Picking on Patagonia

9th Dec 2017

‘To build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm

and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.’

Patagonia Mission Statement

Patagonia advert

Even before Donald Trump announced, earlier this week, that he was rescinding 2 proclamations protecting the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments, clothing company Patagonia and a group of other affected parties had stated their intention to fight Trump’s decision in the courts.  Their legal argument will centre around the fact that it was beyond a President’s authority to make such decisions.

As soon as the announcement was made, Patagonia plastered a simple black and white message across their website and media outlets.  Your President, it said simply, is stealing your land.  Their intentions and the message made news around the world and I think it even crashed their website for a while.  Patagonia was making waves - but not everyone was happy about it.

Very soon after the Patagonia advert was released a mirror image advert, with different wording, was released by the House Natural Resources Committee.  You can read the advert at the top of the page but their message was just as clear.  The view of the committee was that Patagonia was just using the situation to generate business.  

Soon Twitter replies streamed in supporting Patagonia with comments suggesting the company was doing more for the environment than the current American government and some replies also questioned whether a government organisation could legally call for a boycott of a private company, as some were suggesting this message and others were aimed at doing. 

It was certainly an intriguing turn of events and one I have been following and will continue to follow with interest.  Was it actually the case that Patagonia were simply using this controversial situation to increase sales and gain publicity?  I think the company history will give the answer to that……

I know something about this company.  I have been using Patagonia clothing and equipment since my first visit to America way back in 1990 and I wrote a piece called ‘In Praise of Patagonia’ some years ago that explains the history and ethos of this innovative brand (please do have a read of that article here).  I have also followed Patagonia’s business development avidly and read the business texts written by company founder Yvon Chouinard. We have tried to incorporate some of the Patagonia ethos into our businesses too.   

In his book ‘Let My People Go Surfing’ Chouinard charts many pivotal moments in the companies history where he had choices.  In the early days he made the choice to stop making pitons because and switch production to wedge shaped protection as pitons were damaging the rock.  His business increased.  

Later, he worked with fabric manufacturer Polartec to produce a fleece material made from recycled plastic bottles, stopped production of cotton products and switched all production to organic cotton.  Each shift could have been extremely damaging (or catastrophic) for his business, but he did it anyway.  At the time of the shift to organic cotton there wasn't even enough organic cotton production to supply Patagonia’s requirement but he still knew it had to be done.  Yvon stated that if they (Patagonia) had to be in business using an evil product like traditionally grown cotton, they don't deserve to be in business.  

Many years ago Chouinard took his environmental stance further when, along with a business friend, he started an organisation called One Percent for the Planet which is now a collective of companies pledging to donate 1% of their annual turnover to environmental charities. Through this Patagonia has supported grassroots environmental organisations, supported endless environmental campaigns and worked to create fair working practices for the manufacturing companies Patagonia contract to produce their products.  

There are a lot more potential examples, but that should give enough of a sense of what Chouinard and Patagonia are about.  Chouinard makes it extremely clear.  He has always made decisions that protect the environment first.  However, every time he has made those decisions he has found a happy by product to be that business has also increased.  People have bought into the change and rewarded Patagonia with their support and, correspondingly, their business.  Patagonia has a very strong and loyal following.

But the real clue to why Patagonia is fighting against these proclamations is even simpler than that.  Many years ago Chouinard got to a point where he didn't need to be in business anymore.  He was financially independent and able to lead the simple but adventurous life he loved.  Why carry on as a businessman!  It was something Chouinard pondered on and soon he realised.  Patagonia was a powerful and influential business which could be a role model of environmental sustainability and a driver for environmental change.  The business, Chouinard decided, would continue with this primary aim.

There is no way that Patagonia have decided to take on this legal challenge as a sales strategy and it shows a lack of understanding of the company for the resources committee to make such a claim.  If only whoever had sanctioned that advert had read the companies mission statement or read up on their history first.

Patagonia's sales will undoubtedly increase as a result of their decision to fight Trump, but that isn't what this is all about.  People love their products and value their ethos and I think a sales increase will be great - it just means they will be better placed to fight future environmental crises!

Posted by Paul

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