Beginning in 2016, the Berkeley Haas Center for Responsible Business and industry leader in sustainability, Patagonia, came together to bring next generation thinking to Patagonia’s most pressing sustainability challenges. The partnership is a collaboration focused on optimizing Patagonia’s sustainable business practices and engaging student innovators from business schools across the country through the Patagonia Case Competition.

The topic for the case is released each fall and teams from graduate programs across the globe submit proposals to present their solutions to Patagonia’s executive leadership in the spring. Case topics are aimed to combat Patagonia’s most pressing sustainability roadblocks. From eliminating single-use packaging, to achieving carbon neutrality, to creating a regenerative agricultural supply chain, the competition challenges teams to innovate, learn, and collaborate around real-world issues.

Each year, over 100 teams compete and present promising and insightful solutions. While only one team wins, just participating in the competition is an exceptional experiential learning opportunity for students. This was the case for Namrata Gummalla, a member of a finalist team in the 2019 contest and Corporate Development Intern at Patagonia. Executives at Patagonia were impressed with her team’s proposal to the 2019 prompt of using a seaweed-based bioplastic in place of single-use plastic, as well as Namrata’s previous experience in warehouse management. After reviewing her resume, the Tin Shed Ventures team asked her to join them as a Corporate Development Intern that summer. 

The Center for Responsible Business recently sat down with Namrata to get a closer look at what it’s like to compete in the Case Competition and to hear more about her internship experience.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FDB515″ class=”” size=”12″]Being part of an interdisciplinary team was essential to their success and the success of the other finalists as well.[/perfectpullquote]

When considering how to best design a competitive alternative to Patagonia’s single-use packaging, team ‘The Big Green’ from Dartmouth brought together two MBA students and two engineers to tackle the challenge. Namrata highlighted that being part of an interdisciplinary team was essential to their success and the success of the other finalists as well. Everyone brings something different to the table, so having an array of expertise, Namrata explained, fortified their strategy and made collaborating more facile.

The solution her team proposed was using seaweed as bioplastic packaging for Patagonia products. Invented with consumer behavior in mind, the team wanted the packaging to be sustainable no matter how the buyer disposed of it. They grounded their design in concrete scientific findings and a clear-cut implementation plan. Namrata explained that their solution hinged on technology and design, but clarified that there were many ways to approach the question. Some teams’ solutions, she elaborated, focused on sustainable packaging-waste disposal and emphasized logistical and operational approaches. While there are many solutions, the uniqueness of her team’s proposal caught the attention of the Patagonia executives and made them stand out above the rest.

The opportunity for collaboration the competition creates facilitated personal and professional growth for Namrata and her peers. She and her team forged lasting relationships that made the competition all the more valuable. Though they didn’t win, Namrata expressed gratitude for how much she learned while competing and how participating in the case study opened new doors in her career.

As a participant in the case competition, Patagonia had access to Namrata’s resume. Her prior warehouse expertise and evident passion for sustainability made her the perfect fit as the company was searching for a Product Development Intern to assist with their Worn Wear line. Worn Wear is Patagonia’s e-commerce business for returning and reselling used products in order to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by minimizing the waste generated by garment production. Customers appreciate the strides toward sustainability and the low costs of Worn Wear gear, while Patagonia is happy to do right by the planet.

As it was though, the Worn Wear production process still had areas prime for innovation. Namrata was tasked with optimizing Worn Wear operations, investigating how to re-model the processing of garments for resale in the most efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable way possible.

Going into the internship, Namrata knew she would be working on Worn Wear’s operations, but she was able to scope the specifics of her internship once on-site. As a result, she was able to mold the project around guidelines that allowed her to receive credit for her Master of Engineering Management program. This autonomy allowed her to work best against her strengths to launch a highly successful plan to maximize efficiencies in the Worn Wear line.

Namrata dug deep into Worn Wear’s operations to refine production processes, examining improvements that can be made at every stage of the garment’s reentry to the marketplace. She reached out to store operators and warehouse managers with surveys to gain insight on how Worn Wear processes flowed in real time. Understanding the challenges at the front line of garment collection allowed her to enhance warehouse operations by refining the physical layout of warehouses, proposing creative solutions to business requirements through modeling, and innovating solutions the training team could utilize to educate employees.

A challenge that Namrata helped to address was that not every garment accepted for trade-in meets Worn Wear quality standards for resale. This results in a deficit as Patagonia compensates customers for garments without an obvious reuse. While the rejected product never goes to landfill as Worn Wear has textile recycling partners, further innovation was needed to help recapture some of the high-costs. As a solution, in the fall of 2019 Worn Wear launched a new line called ReCrafted which creates high-quality “new” garments from parts of Worn Wear rejects. Namrata’s work in enhancing forecasting models and warehouse layouts included incorporating new processes for ReCrafted.

Namrata describes her internship with Patagonia as one of the most significant professional experiences she’s had. She confirmed that Patagonia is a great place to work thanks to a phenomenal company culture. Since the conclusion of her internship and receiving her Masters degree, Namrata is now actively seeking jobs in supply chain management. Her experience at Patagonia lead her to realize her passion for optimizing supply chain operations and her desire to pursue a career in that field. 

For more information about the 2020 Patagonia Case Competition, past case prompts, and past winners: click here.

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