Patagonia is an iconic outdoor gear maker, that has holistically integrated sustainability into their DNA. At Patagonia, there is no contradiction between saving the world and the bottom line. This billion-dollar global brand demonstrates that businesses can be both radically responsible and very profitable.
Patagonia was founded in 1973 by outdoor enthusiast Yvon Chouinard, His opposition to traditional business has coalesced around sustainability. This is the central pillar around which the company ethos was formed. Patagonia is minimizing its energy and emissions footprint, its also working to reduce its water consumption and waste. The company challenges injustice at the highest levels and their successful business is a model that is being followed by others.
What makes this even more remarkable is the fact that Patagonia is a sustainability juggernaut in a notoriously dirty industry. This privately held company has forged a sustainable pathway in the apparel industry which is a sector that is known for abusive working conditions and environmental destruction. According to a 2020 report from the environmental advocacy organization Stand.earth the fashion industry is a major contributor to the climate crisis.
1. Leadership and mission
Patagonia’s core mission is to save our planet and as Patagonia CEO explains, this “puts a lot of urgency on our steps” but she knows that getting others involved is critical and she works to make that a reality. On its website, Patagonia describes its reason for being in the context of the threat of extinction faced by life on earth. The company has put efforts to address these threats as its top priority.
“We aim to use the resources we have—our business, our investments, our voice, and our imaginations—to do something about it.”
Patagonia’s core values include building the best product (based on three fundamental principles: function, repairability, and, durability), cause no unnecessary harm, protect nature, and not being bound by convention. These values reflect Patagonia’s efforts to address the causes, and not just symptoms, of environmental degradation and global warming.
Yvon Chouinard is a sustainability pioneer who started Patagonia in 1970. He lured Rose Marcario as COO in 2008 and she became CEO in 2013. She is deeply concerned about climate change and the loss of the natural world. Marcario is a Buddhist whose spirituality was reflected in the company she led. While other business leaders suffer from myopia, Marcario was adept addressing long-term impacts and rather than hurt the companies financial wellbeing, her approach grew profits at an astounding rate.
Marcario’s previous executive-level positions led her to question greedy corporate cultures which she saw as both unethical and unsustainable. Chouinard said that Marcario, “understands the need for revolution” and during her 12 years at Patagonia she sought to “make it uncomfortable for other businesses not to follow us.”
Jenna Johnson took over as CEO in 2020. In a recent Bloomberg interview, she explained the company’s unique culture as being due to the fact that “everyone has intentionally chosen to come to Patagonia….because they believe in our mission”. Like her predecessor she imagines a world in which every business would take on the same mission statement. She talks about what could be achieved if all businesses worked together to leverage their influence on planetary health.
Johnson says there is an urgent need for collective action and all companies have a vested interest. As she explains, “there’s no business to be done on a dead planet…We are running out of time we absolutely need to turn this climate crisis around and we have to use our business and we hope that others will use their business to focus on this”
2. Monitoring and transparency
To be a sustainable company you need ongoing monitoring and assessment. Patagonia does its own in house measurements that include the Footprint Council, as well as third party partnerships with universities and organizations.
Patagonia submits to rigid environmental and charitable standards, and they not only monitor their performance they publish annual progress reports. Johnson succinctly stated, “”we measure a lot…including the carbon footprint of our entire process…I believe in transparency first and foremost”.
Patagonia welcomes constructive criticism that is part of the growing transparency movement at the core of sustainability. The company openly shares information that would be construed as a very risky proposition by most other companies. The sustainability leader harnesses the power of this data to improve its performance. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), analyzed Patagonia’s supply chain and found that less than half of their suppliers pay a living wage, so the apparel company launched initiatives to address this problem.
As a certified B Corporation Patagonia has met or exceeded stringent criteria consistently earning the same “outstanding” score in each of the last five years (151). In 2020 the Ventura California based company was audited by the Fashion Transparency Index and earned a score of 60 percent (the average score is 23%).
Patagonia monitors all of its processes including every step of the manufacturing process with the goal of minimizing its environmental and social impact. This data is analyzed and solutions are developed and applied. The company’s most recent collections are a good illustration of how such monitoring efforts are assessed and incorporated.
