, hosted Alex Kremer, Patagonia's Worn Wear Director of Corporate Development, for a conversation that dove into the ins and outs of the upcycling fashion market.

Together, they investigate the complexities of evaluating environmental impact, purposeful purchases, buying pre-loved clothes that topped Mount Everest, and how Worn Wear was built on the stories we wear. Also, Finch is like the new Duolingo. Keep reading until the very end for some wholesome content, including DIY fails, involving N'SYNC and Hawaiian-prints.

The following is an edited transcript from the conversation held via Instagram Live on May 4, 2021. Enjoy!

Lizzie: Alex!

Alex: Hello!

Lizzie: You have a much prettier view than I do. Where are you right now?

Alex: We are at our home in Ojai, California.

Lizzie: That's amazing. Thank you so much for coming on. How are you?

Alex: Awesome, thanks for having me. How are you?

Lizzie: I'm good, thanks. I was just thinking...we have known each other since college, which, I would love to say, has only been a couple of years, but I think it's been a long time, at least ten years. I'd love to just hear your journey since then to Patagonia.

Alex: Yeah, for sure. Right out of undergrad, I went more the traditional route and worked at investment shops and then really wanted to get into responsible investing, which is what I focused on during my MBA program, and then officially linked up with Patagonia in the Tin Shed Ventures arm. That is our corporate impact venture fund, where we focus on responsible entrepreneurs doing things like building the new ‘Finch'es of the world. That's been great investing in startups, and then what kind of emerged is this Worn Wear side of it, where we built our own startup, which is our own second-hand business. Over the past four years, Worn Wear has grown to be a notable initiative within Patagonia; it's been great.

Lizzie: That's so cool! I actually wasn't aware that Worn Wear came out of Tin Shed Ventures, so would love to just hear, for anyone that isn't fully aware of the program, what it's all about.

Alex: Yeah! So Worn Wear, within Patagonia, has existed for quite a while, over a decade. It started with Patagonia's awesome, iron-clad guarantee, where we'll repair gear, and we've done that for decades. Naturally, we got a ton of stories from people who were like, 'Thank you so much for fixing my gear, had it forever, thought it was dead, but now you gave it more life.' We just got these without requesting them and we said, 'Let's share these stories!' And so Worn Wear was built around the stories we wear. We had a blog, and ultimately, we brought repairs to the road. We were going to different mountain resorts, universities. We have a pretty cool vehicle (I think people know about it), you can go check out the Worn Wear truck. It's garaged right now because of the pandemic, but it's cool just to educate on why it's important to repair your stuff: If you have a hole in your jacket to not think, 'This is the end of the jacket,' but instead your first thought should be, 'How can I repair this?' That was how Worn Wear started, and then we realized there's this gap of stuff that doesn't need repair, isn't at the end of its life, it's just functional as is; how can we get that back into life? That's where we were thinking what if we bought it back, made sure it's clean, kind of like the certified pre-owned BMW, and do that with Patagonia gear. So that's how it launched just over four years ago, as our internal startup. We've done some pretty cool things. It's all online, the used-sale platform, but we launched the all-used Worn Wear store in Boulder, for a few months, which was pretty fun last year before the pandemic. We have done some cool upcycling projects, as well.

Lizzie: That is so awesome. What are some of the things you're looking forward to in Worn Wear after the pandemic is in our hindsight?

Alex: We'll definitely get the repair truck back on the road. It's super special. You can imagine this thing that kind of looks like an outdoor sauna, it's all wood-paneled, made from reclaimed wood. It's got a sewing machine and a seamstress in the back of the truck, people doing repairs. A lot of times, people come up and they're just like, 'What the heck is this? Can you repair this zipper right here on this spot?' And it's like, yeah, we'll try. It's cool to have people stumble upon it and learn about Worn Wear and learn about what they can do to keep their stuff in use. That's something I'm excited about, but also to do more things like the Boulder store, where we get to display used gear in front of people, and have it alongside the new gear that Patagonia sells. I think what's cool is that a lot of brands are launching their own Worn Wear type programs, so ‘used' is becoming a bigger and bigger thing, with people getting more comfortable with buying and selling used anything, which is exciting.

Lizzie: Yeah, I wanted to dig into that a little because I'm curious what (Patagonia is obviously so environmentally focused) metrics you are using, if any, to measure how many products you have avoided making brand-new because of all the people buying used. Or, people making their products last even longer.

Alex: Yeah, on the impact side, I struggle with all the assumptions that are baked in - both the carbon assumptions and the behavioral assumptions. One is if you buy used, that displaces the use or the purchase of a new garment. You might intuitively think, yeah, you're not going to buy two; if you buy used you don't need a new one.

But, as we go deeper and deeper (and we have a pretty big social and environmental responsibility team at Patagonia), if you buy a set of fishing waders, maybe there is more of a one-to-one displacement, because you don't need two pairs of fishing waders. Maybe it's a 90% displacement rate. If you buy a used t-shirt, you might just say, hey, it's a cool t-shirt. That's not displacing anything. I'm still going to buy another one if I like it.

