The Education of a Reluctant Businessman
The story of Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia’s attempt at Environmental Sustainability.
“Who are businesses really responsible to? Their customers? Shareholders? Employees? We would argue that it’s none of the above. Fundamentally, businesses are responsible to their resource base. Without a healthy environment there are no shareholders, no employees, no customers and no business.” ( Chouinard, Y. (2006) Let My People Go Surfing. Penguin Books)
Patagonia is a brand beloved by many for their authentic origins and quality outdoor products. Unbeknownst to the majority of their customers, as a brand who appreciates the true beauty of nature more than most, Patagonia is a company and a culture that has been actively combatting environmental abuse for decades. As an American clothing company, Patagonia sits square in the middle of an industry which needs literal inputs from the earth in order to make their products. This is an industry that by all means causes harm to the environment. But over the last few decades Patagonia has been taking strides to minimize their negative impact on the world we live in, and has been encouraging others to join them every step of the way.
After discovering the disturbing severity of the environmental impact of chemically aided cotton production, Patagonia’s leadership decided to look for alternatives as input to their cotton products. In the fall of 1994, they made the decision to make all their cotton products with only organic cotton. A decision that would be scrutinized by many in the business world for increasing their costs, raising their prices, and likely spoiling their sales – but a step they found necessary towards getting started on the right path.
But Patagonia didn’t stop with their own processes. They took their environmental mindset, and began integrating it throughout the entirety of their supply chain. They reevaluated 100% of their existing supply chain on Social and Environmental responsibility, and chose only to continue working with partner companies who were also making substantial efforts to reduce their negative impact on the environment and to provide fair and just working conditions to their employees.
Another effort Patagonia made towards reducing their overall environmental impact, was to take a strong stance supporting the reusing, repairing, and recycling of their products. Against standard business practice, Patagonia actually encourages their customers to have an old jacket repaired (for free) rather than buy a new one, because each additional jacket they sell represents marginal use of resources from the environment. Currently Patagonia still pushes their “Worn Wear” campaign, which urges customers to keep their gear in service longer through repair and repurposing, and provides recycling options when repair is no longer viable.
After becoming known as a leader of conducting environmentally conscious business practices, Patagonia found that other companies with similar values were reaching out to them to ask questions about how to create more environmentally friendly business practices. In an effort to motivate all companies in this direction, Patagonia actually compiled a list of resources on “Green Business Practices” and share them (still) for free on their website, encouraging other members of the business community to join their movement.
In addition to supporting businesses moving towards greener practices, Patagonia has made a habit of Environmental Activism, and encourages and supports their employees to stand up and fight for environmental movements they believe in. Patagonia has gone so far as to budget additional financial support and even paid time off for employee activism when fighting for environmental and social causes.
Patagonia has taken strides in the right direction over the past few decades, but they have much more work to do. In recent media they have been criticized for talking the talk more than they have actually walked the walk. The most critical step that I would like to see them take moving forward is to merely continue doing what they’re doing. Improve their own practices, encourage other businesses to join them, and educate the end consumer that they themselves are ultimately the ones with the power to make change.
I picked up a well-used but left-behind copy of “Let My People Go Surfing” in a hostel in Quilotoa, Ecuador last summer. Yvon Chouinard (Founder and owner of Patagonia and author of the book) claims it to be “The Education of a Reluctant Businessman”. The story Chouinard tells is one of how to bring grand adventures and doing good together in a successful business, and since reading it, both the entrepreneur and the outdoor enthusiast within me have never been so motivated.
(Word Count: 737)
- Chouinard, Y. (2006) Let My People Go Surfing. Penguin Books
- Spear, S. (2016, September 19). 10 Most Profound Passages From ‘Let My People Go Surfing’ Retrieved November 3, 2016, from http://www.ecowatch.com/let-my-people-go-surfing-2008599492.html
- Corporate & Social Responsibility History – Patagonia. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://www.patagonia.com/corporate-responsibility-history.html
- Environmental Impact. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://www.patagonia.com/environmental-impact.html
- Worn Wear. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://wornwear.patagonia.com/
- (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2016, from http://www.patagonia.com/reference-library.html
Student comments on The Education of a Reluctant Businessman
I have always found Patagonia a fascinating company, but hadn’t heard of their Worn Wear campaign. One additional thing I found interesting as I was researching it more (inspired by your post) was all the steps the company took to make that campaign itself sustainable and green. They drove a truck around the country to reach consumers (obviously not ideal from a sustainability stand point), but they did it in the best way possible. The roof of the truck was built with recycled wine barrels and was powered by biodiesel fuels. And they even repaired non-Patagonia items for free. I think this is an incredible example of a company putting its money where its mouth is and taking immediate action to reduce its impact on the world while simultaneously educating consumers on the industry at large.
