Rob Naughter with Patagonia On the Company’s Commitment to Sustainable/Traceable Textiles
With the desire of working on material development with finished goods brands, Rob Naughter came knocking on Patagonia’s door after spending six years as a development engineer with PrimaLoft, a premium insulation for outdoor and home furnishings products. While it took the reputable three interviews, Rob finally landed at Patagonia’s Ventura headquarters as Materials R&D Manager 11 years ago and has moved up the ranks to Patagonia’s Director of Material Innovation and Impact. Rob has pioneered several of the company’ most notable sustainable/traceable material developments such as its 100% Traceable Down Standard and the recent launch of its down-like PlumaFill, which took ten years to come to market. Given that Patagonia fails nearly all materials tested in its labs, we talk about Patagonia’s increased bandwidth on material development and what makes a good material partner. We also discuss the evolution of the Patagonia customer and the company’s love hate relationship with polyester.
Rob’s Interview Transcript
Nancy: Hello. I’m Nancy Fendler and you’re listening to Material Wise, your podcast on material matters. It’s my chance to talk to designers, product developers, and other guests in the outdoor, fashion, home furnishings, among other industries about what influences them to create, how and why they select the materials they choose, and the relationships they built with their customers and industry.
I’m excited to share this episode, featuring Rob Naughter, the director of material innovation and impact at Patagonia. I met Rob years ago when he was a development engineer with PrimaLoft, a former client of mine. Rob spoke to me from his office in Ventura, California to chat about his role at Patagonia, what makes a good material partner, and a few developments he’s most proud of.
Nancy: Rob, thanks so much for joining me on Material Wise.
Rob: Thank you. Thanks, Nancy.
Nancy: Can you tell us how you got into material research and development and how you landed at Patagonia?
Rob: Sure. I started just looking to get into the industry. I was a very passionate outdoor user and started working for a small non-wovens company doing lab testing and learning as much as I could about the non-wovens part of the industry and how it’s used in clothing. And I did that for a number of years at a company called PrimaLoft in Albany, New York.
Nancy: I remember that.
Rob: Yeah. Yeah so I did that for a number of years. I started in the lab just trying to learn as much as I could about the process about how things pass and fail, about what is a good non-woven textile, and what needs improvement on it. And, the more I learned, the more I wanted to definitely go deeper into this. But I got very interested in the textiles that get used in combination with these, which I had a very limited exposure to in that role there. I did spend about six years with that company growing from different roles from basically working in the lab and doing quality assurance to doing product development from the non-woven side and it was great. I got to interact more with the plans. What I found interesting is what and why they were leaning towards certain products versus other products, and it just gave a better glimpse of what was going on in the entire industry.
So after a couple of years with that, I started really wanting to work with finished products so I applied to a few companies – Patagonia actually. When I applied to Patagonia, I think when I got hired it was the third time I’d applied to the organization! And it’s not an uncommon story a lot of folks apply here several times, maybe the first time you apply it’s for a different role, you’re not completely clear on what that role is until you meet with human resources, you meet with one of the hiring managers and you learn a little bit more about what they do here. So, I was hired a little over a decade ago, and now as a material developer. Basically the position was created specifically around my expertise not only in insulation but also about insulation in synthetic wovens, which is the category that insulation was mostly used in. That was great because I’d had some experience with textiles and the testing that was done on that. I was able to work with the mills and broaden my understanding about those textiles in that role.
Nancy: That’s great. So the third time was a charm?
Nancy: And you moved all the way out to Ventura, California from Albany, New York.
Rob: From Albany, New York. Yep it was a big move so it was a big change in my life and I figured I’d give it a shot and see how everything worked out and you know if you don’t like it you can always try something else. But found that it was a really good fit and people here were really accommodating, really nice, really passionate, very driven company inspired by our fearless leader, Yvon Chouinard. He’s been doing this for a long time and making really high-quality product that lasts for a very long time in the industry. So it was great. I felt lucky to be a part of that team.
I spent six years working in material development before I started managing that category. Our company had seen probably almost double in growth and we needed a much larger group of people to manage the textile developments for the different categories and so I spent about four years managing that category of insulation and wovens as it grew. We have down products, we have synthetic products, we have products with down-proof wovens, we have windbreakers, we have a lot of different items that fall into that category. So, it wasn’t just a single piece material used to go into a garment, it could be a lot of different things that has to be put together to build a product’s performance.