3. Emissions, products and energy
Patagonia supplies tools and clothes used for climbing, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, mountain biking, and trail running. To minimize the adverse impacts of its products Patagonia uses 87 percent recycled materials. All the polyester, nylon, and wool materials that are used are made from recycled fabrics. Some of its fabrics are BLUESIGN certified.
The company uses cotton that is certified organic by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and traceable goose feathers. Patagonia’s Downlab collection uses the lightest fabrics and they make jackets that are PFC-free. Patagonia has patented innovative ecologically safer materials like a rubber wetsuit made from a desert shrub and textiles made from protein-based silk. These durable materials have a far smaller environmental impact than commonly used hydrocarbon polymers.
These efforts are important because the manufacturing facilities in the clothing business are notoriously dirty as they rely on fossil fuels for the products (eg polyester and nylon) as well as to power manufacturing plants. The level of greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted throughout the supply chains of the apparel industry has led Fast Company’s Elizabeth Segan to declare “there is no such thing as sustainable fashion”. It is estimated that between 5 and 8 percent of all GHG emissions come from this sector of the economy. Around 80 percent of a fashion company’s emissions come from its manufacturing plants; another 10 percent comes from shipping.
Patagonia is different, it sources almost all of its energy from renewable sources. Its retail stores, distribution centers, offices and headquarters use 100 percent renewable electricity in the US and 76 percent globally. However, this is not the case for its suppliers. Ninety seven percent of Patagonia’s carbon emissions come from their supply chain and 86 percent of that comes from raw material in their supply chain.
Patagonia wants to drastically reduce these emissions with the aim of being a carbon neutral company by 2025. Beyond that they are working to remove carbon from the atmosphere (see the company’s support for carbon dioxide removal below).
The company has installed solar panels on its buildings (eg its Ventura California headquarters) and in local communities. In 2014 the company invested $27 million to install solar on 1000 Hawaiian rooftops and in 2016 Patagonia invested an additional $35 million to install solar panels on more than 1,500 US homes in the US. Both these projects generate a profit through the sale of electricity. Earlier this year Patagonia expanded its initiative in support of community owned clean energy projects.
“As a company, it [renewable energy] very much aligns with the DNA of what we do, and that’s [to] use business to inspire and influence environmental solutions,” Phil Graves, Patagonia’s former director of corporate development told The Guardian in 2016. “We’re very passionate about moving away from fossil fuels and finite resources in every aspect of our supply chain.”
4. Recycling, repair, resell and waste
Recycling is a central to Patagonia’s sustainability efforts. As Johnson said, “recycling is an important and critical part of the waste pollution out there”. Patagonia recycles its own products and uses recycled materials for new products. This decreases the use of emissions intensive new materials. Decades ago they realized that inexpensive synthetic fabrics were being produced at an unsustainable rate. In 1993 Patagonia was alone when it began to use recycled polyester, but now it is a lot more available. They also use recyclable bags in their e-commerce business.
The company’s fabric and down are 100 percent recycled (kids clothes and packs are made with 35 percent recycled material). Many pieces are built to be compact and light weight making them highly packable. They precisely cut to minimize waste and some of their jackets are made with vegan fill. Their denim jeans are made with fair-trade certified, regenerative organic/recycled cotton blend, sustainably dyed with water-conserving indigo foam.
Patagonia’s NetPlus line, is the first fully traceable recycled ocean plastic fabric outerwear collection. This collection is a by product of a partnership with Bureo whose mission is to sequester and mitigate plastic ocean pollution. So far, through incentivizing plastic collection, the advocacy group claims to have recovered 3.37 million pounds of discarded fishing nets.
Patagonia works hard to keep their products out of landfills. They collect and refurbish their old gear as part of five waste combating principles: Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle and Reimagine. A program called “Worn Wear” allows consumers to buy used, as well as trade-in and fix their gear. Encouraging people to buy second had clothing instead of buying new keeps clothes out of landfills and prevents new articles from being made.
The company offers lifetime repair guarantee and has a full time staff of 45 repair technicians. This program has grown by 40 percent in the last year and they are helping their customers by publishing repair guides in six languages.