It depends on the garment type. If it's a wedding dress that's probably the best example. You're only going to buy one, hopefully. It's a one-to-one displacement. That's a big one.

Instead, I like to just measure what we are doing: we've sold over 300,000 used garments over the past few years. That's got to displace something. Internally we have a lot of debates about what is the carbon offset, what is the waste reduction of those. We haven't made anything public, but we work a lot with, as I'm sure Finch is doing, these academics or organizations that are trying to pinpoint what is the impact. Even the products themselves have an impact.

If we get a trade-in, there's shipment to our warehouse, and then we clean it - there's an impact there. There is also shipping it out to the customer. There is some impact with the logistics, which is different than if you put it all in a store, there's a quick sale. I've learned a ton from Patagonia on all the things you need to consider and we have wasted Patagonia gear we hold in our warehouse.

On a Tin Shed Ventures side, we looked at these innovators that recycle cotton, or mixed-materials that get complex fast. On the upcycling side, I was initially thinking we could make anything with it! If you can make something with it, that's good. But as you think about it more, if you make a koozie out of our old wetsuits, people might use it once, then it ends up on the ground and on the beach, or in the water. So even when you're thinking upcycling, you might be solving one problem, but just creating another.

Lizzie: I think of that a lot in the reusable cup space, which I was in before I started Finch. Buying a Yeti is awesome if you buy just one of them, but if you have thirty of them sitting in your cupboard, that has pretty awful implications, and you might as well just get a paper cup when you go get coffee. I think that's totally interesting. The wedding dress for some reason made me wonder if Patagonia would ever think of getting into that space because I feel like a lot of outdoor people would be really into something like that.

Alex: Not the wedding dress space, but I think that designing products and creating models for a use-based product, not ownership-based, which is what everything is today. You buy it, you own it, then it's your responsibility. How do we evolve this to be, you're only going to ski once a year, your jacket should only serve that purpose. You shouldn't have it out for a weekend and then in your closet for the other 12 months. That could be through things like rental or subscription, or it could be just embedding our existing Worn Wear program, where we say you bought a new jacket, just so you know it's $300 today, whenever you're ready you can sell that for $150, or whatever the price is. Making sure that the buyer knows, upfront, it's your responsibility that when you're done with it, you do something responsible with it. That's where I think we'll head more proactively through the Patagonia Worn Wear lens.

Lizzie: That leads me to my next question because what's so interesting about clothing is that it absorbs so much memory and experiences. I'm guessing people are buying jackets second-hand that maybe were on the top of Mount Everest or had these other amazing experiences. I'm curious if you find that the owners are interested in having those stories, or if Patagonia keeps track of the lifecycle of all of these jackets, or clothing in general.

Alex: I think that the story of the garment can be really special, and we offer that a little bit. When you trade in something online, you can say, 'I loved this thing for five years.' I think most people don't have the Everest story, but still, they have these special connections to their products.

So, when you buy that product, not every used garment on the website will have it, but certain ones will where when you buy it, it'll be like, 'Hey! Here's a note from the previous owner.' I think that connection is pretty cool, and hopefully, we can keep growing and growing that. For example, I'm the guy at the concert wearing the t-shirt of the band. This is one of those pre-crafted shirts [indicates to the shirt he's wearing] that is cut up so it's at least three different shirts before it was this one. There is something cool there.

Lizzie: Phenomenal. So cool. Patagonia has been such a trendsetter in organic cotton, in making jackets out of plastic bottles, etc. Now, with second-hand with Worn Wear, do you see Patagonia as trying to stand out in this space and be the owners of these areas, or do you think of Patagonia in hopes that other companies will then take a lead, as well?

Alex: It's both. In my job as overseer of Worn Wear, I want to make sure that we're pushing the envelope, but also have a lot of conversations with other brands that are asking, 'Where do we start? What do we do? We know resale is big, we want to get into it, where do we start?' So, it's both.

We want to keep pushing ourselves to get more used items back in play, but we also realize we can't live in our Patagonia bubble and not allow any others to join in. It has been exciting to see a lot of other brands launch their own programs. It's particularly cool when I can remember talking to them about that! It's both.

Lizzie: That's great. Are there any other interesting or surprising facts about the second-hand space that you're willing to share? I know you mentioned a couple of them, but anything else that comes to mind?

Alex: I think you mentioned that you did some research on cotton and as we kind of talked about there are always more questions. Organic cotton is way better than normal cotton or even BCI cotton. Then, as you peel the layers back, one shirt takes over 2,700 liters of water, a massive amount for one t-shirt that you think is the simplest product out there. You should keep that thing in use for as long as you can.

Or, these programs, like Marine Layer, which has a pretty cool program that will take back your shirts, shred them up, and make their shirt line out of them. Use those, because if we don't use those kinds of things, it will just go into a pile somewhere. There's no throwaway, there's no away, it's sitting somewhere.

In France, there are regulations about how you can get rid of your old waste, and I think that consumers have just started to ask those questions. It's good, it's all the right movements. It takes work, it's hard work to do that kind of stuff.

