A team of Yale graduate students, including three students from F&ES, earned second-place honors in the 2016 Patagonia Eco Innovation Case Competition, a national business case contest sponsored by the outdoor apparel company and the University of California, Berkeley.
Leveraging its multi-disciplinary expertise in green chemistry and engineering, corporate social responsibility, systems modeling, and sustainability strategy, the Yale team developed a five-step approach to developing an environmentally sustainable water repellent for the apparel industry.
Repellents used now by the industry typically are fluorine-based and have been found at measurable levels in water bodies across the world, raising concerns about potential toxic effects to humans and sensitive ecosystems.
The Yale team recommended a new life-cycle framework to help address the challenges faced by Patagonia with regards to water repellents and other environmental issues that may arise in the future. As part of this approach, the team outlined specific chemical tests to better understand currently used repellents, a communication strategy based on extensive customer surveys, and a strategic coalition to align key experts to develop high-performing materials using the guiding principles of green chemistry. And to encourage and facilitate a transition to need-based consumption, they also proposed leveraging the concept of the “ecological handprint” on the company’s mobile app and website to give their customers tools to encourage others to make more environmentally preferable choices.
The team consisted of Nitesh Kuma ’17 M.B.A.; Laurene Petitjean, a Ph.D. candidate at F&ES; Jon Powell, a Ph.D. candidate in Chemical and Industrial Engineering; Serena Pozza’17 M.E.M.; and Ranran Wang, a Ph.D. candidate at F&ES.
The team was one of eight finalists invited to pitch their idea and answer questions from a panel of Patagonia executives. Other finalists included teams from the University of North Carolina, Duke University, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Virginia, University of Michigan, and UC Berkeley. More than 100 graduate student teams from 30 universities across the U.S. submitted proposals.
The winners were announced at the competition’s final round, which was held at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business on April 22.
The evaluation criteria included innovation, feasibility, and alignment with Patagonia’s mission to be a thought leader in sustainable business practices.
“The invitation to attend the final round of the competition was thrilling for us, as our team spent a great deal of time developing an integrated solution that Patagonia can actually implement,” said Powell, who is affiliated with the F&ES-based Center for Industrial Ecology. “Having the attention of Patagonia’s CEO, COO, and several other of the company’s executives for an entire day is an honor and a testament to their commitment to address some of the most intractable challenges the company is facing.”
Powell attributed much of the team’s success to advice received from Yale faculty and staff members.
In addition to a $5,000 prize, the Yale team’s proposal will live beyond the competition. The top three proposals will be developed into a business case study written by the California Management Review and will be taught in MBA classrooms to enhance sustainability curriculum. The team also hopes to work with Patagonia to incorporate their proposed solutions into the company’s business strategy in the coming months.