Nancy: I understand. So, how do you think or why do you think that it has grown and evolved so much? That department?
Rob: I think Patagonia’s put a lot of bandwidth behind material expertise, a lot of Patagonia’s initiatives going back to recycled polyester and organic cotton, traceable down, all of these go back to the raw material source and better understanding what’s actually in the product, and so a lot of companies may just buy whoever has the closest relationship to their garment factory and they actually don’t know all of the materials that are in their brands. But for Patagonia, they’ve taken a big stance in not only knowing where it’s coming from, but understanding what goes into those textiles.
Nancy: Right. You know obviously, unless you’re living under a rock, people must know that corporate social environmental responsibility are ingrained in Patagonia’s DNA so I would assume that the materials that you choose and as well as their practices are also very important.
Rob: Yeah. I mean we also have a huge sustainability team and corporate responsibility team now that tries to instill our values into our supply chain just so that we can have a larger impact moreover than even what we buy. So if we buy ten t-shirts worth of stuff, that’s great, we can impact that change. But if we impact the supplier that’s providing those ten t-shirts then we can impact hundreds, thousands, millions of t-shirts and so that’s ultimately our goal. Like we want to have the best product and we want to have the most traceable supply chain, but we are also trying to bring the whole industry along with that change.
Nancy: This might be kind of a silly question based on what you said, but since you’ve been at Patagonia, do you feel that material sourcing has changed over the years?
Rob: The biggest change I think is that years and years ago they (material sourcing managers) took a lot of what the factories were saying at face value. So they didn’t know where their nylon was coming from or where their polyester was coming from, they just knew that it was recycled or not recycled. And that was pretty standard back in the seventies and eighties in the industry. As we’ve gone forward I’d say traceability has become a front factor of that and going as deep as you can into the product. Some levels we’re going all the way back to the chemical that’s making the compound or the chemicals that are used in the dye stuff that’s in the blue jacket that you bought. And that’s something that I think a lot of companies don’t do and haven’t been doing for very long. It’s something that Patagonia’s very passionate about and I think we kind of led the way with that when we took a big stance with organic cotton. I believe it was 1996, that they we decided we were not longer going sell any conventional cotton. There wasn’t necessarily a performance reason behind that. It was because our founders had seen some of the things that they didn’t like within that supply chain and decided that they don’t want to be associated with that anymore.
So they actually dropped hundreds if not thousands of units to accommodate this new structure and they felt so passionately about it and moving forward we only sourced organic cotton.
Nancy: I understand that Patagonia has a new program called Worn Wear where people can drop off used products – I don’t know if they’re Patagonia products, but I would assume Patagonia products either to be resold or recycled. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Rob: Sure, yes I think over the past probably decade, maybe a little bit less, Worn has definitely grown as a huge part of our business as we try to build this market basically for high value second use items, as opposed to things just being sold in the thrift shop. So, we’ve built one of the largest repair centers in the country, in our Reno facility and we’ve worked with a lot of independent contractors to reduce our lead times and turnaround times on repairing garments, whether they’re down jackets, or whether they’re wool sweaters or cotton t-shirts for that matter. Some of them are easier to repair than others, but it’s a huge part of our business and as we go forward, we’re dedicating space in a lot of our stores to have Worn Wear sections where people can bring in their old garments.
We’re finding out that people are really attached to their old garments too and they find value, so people don’t necessarily want to give them up if you can repair them first and reuse them great. If you’re not using them anymore, somebody else may very well want to. Some of those vintage pieces, vintage old Patagonia pieces, actually sell for thousands of dollars on Ebay and it’s amazing because they’re twenty, thirty years old in some cases.
Nancy: Yeah. I know. When I was at OR (Outdoor Retailer Show), an NPD seminar was saying how vintage is so the big thing now. So, I can only imagine that some of those pieces would go for high prices. Do you think that today’s consumer has changed at all? Or that Patagonia’s consumer has changed?
