“We’re in business to save our home planet, I’m 80 now and I’ve been asking myself why I still come into work. It’s not to sell more clothes or to make more money. It’s because we’re destroying the planet, and it’s gotten so dire that we have to do something. When you talk to people at our company, you’ll find that this is why they come here, too: Because they’re committed to saving the planet.”
– Yvon Chouinard (Founder and CEO of Patagonia)
Patagonia’s commitment to making the world a better place emanates beyond their own company interests, with a reach that extends far enough to entrench the legal team of the white house in battle and pockets deep enough to support a fledgling global movement with one aim: keeping it clean. Unconcerned with internalising their approach for the sake of their profile, they’re happy to share their environmentally and socially progressive methods with competitors, all you have to do is ask.
A brief history
It all started almost 50 years ago when Yvon Chouinard’s business selling climbing accessories expanded into fit-for-purpose clothing, from imported (British made) rugby shirts to lightweight rain jackets and Bivouac sacks. Within 10 years they’d patented their own take on pile fleece (known as synchilla) which became a ubiquitous sight on mountains around the world in the brand’s distinctive, bold colour palette. Since then, the brand has focused on continually doing the functional, outdoor lead casual wear they do well while constantly updating production methods and ensuring they’re as eco-friendly as possible.
Somewhere along the way, the brand transcended the outdoors and found its way into mainstream clothing culture, earning it the nickname ‘Patagucci’, a light-hearted jibe at what could’ve been perceived as a cultural fad. The reality is likely a result of the excellent and distinctive branding (Patagonia’s P-6 sits comfortably alongside the Carhartt ‘C’ and Levi Strauss’ red tab as an iconic piece of American branding in the apparel industry) in combination with pure functionality. The kind of comfort Patagonia offered climbers was quickly turned onto travellers, commuters, surfers and skaters; all kinds of adventurers that required a makeshift uniform happily accepted the vibrant colours and technical fabrics to keep the cold out and the rain off. However, it’s not always been smooth sailing for Patagonia. The recession of 1990-1991 forced the company to reduce its workforce by 20%, with layoffs costing 120 jobs and teaching Yvon a valuable lesson about unsustainable company growth. Reeling from this lean period in his company’s history,
Chouinard opted against compromising his values for the sake of profit, instead scaling back distribution and returning to company roots.
100% for the planet
As Patagonia has grown into a global entity, it’s approach to the environment has grown alongside it. Starting with local interests in the 1970’s when a number of employees attended a city council meeting intent on restoring the local Ventura County river to the wildlife habitat it had been before human intervention. They quickly came to understand the power of grassroots activism. The world was slowly beginning to realise the harmful effects of industry from deforestation to dams and the brand had unwittingly set a precedent in it’s approach to combating many environmental ills. It would have been easy enough to set up a fund, or to blindly give money to charity in an attempt to raise their profile, but as we’ve learned Patagonia rarely take the path of least resistance. Instead, they pick battles they know they can win. In an in-depth interview with Chouinard in Patagonia’s 2018 social initiatives booklet while talking up regenerative agriculture, he said “Sure, we could try to stop using fossil fuels. Good luck with that. Good luck with going against Exxon and all those big energy companies. We’d spend a lot of money doing effectively nothing if we tried to take them on.” This speaks to a shrewdness in their approach, a willingness to look at and educate themselves on the individual issues that contribute to climate change and social disparity.
One of their best known initiatives is 1% for the planet, an international organisation founded by Yvon Chouinard focused on encouraging companies to donate 1% of their profits to various global environmental interests. There are over a thousand companies involved with 1% for the planet including honest tea and klean kanteen, and that number is constantly growing, with the funds generated pledged to non-profit organisations in any of 6 areas; Climate, food, land, pollution, water and wildlife. Within these Patagonia’s select causes are intensely specific, from working with the women of Albania to prevent the dam-building that threatens their towns and local wildlife to championing organic food production with a much smaller environmental footprint. They even find the time to look inwardly at an issue that has careered into the public conscience more recently, microplastics.
Microplastics are small fibres from all kinds of plastics, polyester clothing (like the fleece used by Patagonia), automotive tire dust, beads in cosmetics/toothpaste that are too small to be filtered out and resin from manufacturing to name a few. These fibres end up in the ocean, where they’re harmful to wildlife. Plastic is an inherently harmful material, it comes from oil (obviously, excavation of fossil fuels is bad for the planet) and once it exists, it exists for good. There’s no easy way to tackle this, but Patagonia, as always, is at the forefront of positive change. First off, higher quality polyester garments (which the brand already makes) are less likely to shed, and less likely to need replacing. Longer term, however, the brand intends to source all synthetic fabrics they utilise from the large pool of recycled plastic (6 billion tonnes) that already circulates on the planet, with an end-game of not using any at all.
Patagonia for the people
Not just limited to the environment, Yvon and his company often turn their sights to social and political issues, most recently spearheading a movement to encourage American companies to provide employees with election day as a paid day off to enable them to vote. Patagonia’s example was followed by numerous companies including Wal-mart and lyft, emphasising the importance of participation of all for democracy to function effectively. Unsurprisingly, they’ve been a vocal critic of the current establishment, currently deep into 5 pending lawsuits against the American government about what they allege to be unlawful (certainly immoral) reductions of several national monuments.
There was a genius piece of marketing from the run up to christmas in 2011 employed by the brand that simply included a picture of one of their signature pile fleece jackets emblazoned with the text “don’t buy this jacket”. Alongside it, the promise to repair and eventually recycle the goods. The intention was to encourage consumers to make more considered purchases out of necessity as a direct response to the burgeoning fast-fashion industry which directly enables over-consumption of lower priced and lower quality goods. It’s something only a brand with integrity intent on connecting with customers that share their values could get away with, and it’s worked. Since 2011, Patagonia has increased its revenue every year.
Patagonia by the people
As you might expect from a company made-up largely of passionate outdoorsmen and women, Patagonia have made a name for themselves for having something of a relaxed corporate culture. There’s a fairly famous quote from Chouinard himself about allowing his employees to go surfing when the waves are good, but repeating it here risks reducing to a gimmick the wider commitment to flexible working hours and ensuring staff are working to live not living to work. They’re an organisation that values employees with passion and creativity stimulated by a rich and rounded lifestyle, their vision of sustainability encompassing the planet and all of its inhabitants, including humans.
All in all, Patagonia are a brand that do their utmost to ensure their presence on this planet does more good than harm, and in the treacherous corporate climate of the 21st century, that’s something to be applauded.