5. Initiatives, standards and campaigns
For decades they have been protecting wild places, plants and animals through a number of conservation efforts including one in 1988 that helped to restore Yosemite Valley.
Patagonia holds itself to high standards (eg Responsible Down Standard) and it has launched a string of innovative programs that reflect their core values. As a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition they are dedicated to environmental and ethical initiatives.
Patagonia is dealing with the problem of overconsumption head on. Around 80 billion garments are manufactured each year most of which is made from materials derived from and/or made with fossil fuels. Patagonia combats the culture of excess by encouraging responsible purchasing and urging customers to buy only what they need. Their Common Threads campaign launched an ad that read “Don’t Buy This Jacket“.
Patagonia is also very supportive of carbon sequestration. Through its venture capitalist arm it funds responsible companies which increasingly involves various forms of carbon sequestration. Johnson explains that Patagonia thinks carbon sequestration is “huge”. They are studying the issue along with their partners and together they are working to promote, encourage and stimulate demand. “We are thinking a lot about carbon sequestration as a way of getting the environment back into balance” Johnson says emphasizing that carbon sequestration is “one of the most important tools to keep are carbon footprint under control”. Patagonia is investing in natural carbon solutions like forests and peat moss.
Patagonia is also committed to community involvement. As part of their community solar initiative mentioned above, the company is also involved in journalism. As part of a special edition of a cooperative partnership with The BEAM, Patagonia is contributing stories about community-owned energy across Europe.
The company sees community involvement as a critical part of tackling the climate crisis. As explained on Patagonia’s website:
“The science is telling us loud and clear: We have a problem. By getting active in communities, we can raise our voices to defend policies and regulations that will protect wild places and wildlife, reduce carbon emissions, build a modern energy economy based on investment in renewables, and, most crucially, ensure the United States remains fully committed to the vital goals set forth in the Paris Agreement on climate change.”
6. Workers’ rights and wages
Patagonia is staffed by people from diverse walks of life. Patagonia’s workforce includes a roughly 50/50 split between men and women including at the highest echelons. The Footprint Council ensures that their workforce earns fair wages.
Patagonia works with the Fair Labor Association and they offer fair trade certification for factory workers, as well as FLA Workplace Code of Conduct and Fair Trade USA certification in its supply chain. However, only 45 percent of their current suppliers pay a living wage. Patagonia is working to improve wages, increase cash bonuses and provide health programs to all workers throughout its supply chain.
Patagonia has succeeded in increasing fair trade practices. They have managed to increase the size of their fair trade portfolio by 7,200 workers (from 42k-49,2k) and increased the percentage of Fairtrade production from 24–45 percent compared to the previous fiscal year.
Patagonia has an employee engagement strategy that promotes a sustainability-focused culture. This makes the company a desirable place to work. In addition to a shared culture with purpose and passion, employees benefit from a retirement plan that is composed of sustainable and eco-friendly funds and businesses. Employees also enjoy leading workplace safety protocols, child-care benefits and on-site daycare.
7. Giving and donating
Patagonia donates time, services, and a percentage of their sales to protect the natural world. They have contributed to hundreds of grassroots organizations all over the world. Patagonia has donated almost $90 million to grassroots activist organizations over the past 35 years, including community projects and those working with land, water, climate, and biodiversity.
Patagonia shares their knowledge of business strategies like their micro-solar power generation projects and they are giving companies free access to patented product innovations like their bio-rubber. The sustainability giant also guides businesses through B-Corps and other channels.
Patagonia CEOs have a long history of nature conservation The company’s first CEO, Kris Tompkins donated more than a third of a million acres of land in Argentina to create the country’s largest nature preserve. Kristine McDivitt Tompkins and her late husband also bought and preserved vast swaths of land in Chile. In 2018 Tompkins was named UN Environment Patron of Protected Areas.
As part of its campaign called 1% for the Planet, the company donates one percent of its global sales to causes that preserve and restore the natural environment. Patagonia’s founder Chouinard co-founded 1% for the planet in 2002. Members include Honest Tea and Boxed Water. In addition to 1 percent of its sales Patagonia donated its windfall from Trump’s tax plan ($10 million in 2018 and 2019).
