Patagonia’s Approach to Environmental Responsibility

“Business—more than either government or civil society—is uniquely equipped at this point in history to lead us toward a sustainable world in the years ahead... Properly focused, the profit motive can accelerate (not inhibit) the transformation toward global sustainability.”
Opening lines from Capitalism at the Crossroads by Stuart Hart

On any fall day on Princeton’s campus, the unmistakable Patagonia logo is everywhere, from customized fleeces made for sports teams, organizations, and residential colleges to the backpacks students carry with them wherever they go. The brand is so ubiquitous that students have designed spinoff “Princetagonia” sweatshirts and stickers. Although the brand is viewed as preppy and elite because of its high price point, an idea that is further reinforced by the nicknames “fratagonia” or “patagucci,” the company’s outspoken activism makes Patagonia feel like a socially responsible, down to earth choice. Investigating the execution of social and environmental responsibility at Patagonia can provide insight to how it has created its identity and achieved tremendous growth, in addition to whether or not it will contribute to lasting change in society and in the future of business.

Patagonia is widely regarded as a leader in corporate social responsibility, which it seeks to achieve both directly through donations of its profits and internal sustainability initiatives and indirectly by raising awareness for environmental issues. Some initiatives by the brand include monitoring and publishing its supply chain information; donating one percent of profits to environmental organizations; and creating a website called Worn Wear to resell used Patagonia clothing as a means of reducing waste. They have also developed new, more sustainable materials, such as a desert shrub based rubber to replace traditionally petroleum-based wetsuit materials. In addition, they have worked to raise awareness for several issues through a blog called “The Cleanest Line” and a documentary about the harmful ecological impacts of dams called “Dam Nation.” Today, the company’s website features the message “Democracy requires showing up” to promote voter turnout, and this isn’t the first time the brand has used unconventional advertising campaigns. In December, the company announced its plans to sue the Trump administration for reducing the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments; in 2011, the company published an ad in the New York Times that read, “Don’t buy this jacket,” highlighting the negative environmental effects of consumerism and clothing production.

Ironically, after this ad was published, the company saw an increase in sales as a result of the positive publicity, undermining its original mission. This phenomenon raises the question of the line between the company’s self-described goals and the profit-maximizing mission of all firms. Through the Worn Wear program, Patagonia will pay customers just $20-$30 to send in a used fleece, which it then resells for $70-$90. This significant margin supports the brand’s business mission but decreases the impact of its sustainability program by reducing customers’ incentives to buy the used goods given that new fleeces, on sale, are sold within the same price range on the store’s website.

Furthermore, Patagonia has grown rapidly in recent years, which seems like a contradiction given its acknowledgement that expanding and producing its products has a net negative environmental impact. David Owen’s article, “It’s too easy being green,” reminds us that developments such as electric cars do not actively help the environment, but simply have fewer negative effects than their predecessors. A similar argument can be made for organic cotton t-shirts or plant-based rubber wetsuits. Patagonia’s success, however, does mean that purchases of less sustainable products may be decreasing and that other companies may choose to adopt more environmentally-conscious models in an attempt to capitalize on the economic benefits seen by Patagonia.

The example of Patagonia highlights just a few of the challenges faced by companies who seek to serve their own business interests while addressing larger societal issues. Activism and responsibility can benefit businesses through positive publicity and customer loyalty, but as companies grow and increase their footprint, they must adapt to ensure that their efforts to be environmentally responsible remain uncompromised.