Patagonia: More Than Just a Clothing Brand

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Patagonia is a well known, multi-million dollar American clothing company that markets sustainable outdoor clothing and apparel. It was founded by Yvon Chouinard in 1973 and ever since the beginning, it has held ethical and environmental issues close to its core. Alongside its profit motive, the company seeks to combat public perceptions relating to the environment and Chouinard is a well known environmental campaigner.

Patagonia grew out of its founder’s interest in outdoor pursuits and in particular a wish to design clothing that was suitable for rock climbing and alpine climbing. It now caters for all sorts of outdoor activities however and whether you are looking for skiing equipment, climbing clothing or wetsuits, you are likely to be able to find what you want at Patagonia. Further, the company has now become just as well known for its non-sports wear and indeed its general clothing ranges are popular, especially fleeces, rain jackets and coats.

Environmental Activism

However, it is really the environmental activism of the company that makes it quite so interesting. 1% of the total sales of the company, or 10% of the profits, whichever is the greater, is given to environmental groups. This is relatively rare in the clothing industry. At least, several companies commit giving profit to charities, but very few commit it to environmental charities or groups. It is largely down to Yvon Chouinard’s enthusiasm and dedication for environmental issues that businesses are driven to donate in the first place.

He was a founder member of the organization One Percent for the Planet, which encourages businesses to give a percentage of their profits or turnover to environmental charities, just like he had done with Patagonia. To date, those companies involved with One Percent have donated more than $100 million, which is unlikely to have happened without the dedication of Chouinard.

Patagonia runs campaigns, often alongside or as part of its advertising, which highlight the plight of environmental groups. By doing this, the issues can be raised to people without the charities themselves having to spend money on it. One such example was a recent campaign to fight against oil drilling in Alaska, specifically the Alaska Wildlife Refuge. The ads had several titles including ”Ocean As A Wilderness” and ”Don’t Dam Patagonia”, drawing a direct link between the company and the issue.

The aim is to really motivate its customers and to create a fighting force in favor of the natural world and protecting the environment. In 2008 Patagonia were awarded the ‘Eco Brand of the Year’ award at the Volvo Ecodesign Forum in Munich, just one sign that the rest of the business world recognizes the good work that they are doing.

Another example of Patagonia getting involved in environmental campaign work was the World Trout Initiative which Yvon Chouinard developed with James Prosek in 2005. The aim was to protect endangered fish through giving grants to organizations that protect fish. Fish are often overlooked in the lists of species that need protecting and Chouinard was determined to out this right. Each year they gift about $75,000 dollars.

Message to Employees

Patagonia also encourage their employees to get out there and do something great for the planet. They started an environmental internships scheme back in 1993. Each Patagonia employee can take leave with full pay and benefits for up to two months to volunteer with an environmental non-profit of their choosing. Many of thr employees, indeed well over 700, have taken advantage of this opportunity and headed out across the United States to work on a whole range of different projects. Environmental project work is so important to Patagonia that they do not consider that their employees are no longer working for them when they go on one of these internships, indeed they are just working in the ‘other’ wing of the company – environment rather than clothing.

Recycling is held a core ideal of the company and they have been keen to get their customers fully involved in the recycling of materials. The clothing industry is often brandished as being pretty bad when it comes to wastefulness and Patagonia were keen to show that this is not always the case. They established the Common Threads Recycling Program in 2005, an initiative encouraging the company and customers to take mutual responsibility for the sustainable journey of the clothing products. In 2005 the aim was simply to make all products recyclable, as that was not the case before then.

Any customer is able to return any piece of Patagonia clothing with the special Common Threads label on it and put it into the recycling bin which is located in the store. The clothing is then refurbished by the company and turned into a new Patagonia product which can then be bought by that customer, or another customer, and the cycle continues to go round and round. It is an ingenious and very responsible way of doing things. If every other company were to do the same thing, there would be far fewer problems in the world regarding waste.

Patagonia’s current campaigns are numerous and involve an emphasis on local and global issues. One such campaign focuses on protecting the coastline of California, especially in the light of the oil pipeline that ruptured in Santa Barbara County on May 19 2015, leaving 140,000 gallons of crude oil leaking out and killing wildlife. Patagonia are pressuring the state government to increase protection levels through legislation. Another campaign encourages people to clean up the Snake River in the Pacific Northwest region.

Final Thoughts

All in all, it should be clear that Patagonia is not like most companies. Almost all companies will have their social and ethical responsibility statements and they might give a few donations to a few non-profits at times. However, Patagonia is slightly different in that its social and environmental responsibilities are embedded within the company activities itself. If you didn’t know it already you would question whether it was a clothing brand that did environmental work or whether it was an environmental non-profit that sold clothing on the side. Its founder Yvon Chouinard is definitely the driving force behind it but he has shown what is possible if ideals are matched alongside business ambition.


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