The company encourages their employees to donate their time to environmental conservation projects and it pays the salary of employees who volunteer for up to two months each year.
In recent years, Patagonia has drastically increased its involvement in activism, shifting its marketing effort away from selling products and moving it towards activism promotion. It is forging a new kind of brand loyalty, one that is rooted in principle and purpose. Patagonia is building its brand around committed activists and openly shunning trend buyers. This in turn strengthens Patagonia’s brand identity and reinforces its mission.
The company encourages activism by connecting people with local and regional environmental protection groups through their website titled Action Works. This skill-based volunteering initiative was launched in 2018, it has matched thousands of skilled individuals with environmental organizations. The initiative draws people with diverse skills (linguistic, artistic, mathematical, and scientific). Action Works uses geographical search tools to connect environmental protection groups and activists.
The outdoor company encourages its employees to become activist and participate in protests. They even allow employees to hold meetings related to engagement after hours in retail stores. They also urge their employees to volunteer and get involved in the communities in which they work and live. They have a number of internal initiatives that promote activism within the company’s ranks. Patagonia has also been a prominent supporter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and they host an annual conference dedicated to providing tools for grassroots engagement.
9. Truth to power
Patagonia has shown the rest of the business world how to stand up for the planet and speak truth to power. In 2020 Patagonia made headlines with political campaigns such as “Vote the assholes out”. The company challenged Trump for his climate denial and fossil fuel advocacy long before he was elected president in 2016. Marcario spearheaded a $1 million campaign to get out the vote in 2016. To support this effort the activist CEO closed stores to allow employees and shoppers to go to polling stations and cast their vote.
After Trump won the election, Patagonia staged a Black Friday campaign unofficially titled “fundraiser for the earth”. All of their sales ($10 million) were donated to environmental organizations. The idea was born as a way to draw attention to the planet in the wake of Trump’s victory.
Patagonia was among a number of companies that vociferously opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate accord, it also supported pro-environment candidates in the 2018 midterms. Patagonia’s politics are unapologetically left of center. Over the last 27 years, Patagonia employees have contributed a total of more than $56,000 to the Democrats and only $500 to Republicans.
Patagonia led the charge against Trump’s decision to kill national monuments. Once again Patagonia put its money where its mouth is. In 2017 Trump removed federal protections for almost 2 million acres of land including 85 percent of the Bears Ears national monument and much of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument.
Patagonia also launched court challenges to defend Bears Ears and they helped non-profits working to protect other monuments. They sought to defend these lands from mining, logging, and oil extraction. They also wanted to protect the sacred spaces of native people and the archaeological sites contained within these monuments.
“We feel that we have to pull out all the stops at this point,” Hans Cole, Patagonia’s director of environmental activism told GQ in 2017. “This is not a time to sit back and let any tool available to us go unused. It’s really more about the responsibility we have…If we’re going to have fun and enjoy and recreate and have people use our products out there we have a responsibility to help take care of these places. That’s what motivates us.”
Chouinard went even further calling the Trump administration an “evil government” and explaining the lawsuit by saying, “We’re losing this planet…I’m not going to stand back and just let evil win”. Chouinard was invited to testify in front of Congress on the subject of the Bears Ears monument. In a letter to the House of Representatives Chouinard exposed the investigation as a charade and called the Trump administration a “failed Orwellian government [that is] shackled to special interests of oil, gas, and mining”. Patagonia took out almost $700,000 worth of TV and radio ads in Montana and Utah to oppose the Trump administration’s move against monuments. In those ads Chouinard said:
“Public lands are under threat now more than ever because you have a few self-serving politicians who want to sell them off and make money. Behind the politicians are the energy companies and the big corporations that want to use up those national resources. It’s just greed – this belongs to us – this belongs to all of the people in America. It’s our heritage.”
While Patagonia led the charge others including REI and North Face followed their lead. When companies come together they can make a difference. After Governor Gary Herbert urged Trump to repeal the monument status of Bears Ears, Patagonia’s boycotted Utah’s Outdoor Retailer show and others followed forcing the event to be moved. Patagonia’s efforts to protect national monuments also included a public campaign titled “The President Stole Your Land” that received global recognition.
