In Praise of Patagonia

7th May 2014

‘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.  All these years later I still have it, and although it’s now used for fixing the car and it’s garish colour scheme won’t win any style contests, it’s still going strong.
At the time I bought that fleece I wasn’t even aware of environmental issues, and 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 its 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” (The biography of Don Whillans was recently featured as one of Peak Mountaineering's Top Reads).  
Chouinard himself was a leading activist 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 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. Maybe he was already a businessman with a conscience?
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  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 and to make long lasting garments.  
For years Patagonia even made blankets made from cutting room floor scraps before they started, in 2005, the next logical step in this chain by offering a garment recycling scheme.  Your old fleece gets turned into a new fleece.  This scheme is available at a number of U.K retailers (check the Patagonia website for a complete list).
Some of the biggest environmental changes introduced by Patagonia have been their innovative changes to the materials used to produce their garments.  The first change was to develop a process to turn recycled plastic drinks bottles into new polyester yarns suitable for fleece production.  It’s reckoned that between 1993 and 2003 alone this kept 86,000,000 bottles from landfill sites.
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.  
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 other natural fabrics like hemp and Merino wool into its product line.
Many of the other initiatives the company has introduced have been smaller scale but still significant because, like 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, giving grants so employees can 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.  He 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 around $46 million.  A great feature of this process is that individual members disperse the funds individually to one of thousands of registered groups.  Some people think that the organisations are all U.S based but that’s not the case.  There have been dozens of U.K recipients.  
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 is a long story – and for me quite a journey of self-discovery.  But if you read this and feel inspired to find out more please check out Yvon Chouinard’s 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