No Such Thing as a Sustainable Company: Lessons from Patagonia

Making headlines with its plea to consumers to buy less, Patagonia has certainly emerged as a company to watch for its brand marketing savvy and sustainable business practices. By inviting consumers to play a vital role in the company’s environmental impact, Patagonia is proving that a brand’s value proposition must include a social benefit factor to win in today’s crowded and noisy marketing arena.

How do you make that social benefit factor part and parcel of your company’s DNA? Patagonia has some ideas.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has a new book out, co-written with his nephew Vincent Stanley, offering advice to companies on how to prioritize and implement sustainability initiatives. I consider The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned From Patagonia’s First 40 Years a corporate responsibility primer, complete with checklists of policies and practices to inform how the business operates, recruits and retains employees, serves customers, builds community and protects nature. For those well-versed in sustainability trends and approaches, this meditation does not surprise, but it does provide helpful reminders. In the end, responsible business is about being human: aiming for greatness, learning from mistakes and continuing to press onward – a fitting lesson from two men who originally set out to climb and conquer mountains.

Chouinard and Stanley argue that no business in operation today has earned the right to call itself a sustainably company – there is just too much of a gap between how we do business and what we need to do to truly protect our environment and natural resources. For the authors, honor and respect are derived not from the label ‘sustainable’, but from the attempt to do business better.

Here are some examples of how Patagonia is striving to do business better.

The Footprint Chronicles – examines Patagonia’s habits as a company and injects transparency measures throughout the supply chain to help reduce adverse social and environmental impacts. Patagonia does lifecycle analysis on its most popular 20% of products, tracing them geographically from design, to fiber, to weaving/knitting, to dyeing, to sewing, to warehouse delivery. Patagonia also calculates the carbon footprint, energy use, waste and distance traveled for each product. The company makes all this information available to consumers so they can make informed purchasing decisions. Patagonia continues to work to evaluate more of its products under this framework.

Patagonia Common Threads Initiative – Using the mantra ‘ Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, Reimagine’, Patagonia thinks about the whole lifecycle of its products and includes a consumer pledge to make customers an active part of the process of respecting the environment though purchasing decisions. The company will repair its products (and has staffed up to fulfill more requests – 12,000 last year) or take back any used Patagonia product for recycling or repurposing. The ultimate goal is to reimagine how the things Patagonia makes can be repurposed time and again to remain useful as long as possible.

1% For The Planet – Since 1985, Patagonia has pledged 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. In 2002, Chouinard and Craig Mathews, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies, created a non-profit corporation to encourage other businesses to do the same.

How does your company strive to do business better?

Article by Kate Olsen, appearing courtesy 3BL Media.

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