Patagonia wants you to stop buying its clothes. That’s the message it conveyed in a New York Times full-page ad in 2011, taking the opportunity to remind consumers of the environmental cost of “everything we make.” It’s not a typical advertisement, but Patagonia is not a typical company.
Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, got his start in business by pursuing what he loved — climbing. Not satisfied with the metal spikes used for climbing, Chouinard began making reusable pitons after teaching himself blacksmithing. It turned into a business: Chouinard Equipment. He continued climbing with his business partners and came back from adventures with ideas on how to improve the company’s product, but they eventually realized the product was the problem. Continually hammering pitons into the walls of Yosemite had disfigured it, so they invented something more sustainable, something better: the aluminum chock. It was a good business move that also happened to be good for the environment.
Chouinard kept climbing. Patagonia, his next venture, started nearly by accident when Chouinard bought a rugby shirt. Overbuilt to withstand the rigors of the game, it made for perfect climbing gear. As with his piton, friends wanted one as well. Clothing became an opportunity to support the “marginally profitable” hardware business, but it also became a platform for a new way to do business.
The company grew quickly, endured some pains, but did interesting things along the way. In 1984, the company did away with private offices. That same year, Patagonia opened a cafeteria for employees that served healthy, mostly vegetarian food. Patagonia also opened an on-site childcare center. Two years later, the company, already focused on environmentalism, began contributing 10 percent of profits (or 1 percent of sales) to causes working to save or restore habitats.
By 1996, environmentalism became a distinct feature of its business model. Along with environmental campaigns, the use of recycled materials in its products, and a new distribution center that achieved a 60% reduction in energy use, the company also transitioned to organic cotton. After commissioning a study on the environmental impact of the fibers used in clothing, they discovered that the pesticides used to grow cotton were poisoning the earth and people.
Rose Marcario became CEO at the end of 2013. She’s seen the company’s profits tripled since coming on as CFO in 2008. She discussed what it was like to start working at Patagonia in an interview with Fast Company, saying “It really was a completely different model for business, where we don’t give profit primacy over our other values, like building the best product or using business to implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Marcario also spoke at a panel during COP21 to discuss how consumers’ buying and ownership habits can help reduce CO2 emission.
In an opinion piece published on Quartz in November 2015, Marcario continued Patagonia’s holiday-focused plea for the planet: Buy less stuff. “As individual consumers, the single best thing we can do for the planet is to keep our stuff in use longer.” Patagonia’s Worn Wear program promotes repair as a “radical act.”
Despite the company’s commitment to responsible manufacturing, Marcario admits Patagonia “still takes more from the earth than it returns.” Patagonia never turned from its impact to secure its profits. It admits to mistakes, but faces the environmental cost of business.