Rob: I do. I think they’ve evolved over time. I think the consumers today want to know more about where just like the consumer in the food industry wants to know more about where they’re food is coming, they want to know more about where their jackets are coming from, where they’re made, how they’re made, sometimes even who’s making their jacket. We have our footprint chronicles on the website that talks more about where the jackets are manufactured, where they move around the world. They talk sometimes about the good and the bad. We try to shed light. I mean we make product, it’s not a perfect system. We’re definitely contributing. What we’re trying to do though is set a precedent to demonstrate that you can do it in a way that’s much better than the way a lot of other companies operate. So, I think the consumer nowadays is asking questions like that. They have their fingers on websites, they can search, they can do research on their phones in a store, you can go to websites where a lot more information can be found than on a hangtag. And people are following some of these brands on social media to find out what are they interested in, what are their values, our values.
I think that those are some of the folks that are really aligning with the Patagonia brand moving forward. And what really leads me to believe that that’s happening is when we run these big campaigns, like when we donate all of Black Friday’s profits (from the purchase of Patagonia gear) to the non-profits that we work with, or our 1% for the Planet program or our Don’t Buy This Jacket program where we tell people, “Hey, you might be able to buy three of these (lower quality/priced) jackets somewhere else, but you really only need one good one. This one Patagonia jacket will last you ten years or twenty years or thirty years. You need to buy something once and love it and give money on it instead of buying something that’s subpar multiple times over and never being quite satisfied.” When we run this program, we can’t sell enough of them (jackets) it’s because people understand what we’re trying to tell them. And I see this happening more and more in our industry.
Nancy: Well Patagonia’s super transparent and has done a really great job with communicating those values and I’ve heard that again and again – buy quality, not quantity and I think that’s kind of, hopefully it’s seeping into people’s brains, there’s a trickle down. So in a previous email that you and I communicated a few years ago, you had mentioned that Patagonia fails over ninety percent of the materials tested in your labs, so what do you think makes a good material supplier? Or maybe a good material?
Rob: If they still want work with us if we’ve failed ninety percent of their product, wow. Honestly, it takes a patient supplier to work with Patagonia, we can be a very high maintenance customer in a lot of cases because we ask a lot of hard questions. We want to know a lot of details and we need somebody who’s willing to walk that walk with us and spend the time with us on that. It’s really easy to be like, “No, you know what, you’re not going buy enough (material).” In some cases we won’t. In some cases, we buy plenty, but a lot of companies will say that you only make up ten percent of our business, why am I going change my entire ethos to revolve around you? But a good supplier understands the value in putting your best foot forward and being the first to market and doing these things that we’re asking them to do whether it’s aligning with their core values and giving us the transparency and the scalability of these new fibers and the new tech or whether it’s recycled or bio-based or more environmentally friendly chemistries or reducing water or reducing energy. They’re working with us to do that because they know that it matters to us and if they do it for us and we’re talking about it, it’s going to matter to a lot of other people down the road.
Nancy: Do you think that a branded name material or a consumer recognized textile makes a difference?
Rob: I think in some cases it does. You hear a lot of instances that people walk in to big brand box shops like Target or Walmart and they ask for specific textiles that they know of. Gore-Tex probably being one of the most famous ones, but in a lot of cases if they’re associating with a brand specifically around Patagonia, I think a lot of the consumers are looking at Patagonia first and those ingredient textiles second. So they’re kind of playing a supporting role as opposed to the leading role. I think that in a lot of cases they can bring a lot to the partnership, but they have to be willing to do a lot of those things that we ask them to do to make a difference and that’s to be sustainable, that’s the traceability part of it, that’s all the things that we talked about earlier that make a good partner. And some are willing to do that and some aren’t and I think that in general though, if they can do all that and your brand has value, then I think it only helps the brand but it depends on where you’re buying these things at.
The more educated the consumer is, the more educated the retailer and wholesaler are, I think. They’re doing a lot of research from the brand’s perspective and at least with Patagonia, they definitely rely on the Patagonia brand first.
Nancy: I understand. A question on my mind is if consumers are becoming more savvy or savvier about the materials that go into products? I mean you and I kind of work and love materials, so we like to think that, but I’m wondering if the average consumer is a little bit more educated about what goes into their products?
Rob: That’s a good question. You know I would say the average Patagonia consumer has definitely become savvier, but I don’t know if the Patagonia consumer’s your average consumer. If that makes any sense to you. There are definitely folks that are willing to spend a little bit more of their money on a product that’s going to last them a long time. I don’t know if that’s the same person everywhere across the entire globe, across all different age brackets and income brackets. I think we have a unique customer regardless of their age. They’re definitely interested in supporting the brand. They definitely want to be a part of the company’s image whether it’s with a t-shirt or with a hat or with a waterproof jacket that costs six or seven hundred dollars.
