Yvon Chouinard never saw himself a businessman.
In fact, it is he who refers to himself as an “accidental businessman.” Yet, in 1973, the fortuitous businessman architected outdoor apparel company and paradigm of sustainable business, Patagonia. The company has since witnessed over four decades of success, developing into what has been proclaimed by some as the most beloved brand of all time.
“[Our mission is to] build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
A false dichotomy exists between the ability of business to thrive and simultaneously advance environmental and social progress. Indeed, it is difficult for a business – an entity that thrives on human consumption and the utilization of a colossal amount of resources and energy – to act with utmost environmental stewardship. By the raw nature of producing jackets, for example, Patagonia is inflicting a certain amount of environmental harm. Companies that are publicly traded are faced with an even greater constraint in living as environmental stewards, as such companies must listen and react to shareholder demands. A long-lived legacy has existed for decades that shareholder value is synonymous to share price and profit maximization. Indeed, this is not necessarily true. But- such legacy has led Corporate America to witness an unyielding quest for short-term profits. (Read more here.) For this reason, Patagonia has openly declared it will never go public. While one could still point fingers at Patagonia’s carbon emissions, one must also consider the ability of such an influential company to inspire other businesses to exhibit transparency and fashion impact, and to inspire consumers to make responsible choices. If consumers work for, and buy from, companies that are committed to the environment, and investors invest in such companies, competitors that are “more harmful” will eventually be forced out of business. The influential power of certain brands that exist in today’s world is grander than most speculate about. If we must wear something (and we must), Patagonia provides us the option to consume products from a company that is actively and everyday taking massive strides to be an environmental steward.
LIVE AN EXAMINED LIFE.
Patagonia employees live and breathe by this very mantra. To them, living an examined life involves a deep sort of mindfulness regarding every single action taken throughout every link of the supply chain. In 1988, Patagonia entered the Boston area, opening a store in prime real estate on Newbury Street. Within a few days of the store opening, many of the employees were getting headaches. An engineer relayed to the company that the problem was with the ventilation system: more specifically, the air that was being recycled in the store was full of formaldehyde from the finished cotton clothes in the basement. The company spent a tremendous amount of resources to study conventional cotton, unearthing that cotton grown with pesticides is one of the most destructive crops in the world. Equipped with this knowledge, the company felt strongly that it could not continue using conventional cotton and in 1996, Patagonia went completely organic.
“From cotton, we moved to what happens in Patagonia’s name in every step of the supply chain, from crop to fabric, to finished garment. We learned how to make fleece jackets from recycled plastic bottles and then how to make fleece jackets from fleece jackets…”
The biggest step we can all take to reduce our impact is to do more with what we have.
Patagonia has taken massive strides to not only mitigate its impact, but also educate its consumers about how to make their products last as long as possible. There is a certain authenticity to the way that Patagonia goes about its business that inspires trust. For example, Patagonia would likely make more money if consumers bought a new jacket every week. But, I truly believe the company cares deeply about this planet. And would not only prefer to produce clothes that last, but feel it is their duty to do so. On Patagonia’s website one can find: Repair and Care Guides aiming to help readers understand how to make their clothing last as long as possible, as well as Reuse and Recycle Instructions, striving to make it easy for consumers to rid of their items.
Patagonia (alongside Walmart) is adhering to its mission of inspiring other businesses to do good by championing the Sustainable Apparel Coalition: an ensemble of companies dedicated to developing a universally accepted approach to measuring performance of sustainability. The Coalition’s core product is the Higg Index, easy-to-access online tools for brands, retailers, facilities, and consumers to measure, and compare over standardized performance scores, the environmental and social impacts at all stages of production. Read more here.Communication is paramount. In order to build a trusted brand, consumers must know about the wonderful things you, as a brand, are doing. Companies are increasingly being coerced to be creative in the way in which they disseminate information to customers and consumers. In today’s highly stimulative world, time and attention are the greatest commodities with which we trade. People are busy. Rushed. Unfocused.
Pictured above is an advertisement that Patagonia released in The New York Times on Black Friday (2012). If we assume positive intent, the purpose of this ad was to dissuade consumers from buying things they didn’t need. I say if we assume positive intent, because there certainly exist a camp of people that find it hard to believe the creators of this ad didn’t anticipate that it would lead to increased sales. Reverse psychology 101: people love to do things they are told not to. Anyway, let’s assume positive intent. After all, the ad was highly transparent, educating consumers that in order to produce and distribute the jacket shown, the company required 135 liters of water (enough to meet the daily needs, or three glasses per person, for 45 people), and generated approximately 20 lbs of carbon dioxide and 2/3 of its weight in waste.
But the result of the ad? Skyrocketed sales. People both signed the “buy less” pledge and bought the jacket. In fact, in 2012, after 9 entire months of “buy less” marketing, Patagonia’s sales increased approximately 30% to $543 million. In other words, encouraging consumers to buy less resulted in an increased $158 million of additional products sold.
Patagonia’s business ethos lends to an increasingly vital question: how can a company successfully provide – but not overload – consumers with accurate information?
The paradox of choice. We are inundated with ratings, categories, true and false news articles, you name it. Third party providers exist in attempts to aggregate the plethora of existing data and help consumers sort this information – but the same issue of trust arises – how can consumers trust the methodology used by third party aggregators?
As a consumer who deeply cares about the how, why, and from where when it comes to purchasing goods and services, it is increasingly difficult to unearth net impact. Even if we want to make all the right choices, it is difficult to understand what those best choices are.
Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s Vice President of Environmental Affairs, recently spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to an audience in which I was in attendance. Someone asked him this very question – how does Patagonia think about its consumers and transparency? The paraphrased version of Rick Ridgeway’s very astute answer was as follows: It’s all about building trust. If you are a consumer and you trust that Patagonia is a environmentally friendly brand, than even if you don’t know that we know where every feather comes from, you get a sense that we know.
Patagonia does, in fact, know where every feather comes from and released a video called What the Pluck? in hopes of educating consumers.
Building and maintaining a trusted brand is no easy task. In fact, it’s near impossible. Nobody and no company is perfect. Patagonia exists as a paradigm for other businesses: it is completely transparent about its shortcomings, and about the fact that the company is continuously learning how to do the right thing. Importantly, Patagonia is committed to its customers and committed to this planet.
LET MY PEOPLE GO SURFING:
The accidental businessman wrote a book (some might call it a memoir, or manifesto) called “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman”, in which he details Patagonia’s commitment to the environment.
I’ve been a businessman for almost sixty years. It’s as difficult for me to say those words as it is for someone to admit being an alcoholic or a lawyer. I’ve never respected the profession. It’s business that has to take the majority of the blame for being the enemy of nature…Yet, business can produce food, cure disease, control population, employ people, and generally enrich our lives. And it can do these good things and make a profit without losing its soul. That’s what this book is about.
My company, Patagonia, Inc., is an experiment. It exists to put into action those recommendations that all the doomsday books on the health of our home planet say we must do immediately to avoid the certain destruction of nature and collapse of our civilization. Despite a near-universal consensus among scientists that we are on the brink of an environmental collapse, our society lacks the will to take action. We’re collectively paralyzed by apathy, inertia, or lack of imagination. Patagonia exists to challenge conventional wisdom and present a new style of responsible business.
– Yvon Chouinard, Founder, CEO, and Reluctant Businessman, Patagonia
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