Where waders don’t go to die
The wader-repair department at Patagonia is a standalone, self-sustained operation in a hard-to-find corner of a 342,000-square-foot warehouse in Reno, Nevada, just steps from the rainbows, browns, and—as of last summer—native Lahontan cutthroat of the Truckee River. The department is little more than a series of temporary walls erected on the edge of the receiving dock and beneath eight-story-tall rafters, but it is a domain of its own.
“Welcome to the bat cave,” says Dylan Malfa, the department’s supervisor. As we rounded the corner, the beeping and whirring sounds of the warehouse gave way to music playing. Stickers and posters claimed wall space. Thank you cards from customers were pinned to a bulletin board, and a bedazzled, teal, ceramic casting of the biggest freshwater fish Malfa ever caught hung from the top shelf. Malfa is a fifth-generation Nevadan and lifelong angler. Last year, he and his two employees repaired 1,800 pairs of waders, by hand. Their method is similar to testing a bike tube—they cover the waders in soap, inflate them like a balloon, pour water over them, and look for bubbles. Seam leaks, pinholes, wear and tear, delaminated material, stitching failures— they patch and repair them all, and return the waders to the customer with pressed seams and more durable waterproofing. The repaired waders are sometimes in better condition than when they were brand new, says Malfa.
Waders make up only a fraction of the repairs and recycling done here. One of the largest apparel-repair facilities in the US, Patagonia employs 42 full-time repair technicians in Reno, and intercepts more than 40,000 pieces of clothing each year. Mending and repairing each item keeps it out of the landfill and, by giving them a longer lifespan, reduces the company’s carbon footprint. Additionally, if someone wants to return an old-but-still-good jacket, Patagonia’s Worn Wear program gives customers store credit for used items, which in turn get sold for a reduced rate on an online marketplace. The items that are beyond repair get recycled. “The single best thing we can do for the planet is to keep our stuff in use longer,” wrote Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario in a 2017 manifesto titled “Repair Is a Radical Act.”
Malfa’s department also pays attention to its impact on the local watershed. Their repair methods use a lot of water, especially for the high desert, which is why they plug the sink, save the water, and use a pump to reuse it for fixing the next pair. They reuse the water for as long as they can, until it turns brown and mucky from the dirty waders. Only then do they refill the sink. “All of us take a lot of pride in where we work and its surrounding areas,” says Malfa. “The cleaner we keep this place, the cleaner the river is going to be.”
With a warehouse on the banks of a river that supplies water to 425,000 people in the Reno/Sparks area—and is one of the most heavily fished waters in Nevada—Patagonia’s efforts to conserve water and energy at this facility go far beyond the sinks in the wader-repair department. Waterless urinals, low-flow toilets, and faucets that shut off automatically combine to cut water use by 42 percent from baseline standards for a facility of this size. Landscaping around the building consists of native plants that rely mostly on natural precipitation.
The warehouse also has insulated concrete walls that help regulate temperature. In early August, mid-afternoon temperatures in Reno were soaring near 100 degrees, but the wader-repair department was temperate, almost cool. Patagonia doesn’t use air conditioning in their massive, airy warehouse (though they do have A/C in a separated cubicle zone, home to the customer service department). Instead, the building leverages the desert’s natural cooling cycles. Come nightfall, when temperatures dip to the mid-50s, fans push hot air out of the building, while vents let cool air rush in. It’s a system called “night flush” and it’s one item on a long checklist that earned Patagonia a Gold-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council when they built an extension in 2006 that doubled the size of their building.
MALFA, WORKING TO KEEP SOMEBODY DRY. PHOTO BY JULIE BROWN.
Few people know that Patagonia’s operations are so hinged to a warehouse in Reno. More than 600 people work at the outpost—an eight-hour drive from the famed corporate HQ on the beach in Ventura. But Patagonia is being joined in Reno by a number of other companies, including Tesla and its Gigafactory. (When complete, Tesla’s behemoth building will be the biggest factory in the world.) Apple, Google, Amazon, and a slew of other Silicon Valley companies have also come to Nevada. But those warehouses are all east of Reno, way out in the desert. Patagonia, meanwhile, has been along the banks of the Truckee for 22 years. Before they arrived, this plot of land was a timber mill. Lloyd Stradley, a Reno native and Patagonia employee for more than two decades, remembers what the site looked like before. “It was not considered clean,” says Stradley, adding that the river was so polluted that people didn’t swim in it. “It’s a different era today, thankfully.”
When Patagonia built their original warehouse in the mid- 1990s, they undertook a $19 million construction project and took steps to clean up the river’s trash and pollution. They planted most, if not all, the trees on the lot, which are now tall and lush and provide ample shade. They also installed an underground settlement cache to clean stormwater and filter crud and pollution from runoff before it seeps into the river.
Ten years after the warehouse opened, it was so crunched for space that employees were putting end-caps on aisles so they could stack clothing as high as possible. An extension was required. Going for LEED on the new branch of the warehouse was something expected. “For us, it was the responsible company doing what it should be doing,” says Stradley.
It also required a huge effort on behalf of the construction team in terms of paperwork. Patagonia had to hire a third-party team to track, report, and monitor their progress. “The documentation of it all, proving it, required a lot,” says Megan Sells, a financial analyst who manages Patagonia’s facilities around the world. “You’d say you recycled all this material. But where did it go? You have to document everything.”
Sells led me through the warehouse, pointing out features that earned them LEED points, like skylights in the roof and ceramic white tiles hanging from the ceiling, which radiate heat. Sells said that, other than the extensive documentation, the same environmentally minded construction practices—recycling building materials, for example—were used in 1996 as in 2006.
Another decade in, and the company is once again growing and expanding—both as a clothing company and as a leader in environmental business practices. Two new Patagonia facilities were recently opened—a second distribution center on the East Coast, and a 221,000-square-foot warehouse in nearby Verdi, Nevada. On the environmental front, they sued the President in 2017 in defense of public lands, and in November, 2018, they donated $10 million in tax savings to “groups defending our air, water and land.”
The Truckee descends 110 miles from California’s high alpine to Nevada’s high desert. Its watershed connects two isolated bodies of water—Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake—and never reaches the ocean. A river full of trout, whitefish, and prolific hatches, from bluewings to PMDs to October caddis, the Nevada Department of Wildlife oversees 60,000 to 100,000 angler days per year on the river.
When employees walk into work in the morning, they can hear the Truckee flowing past. They may be far away from the company’s beachside headquarters, but they know they have a good thing in Reno. The crest of the Sierra Nevada, offering endless skiing, climbing, mountain biking, and hiking, is a 25-minute drive away. From the office, a trail switchbacks for a mile to the border of the Mount Rose Wilderness. The flyfishers, though, have it best. They take their rods to work. For his 34th birthday, Malfa went fishing on his lunch break.
I followed him across the parking lot and down a well-trod path that led to the river. He waded in, waist deep, and found a calm, cool pocket of water. Malfa has been fishing the Truckee since he was in Middle School. He said it was too late in the day to be optimistic that he’d catch anything, but he kept to the edges of the river, and after a short while, he let out a low whistle. “Yeah! I got one!”