So, I think our consumer is definitely getting savvier. I think that is going to be the trend regardless of whether everybody’s there or not. I think in general, a lot of general consumers – I mean it’s easy to get swayed by the hype, by the big signs and without a lot of substance because nobody asks them to go deeper than the initial catch phrase . So that’s the part that I’m always hoping that the consumers becoming savvier on that, they’re looking a little deeper than just the catch phrase.
Nancy: Where do you turn to find the latest news on materials and material trends?
Rob: Good question. There’s a decent amount of industry publications, however we work very closely with our suppliers honestly, in general our supply chain provides us a lot of textile trends and it’s amazing the number of things that we pass along that end up in the industry. And the number of things that we get on board with and we end up working with that show up in the industry later on. And sometimes we’re not the first to buy a material from a supplier, we’ll see it and we’ll pass because we don’t think it’s ready yet. Somebody else works the kinks out of it and then we jump on because having high quality product is really important and doing our due diligence is really important. We also have a dedicated material innovation team we house in our material team here at Patagonia and those innovation engineers are working on projects that take anywhere from two to five or even longer years. Things that they are trying to determine like what’s the next best synthetic fiber or how do we work better with blends or how do we deal with end of life of polyester or what’s the deal with micro plastics? Something like that.
Nancy: I was just going to ask you, are there any new cool materials that you’re working on? You probably can’t talk about or that you’ve seen in the market?
Rob: Yeah. That’s a good question. The coolest ones I can’t really talk about just yet.
Nancy: I bet. That’s okay. We’ll wait. We can wait. Three to five years maybe.
Rob: Maybe just two. Who knows?
Nancy: So, what are some of the favorite trade shows that you like to go to for catching new materials? I’m sure Outdoor Retailer, but are there any others that you?
Rob: Yeah. Outdoor Retailer’s kind of a staple. One of the reasons that I like going there is just because you can see what the brands are doing, catch a glimpse as to what everybody’s been looking at and meet with almost your entire supply chain, whether they’re actually displaying booths there or whether they’re just walking the show. So for us, we realized that show was developed as a buying show. People wanted to buy product for their wholesale or retail accounts, but for me and my team, I feel like that’s become a really important part of the show that supplier side of it. ISPO’s a fantastic show as well. That’s basically our European counterparts to Outdoor Retailer and that happens I believe they’re doing that twice a year now. The summer show moved to Munich as well. It’s a great show and it’s huge. If you think Outdoor Retailer is huge, then this show is even bigger.
Nancy: I haven’t been to ISPO in a while, but I think I will this year. And do you go to any of the Asian trade shows like I know that there’s the Intertextile Shanghai show is coming up.
Rob: I have not been to Intertextile, but it’s on my radar. I’ve heard from some of my suppliers that it is a behemoth of a show. It’s just huge and you kind of need to go into a show like that with a plan or a strategy or you just get lost like a deer in headlights. That’s what I’ve heard, but I’ve heard great things about it. Obviously, things like Titus in Taiwan are really popular and there’s a few other ones that are going on but honestly, I like to get a glimpse of the market. I still feel like on true innovation projects it’s better to spend some time with those actual suppliers, meet the people that are more than just the sales rep they send to the convention, and understand how they work, where they work, and what’s important to them. And so visiting these people and building a relationship with them is super important. You just can’t meet with five or six of them a day. You have to be very candid about that and pick the ones that are most important to you.
Nancy: Right and particularly where materials are so important to Patagonia, it’s important to build those relationships.
Nancy: So I just have a few other questions here. What’s your favorite Patagonia piece? If you have one?
Rob: Yeah. I’ve got a lot of Patagonia pieces that I feel super passionate about, but one of the ones that I love having year round is my Nano Air Jacket just because it’s got kind of the warmth that you would get out of a traditional Nano garment, but I’ve used this walking around town, to go get coffee or go to a bar and have a beer, I’ve also used it hiking and biking and skinning in the mountains when I’m backcountrying in the middle of winter. So you can use it below freezing, you can use it in the summer in June in California, it’s a really popular piece and second only to probably the down sweater that you see everywhere.
