Corporation and activist. The two would seem mutually exclusive; in Patagonia’s book, they go hand in hand.
“We are probably as close to a not-for-profit as a for-profit business can get,” said Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s vice president of public engagement. “We’re not in business to make a few shareholders really wealthy so they can have yachts and fly first class. All of us still fly coach, including [founder Yvon] Chouinard.”
The Ventura, Calif.-based sportswear firm, started by the mountaineer and self-described “dirtbag” Chouinard, continues to pad its ranks with climbers, snowboarders, surfers, paddlers and others who get nature and while, yes, the company makes and sells clothing, that’s just one part of an overall aim to reverse damages done to the environment over decades.
“Our commitment really started with our lives as outdoor people, especially as climbers and mountaineers, where we started to see first-hand and witness the degradation of nature and wild places in our lifetimes,” Ridgeway said. “When you’re the kind of people who just like to pay attention to things, you can see when places that you knew as a young climber in your own lifetime get developed, where wild lands turn literally into small towns. But we’ve also seen in our lifetime, forests disappear as they get logged out and we’ve watched grasslands turn into deserts and we’ve seen glaciers melt and disappear. Now, think about that. Here we are human beings that live 70, 80, 90 years, which is nothing on the scale of geological time. Yet we’re witnessing geological change on that scale of time.”
That reality hasn’t sat well with Patagonia collectively and the company’s voice has only gotten louder over time to make good on its mission.
The company has become more vocal on public lands activism, pushing back on an August proposal by U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to pull back the boundaries of certain national monuments.
“All businesses, really, depend on a healthy planet,” Ridgeway said. “We understand deeply that there is no such thing as a healthy business if you don’t have healthy resources to support your business. If you don’t have clean air and clean water and a healthy system to support healthy societies, there’s no such thing as healthy markets. All of this seems so self-evident to us, yet we continue to be surprised by how many businesses don’t understand. Fundamentally, it is a business imperative to support environmental goals.”
Longer-standing initiatives include Patagonia giving 1 percent of its sales to environmental nonprofits. The company said in its annual Benefit Corp. report, for the 12 months ended April 30, 2016, that Patagonia gave back $7.88 million in net revenue — which would have made net sales for the fiscal year around $788 million — through its give-back program. In 2010, the brand helped cofound the Sustainable Apparel Coalition with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., with the group now boasting a membership representative of nearly half of all global apparel production on the planet. Patagonia also has a program called Worn Wear that rewards customers with store credit for bringing in used, yet still usable, Patagonia gear.
Then there are Patagonia’s Fair Trade efforts, with the rollout of Fair Trade-certified products which now account for about 38 percent, or 480 styles, in its assortment. The premiums charged for those Fair Trade-certified products go back to workers in the supply chain, who decide how to use the money, whether it be for day-care centers at the factory, increased health programs or clean water access in factories. Those efforts, Ridgeway said, continue to be scaled with the goal of getting to, or as close to, 100 percent Fair Trade-certified in Patagonia’s product lineup.
Patagonia’s management team sees support of environmental goals as a business imperative and it just makes good business sense, Ridgeway said. More and more executives he crosses paths with seem to understand minding the environment delivers value, manages risk and sustainability is more frequently being used as a proxy for business performance among fund managers, he said.
“I think there’s a lot more that needs to be done,” Ridgeway said. “The apparel industry collectively is responsible for a huge part of the impact on the environment, but it’s going in the right direction.”
Patagonia has been closely aligned with Eileen Fisher for several years, with Ridgeway pointing to the Irvington, N.Y.-based firm as a business most admired by the company with initiatives parallel to its own and “proof that you can have a fashion brand and you can have one that is committed to sustainability.”
There is also a reality staring industries in the face of a new generation of leaders and consumers forcing companies to take a hard look at their business models. This a generation demanding meaning out of the companies they work for and shop from, Ridgeway said. The executive said he encourages young people coming out of school to question the companies they’re looking to work at, ask them about their sustainability initiatives and if it doesn’t line up, consider moving on.
“Interview them and put them on the defensive and if they don’t answer the questions in a way you feel comfortable with, don’t work for them,” he said. “That’s a big lever [in creating change].”
In many ways the company charted a course and adopted a new way of thinking long before many of today’s fast-growing brands started talking about supply chain transparency, sustainability and upcycling. Does Patagonia pat itself on the back for its efforts? That’s not the point — and a mentality started from the top with Chouinard, who largely shies away from such accolades.
“Is Yvon a pioneer? He would hate me calling him that but he definitely is,” said Patagonia president and chief executive officer Rose Marcario. “He uses the platform of the company to show that being responsible to the planet and people is also good for business. He blurred the lines between family, work and play and created a company of passionate, committed people who come to work every day to build the best product and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. He has never been afraid to make big moves through innovation, like changing his climbing gear to protect the rock for future climbers or switching the entire cotton product line to organic cotton when he saw the detrimental environmental effects of conventional agriculture.”
Ultimately, being pioneers or even being honored for the efforts, as Patagonia is this year in receiving the WWD Honor for Corporate Citizenship, doesn’t motivate the company, nor is it something its executives concern themselves with.
“We do what we do because it is the right thing to do,” Marcario said. “We are focused on extending our mission to cause no unnecessary harm and use business to inspire solutions to the environmental crisis in every area where Patagonia has influence. That way, as Patagonia grows in size, our efforts to meet the challenge of our mission can continue to be amplified. When the big fashion brands adopt organic cotton, when living wages are paid in factories around the world and when animal welfare is as important as the latest style trend, we will think about taking some credit. Until then, we will keep our heads down and keep working.”