I love this campaign and think it is apparent that Chouinard’s commitment to sustainability is heartfelt and authentic. That said, for many of us, there are high barriers to repairing clothing. While minor repairs are more straightforward–it’s easy enough to use a sewing kit or send a pair of pants with a torn seam to the dry cleaners–it’s far more intimidating to repair high performance outdoors gear. From looking at the Worn Wear “how-to repair & care guide”, it’s clear that several of the repairs–e.g. fixing a baffle on a down jacket, accessing the insides of a jacket, putting in a new zipper, among many others–are quite complicated, involved, and time-intensive. I, for one, wouldn’t be able to perform these repairs and I’m not sure that dry cleaners work on winter jackets and other synthetic, waterproof materials. From Kenzie’s comment above, I learned that Patagonia has traveled around to different cities doing repairs in its trucks, but this is not a scalable solution. Patagonia might consider performing free or low-cost repairs in its stores and/or having a mail order repair service so it can actually provide a viable repair solution. Otherwise, I’m not sure how much Patagonia can actually achieve its stated goal of having people hold onto older clothing instead of buying new stuff.
I enjoyed reading this post as I can clearly tell how much Chris loves Patagonia- he may even love the brand and respect the founder so much that I feel that I have to be more skeptical of Patagonia’s story than I otherwise might be! I am not sure when the Company was founded but I do remember that one of my first memories in my life was a moment where I was wearing a Patagonia sweatshirt in the rain. I think Patagonia has become so synonymous with the outdoors that I question whether or not this is done out of “selflessness” as I believe Chris would suggest or simply good business. As a first thought to dig into this, I wonder what margins they earned prior to switching to organic cotton and what margins they earned post switching. The cynic in me can see each one of the decisions that Patagonia has made to address the environment as simply great marketing decisions. These decisions have allowed the brand to maintain a dominant position in the outdoor clothing industry for decades.
I think this is a great campaign that feels more genuine than others I’ve read about. I also found their recent actions in the sustainability space reinforcing of this view. The company recently came out with a beer – Long Root Ale – which is brewed with a grain called Kernza. This grain is one that doesn’t need to be replanted every year, which results in less emissions from farm machinery. Its physiological traits also preventsoil erosion. While this may seem out of left field for the apparel company, they’ve marketed it effectively as a complement to their products – encouraging consumers to enjoy a Long Root Ale after a day of trekking. I’d love to see Patagonia continue to come up with these out-of-the-box ideas to further increase their sustainability actions.
Really educational post, Chris. Therein lies their challenge it seems: they are dealing with a double-edged sword when it comes to communicating their mission and their practices. If they share too much, they get blamed for talking more than they are walking; equally, it is evident they don’t push it enough in front of consumers for us all to know about it universally. The trouble is that you still have to be resilient and not let outside criticism affect you as this is a journey – you will always have people hold you to impossible standards, when the industry as a whole simply hasn’t cracked it and you get blamed for trying and not getting their instantaneously! Like yourself, they could really use a larger mass of consumers to champion their cause by making it more meaningful and widespread for consumers. Doing good is ultimately good for business!
Hey Chris – thanks for sharing this. I never knew that Patagonia was so environmentally forward and has been so before it became trendy! Personally, I can see how knowing this would motivate a certain group of consumers, including myself, to purchase from the brand even if prices were higher. I wonder though whether there is more reputational risk for a company that starts from the position that they are environmentally forward but then is exposed to have some faults, which you raised, versus a company that makes no such claims and on occasion engages in green initiatives that might have an immediate financial return (e.g., energy efficiency efforts). It’s also interesting to observe Patagonia’s recent campaign focused on “degrowth”. Often in society we connote growth with being positive. In reality though, we have finite resources and growth can actually be a bad thing. Patagonia is taking this further and has invested in “Yerdle — a Web startup whose stated mission is to reduce new-product purchases by twenty-five per cent — as a way for people, and even the company itself, to swap or give away used Patagonia gear.”  I’m curious if Patagonia was public whether they could still pursue such efforts? Would they be able to make a compelling enough case to shareholders that this was a part of their unique value proposition to customers?