Nancy: Yeah. Everywhere is right. Is there any material that you just love? And one that you just can’t stand?
Rob: Oh gosh. Honestly, I don’t really have one that I love or can’t stand. I think that one of the biggest challenges, it’s the love-hate relationship that everybody has with polyester is you know it changes our lives in so many ways but it’s one of those things that we need to figure out how to, the end of life, beginning of life, it does great things for us. It’s a technical fiber. But, it’s hard, it’s used so much in so many places and it’s tied to oil and we’re always trying to figure out how to make it better.
Nancy: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, what are you most proud of, Rob?
Rob: I’d probably say, out of the products that I’ve worked on at Patagonia, the Nano Puff and the Micro Puff have been true testaments to building versatile styles that solve a problem, keep people warm, are last a long time, and are versatile in a lot of different types of situations. Whether it’s layering or stand-alone pieces. And I think I really like the way they look. I think they’re great. I think, as an industry, things like Synchilla has been a staple product for what thirty or forty years? I mean it’s insane that that product has been around for so long. It’s truly withstood the test of time so I’m blown away that it still is one of the most beloved, I mean fleece, people still buy it. They buy it whether it’s from us or somebody else. I think ours is great and I own several of them. But I try not to buy them anymore because I want to wear the ones that I have out.
Nancy: Alright. So what are you looking forward to? What’s coming up?
Rob: Good question. I think we’re trying to. We’re looking at the future and we’re trying to find out what’s next, what is going to be the next performance fiber of the next fifty to a hundred years, how do we continue to build technical performance pieces as sustainable as possible? I think that’s the big question that we’re trying to get to the bottom of and I think that we’re looking at it through all sorts of different lenses. We’re not trying to get stuck on buzz words, just like recycled, I think it’s important but what’s really important is to understand why that’s important. What is it saving you from carbon emissions? What is it saving you in CO2? What’s it saving you in water or energy? How is this making an impact on the world and how can we make that impact bigger than us alone as a brand?
I think that’s kind of our big message. Whatever we’re trying to do, sure we’d love to get exclusivity on it, but we want to drop that pretty quickly just so we can talk about it and blow it out to the whole market. Hopefully the whole clothing market can have a piece of it and change the industry for better.
Nancy: Are you looking at smart fabrics at all? Is that part of, maybe you can’t share, but something that Patagonia’s looking towards?
Rob: I think that we’re always looking. I think it would have to be the right story for us to get behind the smart fabric. It has to be true to the authenticity of the brand and the ethos here. And a lot of the ways that it’s being done today are kind of clunky and don’t really feel authentic to the brand. So that doesn’t mean that we’re not looking at it and we’re not considering it and that in the future we might not find a way to do it, but we need to, if we’re going do it, we need to find a way to do it in a way that’s very Patagonia.
Nancy: Okay. Last question, can you leave us with a memorable fabric story? Have you got any good ones?
Rob: It’s hard to pick one. I think we could easily pick a super fresh one that’s probably out there right now being marketed with the Micro Puff and the fact that that started off as a project to change the way insulation is made. I believe those projects always kind of start off as a way to mimic natural fibers. Everybody wants to mimic down. And some reason down is very beloved, and I get it, it lasts a long time and it has a great feeling to it and it’s extremely warm so those are a lot of the benefits. But with our product, the goal was to say – can we make a product that’s just as light only maybe it’s more versatile? We spent ten years tweaking the product on and off before it was valid for being commercially viable.
Nancy: Wow. Well, it had an incredible launch didn’t it? It really did.
Rob: It did. I mean we can’t make enough of them right now which I guess is a good problem to have, but it’s another challenge.
Nancy: Well Rob, thank you so much for your time and I hope to see you in November.
Nancy: Take care. Thank you.
Rob: Thanks, Nancy.
Nancy: You can find more information on Patagonia’s amazing apparel and gear and it’s outstanding corporate, social, and environmental initiatives at Patagonia.com. Thanks so much for listening to Material Wise. I’d like to thank the incredibly talented Woods Creative for their help in producing this podcast. Jake Nevrla mixes our episodes and our theme music is by Activity Club. For more information on Material Wise, please visit materialwise.co and please subscribe, rate, and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you again and until next time take care.