It’s cool to be green these days and while many companies are scrambling to jam the words “sustainable” and “conscious” into their marketing, Patagonia is a step ahead. Founded in 1973 by outdoor enthusiast Yvon Chouinard, the environmentally aware apparel company has been sustainably conscious from day one, whether for the planet, the people making their products, or their loyal consumers. Patagonia has always acknowledged that everything they make has an impact on the climate and in 2012, they became the first California-registered benefit corporation with a mission to advocate for conservation in its articles of incorporation. Though Chouinard has a long history of choosing the right thing over profit, he’s managed to build a sustainable company reaching $800 million in revenue in 2017, with worldwide operations including 34 stores staffed by thousands of employees throughout the U.S.
It started with some hard decisions, testing the mettle of Chouinard’s intentions. Back in 1957, Chouinard, a devoted mountain climber, taught himself to blacksmith so he could make his own reusable climbing hardware. By 1970, he had carved out a substantial market for the gear, becoming the largest supplier of climbing equipment in North America. But the most popular product he’d developed, a steel piton used for anchoring into rockface, was leaving a destructive imprint on the mountains. Chouinard made the difficult decision to phase out the product responsible for 70 percent of the company’s sales, replacing it with a new creation, an aluminum chuck, wedged in and removed by hand instead of the steel pitons that were permanently hammered into the mountainside. The good work paid off and Chouinard continued to develop practices of positive impact, beginning with the office, the people in it and the decisions made there, which reverberated well beyond corporate walls.
In 1984, Chouinard gave up his own office opting for an open floor plan at Patagonia HQ. In the next big move, Patagonia set aside 1 percent of sales to support environmental nonprofits. They’ve been doing that since 1985, and in 2002, Choinard turned their self-imposed Earth tax into an official organization with a mission to “build, support and activate an alliance of businesses financially committed to creating a healthy planet.” Today 1% for the Planet invites corporate and individual members to assist nonprofits that protect land, forests, rivers, oceans and encourage sustainable methods of energy production. In 2013, Patagonia took it even further, by supporting environmentally and socially responsible start-ups with seed funding through their Tin Shed Ventures.
While it makes sense for an outdoor apparel company to be invested in the environment, there is even more impetus considering the fashion industry as a whole and its impact on the climate. Ten percent of climate warming gasses emitted worldwide come from the clothing industry, with the textiles industry pumping 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year. Add to this the collective impact of manufacturing, shipping, using and disposing of garments that increases as our consumption patterns rise. Fast, disposable fashion is by design a wasteful proposition and one that consumers increasingly fall for. Today, consumers buy 60 percent more items of clothing and keep them half as long as we did 15 years ago. This contributes to a complex cycle of pollution, labor abuse and waste that is difficult to disrupt, but Patagonia is determined to do it. On Black Friday 2011, the company ran a full-page ad in The New York Times that said the opposite of what a Black Friday ad ought to say — “Don’t buy this jacket.” Patagonia firmly believes the best thing we can do for the planet is to stop buying new clothes and use what we already have. Their Worn Wear program allows customers to buy and or trade in used Patagonia products, because they make their garments to last and if it used to be waterproof, it still is.
Patagonia is rooted in three tenets of sustainability — environmental responsibility, social responsibility, and supply chain transparency. They take their footprint seriously, constantly refining practices with the goal of being 100 percent carbon neutral by 2025. Well on their way, their entire electricity need is powered by renewable energy and this season, nearly three-quarters of Patagonia’s materials are made from recycled fibers. The switch to recycled products offsets 11,500 metric tons of CO²e, a year’s worth of power for 1,300 homes. But that’s not enough for Patagonia. They aim for every product to be 100 percent fully recycled, reclaimed or renewable by 2025 and to be packaged in reusable, home compostable, renewable, or easily recyclable materials. Since 1996, all of the cotton in their clothing is 100 percent organic, but by 2025, that cotton, as well as any hemp fiber in their line, will be grown through regenerative farming.
Though Chouinard no longer runs the day-to-day operations, his ethos is in every decision the company makes. When Patagonia closed all stores and offices due to the pandemic, they committed to pay their employees throughout the shutdown. CEO and President Rose Marcario said: “Over the years, as our Patagonia community has been faced with challenges, I have always been inspired by how we emerge stronger and with an even deeper sense of purpose. We will persevere through this challenge, too.” Given Patagonia’s track record, we have every reason to believe that good will prevail.