Great post Chris! I have always been impressed by Patagonia and their ability to consistently make their operations more sustainable. Most companies have a sustainability policy but it is often viewed as a nuance for daily operations but, in the case of Patagonia, sustainability seems to be at the core of the business and everything else is built around it. Patagonia has become a point of reference when it comes to sustainable business practice and that puts them in a very powerful position because they can influence change and educate others.
I love how Patagonia has really created a brand around sustainability. Encouraging clothing repair instead of repurchase really speaks to the firm’s commitment to sustainability as well as their belief it its benefit to the overall brand. Many short-sighted profit driven firms would never think about doing that! I also like how Patagonia has become an “industry expert” in the sustainability space where other companies reach out to them for advice and expertise. So, it seems like there is a desire for more information sharing on sustainability across firms. You mention that Patagonia has been criticized for not walking the walk. I wonder if there is an opportunity for them to become a leader in the clothing/apparel industry and perhaps start a council that firms could join that would bring best practice sharing and advance efforts across the entire apparel industry.
Chris, this is a fascinating post – Patagonia is a great example of a company that has gone out of its way to save the environment. As you said in class, someone companies do it because they care. What I find most interesting is how they have used marketing to make their sustainability efforts align with their business objectives as well. Most companies typically think of the two objectives as conflicting – Patagonia seems to have found a way to merge them both (e.g., the full page ad). The aspect you spoke about (encouraging other businesses to join them) could be very impactful – each sector needs a company that is willing to be a leader in the movement.
To me Patagonia is the #1 example of how a fashion company can successfully take its responsibilities vis-a-vis climate change. I wrote my blog article about ZARA and I pointed out how much the fast-fashion industry has a lot to learn from more sustainable fashion brands like Patagonia.
I am particularly inspired by their “Worn Wear” campaign that you mentioned in your post. I find it extremely brave for a consumer brand to encourage its customers to purchase less. I wish the fast fashion industry could see it as an example and try to reduce the consumption of clothes which creates so much damages to the environment (fast fashion is the 2nd dirtiest industry in the world).
Something you didn’t mention which also impressed me in Patagonia’s sustainable strategy is the fact they managed to get the B Corporation accreditation for their efforts (see: https://www.bcorporation.net/community/patagonia-inc). The B Corporation accreditation is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee and Patagonia is the first fashion brand to get it. To counter some critics saying that Patagonia talks more than actually do, I wish they could invest some time and energy in advising other fashion brands by sharing their best practices and encourage them to get the accreditation themselves.
Chris, thank you for sharing. I find myself going to Amazon to order the book you so glowingly and implicitly recommended. I myself am an avid consumer of Patagonia wear, especially the vests and nano puff jackets that are SF resident staples. I like to think of Patagonia as a great proof of concept – clearly their consumers are willing to pay a premium for a product they know has been produced with the utmost integrity. Its also a great example of a business who’s mission, consumer, and actions are totally aligned. I’m surprised that I had never actually heard of “Worn Wear”. That leads me to agree with you on wanting to see them do more, and perhaps advertising “Worn Wear” and the mission some more. (Unrelated, I just went to the website and it looks like they are giving their employees the day off to go vote).
Fascinating post. The following line particularly resonated with me: “educate the end consumer that they themselves are ultimately the ones with the power to make change.” I always used to associate the word “organic” with food and didn’t realize it was actually considered to be the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop due to its heavy use of insecticides and pesticides causing toxic levels of contamination to the air, water and soil. I think this is an opportunity for Patagonia to make consumers understand their choices and their longer term implications!
It’s great to read about a company that has actually put sustainability at the core of its business (and business model). I wonder how Patagonia can serve even more as an example for the industry as a whole. How outspoken is Patagonia about it? From the comments it seems that many people already knew of Patagonia’s values, but are they actively marketing this focus?
If Patagonia can be successful both in terms of impact on the environment (and society) while also being profitable, Patagonia should be the leading example of tripple bottom line focussed business.