Patagonia continues to advocate against Republicans anti-environment and anti-democratic tendencies. Recently, the California-based company cut all ties and refused to sell its products at the Jackson Hole ski resort after a GOP Freedom Caucus fundraiser was held at the Jackson hotel on August 5. The event was headlined by a cadre of pro-Trump Republican sycophants including U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia), former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).In addition to its support for voter suppression, the Freedom Caucus has a deplorable environmental stance. In addition to Jackson Hole ski resort, Patagonia will no longer sell their products to stores and other holdings operated by the resort.
As explained by Patagonia spokeswoman Corley Kenna in a statement to The Post the company sees activism as integral to its mission. “We join with the local community that is using its voice in protest. We will continue to use our business to advocate for policies to protect our planet, support thriving communities, and a strong democracy,” Kenna said.
10. Striving for constant improvement
The endless quest to improve drives Patagonia’s success. This is not only about what they have already achieved, it is also based on its unrelenting efforts and its ambitious goals for the future. One of these goals involves working closely with others towards the ambitious objective of saving the planet.
Patagonia is not a perfect company, they have been criticized for the absence of an animal welfare policy and their use of animals (feathers, and wool). While it is not a perfect company they are among the best there is. Their efforts to improve on the animal welfare front include applying standards and initiatives like sourcing their wool from non-muzzled sheep.
What sets Patagonia apart is its dedication to identifying problems and managing them. When an internal audit revealed that Patagonia may have partnered with Taiwanese suppliers engaged in forced labor, they immediately crafted standards to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence.
The quest to understand and constantly improve is sewn into the fabric of the way Patagonia operates. However, this inevitably breeds more complexity. “We now understand much more about our business than we did in 1993” Johnson said recently. “The issues become really complex as we look into our carbon footprint” and she added, “the more you learn the harder the challenges become”.
The courage to face these complexities defines Patagonia. It often requires some creative thinking, but this is precisely what a forward looking business must do. “It is not easy” the company CEO said, but, the company’s track record proves that it is not impossible.
Patagonia acknowledges that their business activity (and all business activity) is part of the problem, but it is always looking for new and better ways of doing things. They know that everything they make has an impact on people and the planet. That is why sustainability is at the core of their efforts. Prioritizing durability results in consuming less energy, wasting less water, and creating less trash.
The company goes far beyond greening their own operations. Patagonia is a leading force in the drive towards circularlity, this includes their track-and-trace capabilities which contribute to more circular practices. They are at the forefront of messaging on conscious consumerism which includes marketing that educates consumers about the value of buying less by making things last. Patagonia’s focus on repairing and reselling used clothing is a trend that is catching on. For example, Ikea has started a program to buy back and resell furniture.
When you continually strive for constant improvement it becomes contagious and this is part of Patagonia’s plan. They know they can not achieve their core mission alone, that is why they strive to be a role model and seek to collaborate. In the spirit of this type of cooperation Patagonia has partnered with many businesses, organizations and universities.
Johnson is a big believer in cooperation and collaboration. She realizes that any hope of success requires teamwork, “[I]f we share with each other we can move much faster, we need to figure it out together,” Johnson said, “[T]here are solutions we need to put these solutions in place” Her message to leaders is that knowledge is the key, she urges them to examine the wide web of their activities and then think about creative solutions.
Patagonia is a cutting edge company when it comes to sustainability issues and others are following their lead. Its progressive eco-ethics has created a culture that is widely emulated. This includes companies like The North Face and Arc’teryx. At the end of summer Vogue asked Will This Be the Season of Climate Positive Fashion? This statement seems premature, but, Patagonia can be credited for helping to raise the profile of solutions to fast fashion.
As explained by Forbes, “The real industry leaders will be those who understand the need for profits while continually improving their sustainability efforts through strategic and operational planning.” Patagonia does this and more. This is a company that puts sustainability ahead of its profits, forgoing growth and defying the fast fashion trend. This alone earns them a place on the top of the heap. Their collaborative efforts and endless improvements are a stellar example of a model company.
It is fitting that alpinism is at the core of this company’s journey because they have achieved the summit of sustainability. That does not mean they can rest on their laurels, as a corporate mountain climber Patagonia can be expected to continue to conquer greater heights.