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MIT Hosts Fifth Annual Sustainability Summit

MIT recently hosted its fifth annual Sustainability Summit with the theme “empowering action” at the MIT Media Lab. Day one of the two-day event featured three keynote addresses, including one by Patagonia’s Vice President of Environmental Initiatives Rick Ridgeway, and 10 breakout panels.  The following day conference attendees participated in a series of charettes, aiming to solve some of the problems introduced the day before.  This year, the conference attracted more than 350 academics, government officials and industry practitioners interested in sustainability.  The summit’s primary focus was why we must and how we can reduce our high levels of consumption, which is being fueled by our consumer-driven culture.

In his opening remarks, MIT Sloan Professor and Director of the System Dynamics Group John Sterman shared that current rates of consumption are not sustainable; we will deplete the planet’s resources even with our continuous improvements to technology.  Ridgeway echoed Sterman’s remarks in his keynote speech, claiming that we are in a crisis: “Too many people are buying too much stuff.”

At Patagonia, Ridgeway has helped the company take steps to address this crisis.  In 2009, in a joint effort with Walmart, Patagonia established the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which uses the Higgs Index to measure the social and environmental effects of clothing that is produced and sold by members of the coalition.  The comprehensive index is used by more than 250 companies (100 of which are global) that are making a conscious effort to adjust operations at all levels with an eye toward sustainability.

A more controversial effort – the Common Threads Partnership – in 2009 called for Patagonia’s customers to pledge to repair, reuse and/or recycle the company’s garments.  While this pledge and the “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign were risky, sales revenue increased the following year.  Hoping that Patagonia can serve as an example to other companies that share the goal of promoting sustainability, Ridgeway said in a post-keynote interview that “it is our goal that we can show the way or at least be among the group of companies that show the way.”

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