In Praise of Patagonia....

13th Jul 2013



‘There’s no business to be done on a dead planet’

                                                         David Brower

I bought my first piece of Patagonia clothing way back in 1990 on a climbing trip to Colorado.  It was one of their ground breaking Snap-T’s – a simple fluffy fleece pullover with a few snappers to close the neck.  At the time I bought that fleece I wasn’t either interested in, or particularly aware, of environmental issues - I was simply choosing it because my friends and I knew Patagonia was a cool brand that made quality clothes.  But as time has moved on I’ve become more knowledgeable about the damage we are causing to our planet and I’ve followed Patagonia’s developing environmental stance with greater interest.  I think it’s a business philosophy worth sharing....

The driving force behind Patagonia is the charismatic Yvon Chouinard.  Chouinard first started ‘Chouinard Equipment’ (this was later sold to it’s employees to become Black Diamond Equipment Limited) and by the late 60’s the company had become the largest manufacturer of forged steel pitons in America.  Interestingly, Don Whillans worked in Chouinard’s blacksmith’s shop for a short time in the early 70’s but Chouinard had to sack him after he became known around the business as ‘The Artful Dodger’.  As Chouinard says “he didn’t like to work too much”. 

Chouinard himself was a leading climbing pioneer in Yosemite and by 1971 he was seeing the significant damage pitons were doing to the rock.  He made the difficult decision to stop producing them even though by then they accounted for 70% of his turnover.  Instead he advocated a ‘climb clean’ approach and turned production to the alloy chocks that were widely used in the U.K. by this time.

Patagonia itself grew from a visit Chouinard made to Scotland in 1970.  He found some rugby shirts that made great climbing wear due to their robust material and the high collars that stopped gear slings cutting into your neck.  He exported some to the States and they’d soon sold out.  Patagonia was born. 

Although he’d probably not made a deliberate decision to help the environment with those shirts, they were infact very environmentally friendly because obviously better quality items last longer, and longer life means less consumption.  In recent years this has become a deliberate stance for the company.  Their mission statement now even starts with ‘make the best product’.  Of course ‘best product’ also refers to its functionality, but part of the Patagonia designers brief is to keep material use to a minimum. 

For years the designers brief included finding ways to use the waste scraps and Patagonia produced a range of baby clothes and patchwork blankets.  They then started the next logical step in this chain by offering a garment recycling scheme.  Old fleece gets turned into new fleece.  This scheme is now available at a number of U.K retailers (check the Patagonia website for a complete list).  There’s also a great video about this scheme featuring the climber/comedian Timmy O’Neil here (along with some other Patagonia environmental videos).

Some of the biggest environmental developments introduced by Patagonia have been their innovative changes to the materials used to produce their garments.  The first of these was to develop a process to turn recycled plastic drinks bottles into new polyester yarns suitable for fleece production. Even more significant was their move to organic cotton in 1996.  At the time cotton was 20% of the companies total business and they had no idea how consumers would react to paying more for their products.  They also had to develop the supply chain to cope with this increase in demand and find farmers willing to join the revolution.  This could have been business suicide.  Infact, just like Chouinard’s pitons back in 71, the company’s turnover increased.

Patagonia has also used these attractive turnover figures to influence other companies.  Nowadays, companies like Marks and Spencer, Nike, Levi’s, Timberland and Gap are all using some proportion of organic cotton in their clothing ranges.  The effect of this should be that organic cotton prices continue to come down in price.  As cotton production accounts for 25% of the world’s insecticide use and 10% of the global pesticide use any reduction has to be good.  When you also consider that many of the chemicals in these products were developed as warfare nerve gas we are clearly paying a major environmental price for a fabric many people see as ‘natural’.  Patagonia has also introduced natural fabrics like hemp into it’s product line and recently introduced a range of footwear using as many natural materials as possible.

Many of the other initiatives the company has introduced have been smaller scale but still significant because, like with the organic cotton, when other businesses see Patagonia doing the right thing they might be persuaded to follow that path themselves.  Examples include making the companies buildings more energy efficient and renovating old buildings rather than building new ones, giving employees paid leave to pursue environmental campaigns and grants to purchase hybrid fuel cars, reducing packaging and not sending out catalogues unless requested and lots of other relatively small things that become more impressive when you add them all up.

The last shout I want to make for Chouinard’s environmental legacy was conceived one autumn afternoon in 1999.  Chouinard was fishing on the Snake River with his friend Craig Matthews (owner of a fly fishing shop).  As Chouinard writes in his book ‘we had been having a discussion about our realization that besides the fact that our respective companies were dependent on the existence of wild places in the world, we shared the personal belief that a healthy natural world is essential for humankind’s survival’.  From this conversation eventually sprang the organisation ‘1% for the Planet’.  This is an alliance of businesses pledging to donate at least 1% of sales toward active efforts to protect and restore the environment. Patagonia alone has currently contributed over $30 million.  For several years Peak Mountaineering was a member of this scheme before we decided to go it alone 3 years ago and create 1% for the Environment (details of this and our environmental stance can be found here).

This has inevitably been a very brief look at the reasons I have been personally influenced by Patagonia and why I have tried to incorporate some of the Patagonia ethos into Peak Mountaineering.  I’ve missed a lot out and the full version of Chouniard's business journey can be found in his book  ‘Let My People Go Surfing’.  Once you’ve read it don’t forget to share your copy with friends though - as Chouinard says “consume less, consume better”.    

Posted by Paul