Rock climbing-inspired apparel and footwear brand Patagonia has pioneered the use of organic cotton and recycled polyester in its outdoor clothing and posted sales of US$330m last year. Joe Ayling interviews the company's UK sales and marketing manager, Jonathan Petty, to find out to what peaks an already ambitious sustainable business model can climb to next.

just-style: How did Patagonia enter the clothing business?

Jonathan Petty: We had been making climbing hardwear for about 15 years as our owner Yvon Chouinard was a world class climber. He was climbing in Scotland at a time when there were no specialist outdoor clothes, and climbers just wore shirts and wool jumpers. He saw some Scottish climbers climbing in rugby shirts because they were made from tough durable cotton canvas, and began importing the rugby shirts for friends who did a lot of rock climbing in Yosemite. They found it a really good fabric to use, so he started making some himself. It started off as climbing clothing and we have always believed in making versatile items whose end-use is climbing, but we also make clothes that look good for hanging round the campsite, going to the bar etc.

j-s: And how have you transferred the durability concept through to lifestyle ranges?

JP: Everything in our philosophy is to build the best product and cause no unnecessary harm, but the most important bit is to build the best product. We want garments - anything, whether its technical or lifestyle - to last a long long time. We use the best materials and the best fibres. It doesn't matter if it's a technical garment, we want it to last ten years; same if it's a lifestyle shirt, we want that shirt to last for ages so we choose the best factories.

j-s: How do you communicate your mission [Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis] with consumers? Do you use much advertising?

JP: We don't do much advertising at all as our owner has never really liked advertising. Because we're a small specialist company, we've always believed that the best way is word of mouth and staff training, so we invest a lot of our time in training shop staff - we normally are in specialist outdoor shops. We do a lot of PR too, as we believe that we've got a really good product and a good story to tell.

j-s: Has the level of consumer awareness in sustainable products grown much in the UK over recent times?

JP: Absolutely, I've noticed a sea change in the past 12 months. A year ago our customer and the consumer really liked the story, but they bought the product first and foremost because of its end use and because it looked nice aesthetically. The fact that it was made from recycled polyester or organic cotton was just a nice bonus. Now though, there is a more ethically-minded consumer who is choosing products first and foremost because of that, and we've seen it through retail distribution.

In the past I think it was considered more "green" and "hippy", but the perception is a bit more mainstream now. The wider impact of greenhouse gases, climate change and oil shortages is becoming more important to people and featured in the newspapers every day. Whether people do it because they believe in it or they get financially hit through oil and they have to change - whichever direction you come from it's becoming more mainstream generally now.

j-s: Can you outline for just-style readers how your polyester recycling programme works?

JP: We have a programme called the Common Threads recycling programme and customers can bring back our products by either sending them to us or bringing them back to a retailer. We then send the products to our suppliers who melt down the polyester into its original polymer and then make new fibres. The long-term goal is to be using recycled polyester to make new garments, but also to make that recyclable so that we're 100% responsible for what we're making.

j-s: Where are your recycling facilities?

JP: We've got one in Japan and one in North America as well.

j-s: And you can recycle organic cotton products too?

JP: Yeah, it's not just polyester, it's organic cotton. At the moment we can take our own T-shirts and our own cotton garments, but with polyester we can recycle our Polartec fleece from any manufacturer.

j-s: Did this give rise to the Footprint Chronicles [Patagonia's transparency-based labelling system] then?

JP: The Common Threads recycling programme was launched in 2006, and the Footprint Chronicles was actually launched earlier this year. We've basically been looking internally at the whole manufacturing process and we want to be transparent.

j-s: Are environmental issues related to clothing miles, such as using a Japanese supplier for Common Threads, inevitable these days?

JP: There's a degree of inevitability purely based on cost. Companies source from different countries where there's a cheaper cost of production, but I think more and more consumers will drive and ask questions about where things are manufactured, what the human rights policy of a government is, what the legislation for the workers is, how they are treated, hourly pay. But if you ask most companies they don't know because they don't buy direct from the factories, they buy from a third party or even when they do buy direct there's problems. This is what Nike faced a couple of years ago, but they have since done a very good job of working with factories. That is what we do - we work directly with our suppliers and factories and chose the best one as part of our decision making process.

j-s: Are environmental issues in the mindset of most Far East manufacturers too then?

JP: Yeah, a good example is footwear, with leather tanning a very filthy practice in terms of chemicals used, toxins and water usage. We only use one of the four tanneries globally that are ISO 140001 certified. These are things that people don't know about.

j-s: Do sustainable and ethical measures hit profit and could this hold Patagonia back from growing?

JP: All these things cost more money - to use organic cotton for instance - but that's an active decision we make. We have to put our prices up a little bit so people know they are buying something of first-class quality but we have to share the costs a little bit. We've found our sales going up and up though and we keep growing. We know there's demand for it from our customers and we're a profitable company.

j-s: Is there much demand for Patagonia retail stores in the UK and Europe?

JP: We have three European retail stores already [in France, Italy and Germany] and 42 globally.

j-s: How about the UK?

JP: We have an outlet store in Dublin and have been looking in the UK; its just a question of finding the right site because when we look at sites we have a very specific criteria, we want it to be an old building we can restore as this is our philosophy. Every single one of our stores globally are different - many are listed buildings or could be old meat-packing factories - all sorts of buildings which were derelict but had really interesting architecture so we restore it to full glory and it becomes a retail store that we invest in. So it's a combination of trying to buy the right store at the right location and price.

j-s: So you'll be on the lookout for derelict buildings in London then?

JP: Exactly, if you find one let me know!

Jonathan Petty has worked at Patagonia for five years and has previous industry experience as UK general manager for Salomon Sports. He lives in Manchester and enjoys outdoor hobbies such as skiing, climbing and surfing. just-style was introduced to Petty following this year's annual ASBCI Conference in Rugby, where he was a speaker.