Lizzie: I think you're right, but I also think what's interesting is that the best brands, in my opinion, are the ones that people love despite their environmental efforts. I loved working for Unilever because people love Ben and Jerry's ice cream because it is so delicious, not because they're fighting for climate justice.

I think that in many ways a huge portion of Patagonia consumers just think it is trendy and it's the best technical product out there. I'm curious if you have any insights into the percentage of consumers that are supporting Patagonia because of all this work you're doing, or just because it's the best product.

Alex: I don't have those numbers, but I think we couldn't do sustainability stories without the best product. There's an environmental thing there too, right? If we have a great, regenerative cotton whatever, name your product, but it's worse than what we had in place previously that might be based on a synthetic material, which could last 20 years on average, while this new thing is only going to last five.

Then we're going to have to make four times as many of those garments. That's its own environmental impact. This work always has to lead with quality and what's cool is that reuse programs like Worn Wear, only work if it's quality.

You can only repair something if the rest of it will last - it still has more life in it if you just fix it up. We're only going to buy back a garment if we believe there's a new life that we can give it. If your product is poor to start with, all that stuff doesn't matter.

The consumer wants the best quality, durability, and style as you get more into the fashion side. If you do that right, then you have these chances to educate them on these other good things you're doing, which we see as an opportunity to make them like you more. Our loyalty is amazing because there are a lot more stories that we tell beyond just that best product.

Lizzie: That's great. Super helpful. I have one final question that is unrelated to Patagonia or Worn Wear, so before I get there I'm curious if you have any final thoughts or anything else you wanted to communicate about what you're into.

Alex: I think the education piece is so hard. So, I think what Finch is doing with trying to create an understandable rating system - all these data points are hard for the customer to understand. What are 1.2 kilograms of CO2e? Nobody knows what that is. How do you - I don't want to say dumb it down - but just make it understandable and digestible.

Every brand is throwing a million facts, like carbon neutral by X date. The more you can create a story and get comfortable with, 'Okay, I get the benefits,' generally and not necessarily numerically, goes a long way.

I think it's really hard because people want to know, but they don't have all the time to do all the research and read the sustainability pages of brands. If you make a good product and get this customer loyalty, then they might be willing to do that. We've done that over five decades and it's just difficult.

Lizzie: Thank you so much! I didn't even ask you to do that plug. That was great. I completely agree. I think of myself as a test case. I have a master's degree in sustainability and, if someone says, 'these shoes took a ton of carbon to create,' that is still very, very difficult to wrap your head around, regardless of how knowledgeable you are.

Finch is trying hard, to your point, to teach a new language. We compare ourselves in many ways to Duolingo, and these other language companies because it does require some front-end work. Once you understand what to look for, and once you're communicating things in a better way, it becomes pretty simple.

Alex: I think of myself as being the dumb, simple non-technical Patagonia customer or product reviewer, so I'm like, 'Hey, I don't get that,' and I think we might be speaking to ourselves here. Let's think about the average person.

Lizzie: Exactly! One last question we like to ask everybody on these calls stems from our audience being pretty resourceful, pretty creative, and sometimes into DIY. I'm curious if you have an example of the best or worst DIY project that you've ever done.

I'll go first just to break the ice. I think my worst one was probably six years ago when I started my own music video. I recorded my voice and I had someone do all the editing...that was pretty DIY. It was on YouTube until about six months ago when I got super delayed embarrassment. I would love to hear if you have any success stories or fails.

Alex: Well, there is definitely an NSYNC video out there, but that one wasn't my DIY. More in the Worn Wear spirit, I casually told people at work that maybe I'd make my own wallet, and they all laughed. So, I had to make a wallet, and I was like, 'I have to do this now, and I have to make this good.'

I used old, cool Pataloha, the Hawaiian-print materials. I made it and my cards fell out if I just tossed it on the table, but I was so stuck to it because I was like, 'No! It works, it works!' And I would not let people ridicule me for it. That was probably my worst DIY, but I still have the wallet.

Lizzie: That's amazing. My mom actually just commented and said actually my worst one was that I used to collect business cards and I glued all the business cards to this table that is now sitting in my childhood bedroom and will never see the light of day. That was a real waste of time for everybody, I think.

Alex: Maybe my best DIY is my camper van. My wife said, 'Before you do any home projects, you have to test it out on the van.' I'm proud of the van, but I don't know if other people would be.

Lizzie: I was thinking, when I was asking you this question, I was wondering if you were going to bring it up because I've seen it in pictures and it looks amazing.

Alex: I make the pictures look nicer than it is. You can hear that it's DIY, which is never a good sign.

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly. Alex, this was so fun, thank you for your time. I'm excited to keep in touch in the future and hear all the exciting stuff that you're up to.

Alex: Yeah, likewise! Thanks, Lizzie.

Lizzie: Of course, I'll talk to you soon.

Alex: Bye!

Alex Kremer oversees Patagonia's second-hand business (Worn Wear) and is a Director of Patagonia's corporate development and investment team (Tin Shed Ventures). He leads various investment, new business, and strategic initiatives to demonstrate the potential that business holds to solve the most critical challenges faced by our planet and its inhabitants.