Clothing company integrates activism with business
Patagonia has announced that they will refuse to sell corporate logo vests to companies that do not prioritize the environment. The fleece vest has become a corporate wardrobe staple of Wall Street and Silicone Valley firms. The change in Patagonia’s distribution policy came to light when the CEO of the financial communication PR firm Vested applied for, ironically, branded vests. According to an email from an unidentified supplier:
“Patagonia has nothing against your client or the financial industry, it’s just not an area they are currently marketing through our co-brand division. While they have co-branded here in the past, the brand is really focused right now on only co-branding with a small collection of like-minded and brand aligned areas; outdoor sports that are relevant to the gear we design, regenerative organic farming, and environmental activism.... Due to their environmental activism, they are reluctant to co-brand with oil, drilling, mining, dam construction, etc. companies that they view to be ecologically damaging...”
Patagonia has a long history of environmental activism. In 2018, CEO Rose Marcario announced Patagonia was going to give back the $10 million tax cut to grassroots organizations focused on environmental conservation. Until recently, the company mission was “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” The slogan was changed in December, however, to something more akin to a call to action: “Patagonia is in the business to save our home planet.”
The change has impacted more than just the company letterhead, however. In an order to the company HR department, founder Yvon Chouinard requested that throughout company hirings - regardless of department - experience being equal, the candidate who is the most committed to environmental conservation should be hired. According to a report published by Fast Company, Chouinard has said the change has “made a huge difference in the people coming into the company.”
In addition to mottos and missions, Patagonia has a long history of supporting organizations dedicated to outdoor activities and environmental initiatives. The company has a history of awarding 900 grants per year to various organizations. Recently, the company has become much more selective in the grant allocation process, choosing to focus on three key areas: agriculture, politics, and protected lands. In an interview with Fast Company, Chouinard provided an example of this increased selectivity:
“We give out about 900 grants a year to different activist organizations… We’ve given money to an organization that repairs people’s bicycles. Well, they’re not going to get any money anymore.”
Chouinard has a long personal history of environmental activism, both within and outside the company. In 1986, Chouinard dedicated 1% of total Patagonia sales, or 10% of profits (whichever was higher) to environmental activism and initiatives. In the early 1990s, an environmental audit of the company revealed that the source of their cotton – although ethically farmed – had a large associated environmental footprint. The use of pesticides and insecticides were responsible for a vast amount of the environmental damage associated with cotton production. In response, Chouinard ordered the company to switch cotton sources to those that were certified organic. Although the move was valiant, it almost resulted in the bankruptcy of the company. Sales plummeted 20% due to supply chain issues, and it took Patagonia a total of three years to train and certify the cotton farmers. After the cotton supply issues were remedied, however, sales improved to a steady rate, and have been increasing ever since.
The action taken by Patagonia to not only combat ecological damage, but also enforce environmental proactivity through selective partnerships, is a wonderful example of using corporate influence for the betterment of society. Acta non verba. Social corporate responsibility is a topic too often tackled by words, rather than actions.
Patagonia has taken corporate responsibility several orders of magnitude beyond the industry standard; hopefully firms will take after their lead, and alter their own internal policies accordingly.