Patagonia: Why Business is Good for the Planet

What began as founder Yvon Chouinard’s desire to create stronger and more durable gear for his own recreational hiking in 1957 in Southern California has now morphed into a multimillion-dollar global corporation that is actively involved in environmental conservation and protection efforts while still being able to admit to past corporate environmental downfalls.

Rachel Cantu, Vice President of Global Supply Chain for Patagonia, spoke on March 26, 2015 on “Why Business is Good for the Planet.” She began by discussing Patagonia’s products, which are available on almost every continent. The company creates clothing and equipment for everything from climbing to surfing to skiing, as well as clothing for everyday casual wear. On creating a great quality product for their customers, Cantu says, “It will continue to be job #1 at Patagonia. It’s not the best product at a price point, it’s not the best product in its class: it’s the best product for what it’s intended to be used for, and that’s core to what we do everyday.” Their clothing contributes to their environmental goals: one of their best-selling pullovers is largely made from recycled polyester while still performing its function of keeping people warm and protected from the elements, and their best-selling Wayfarer board shorts were one of the first ever created from recycled nylon. In additional recycling steps, the company accepts used Patagonia products from customers, which are then categorized and then sorted to be either re-purposed or recycled; this saves products from going to landfills that greatly harm the environment. They also invest in innovations and research for new recycled fabrics that they use as much of as possible in their clothing to maintain its performance ability.

Patagonia region in Argentina, where much of wool used in base layer products is produced. (photo courtesy of Patagonia.com)

Patagonia region in Argentina, where much of wool used in base layer products is produced (photo courtesy of Patagonia.com)

In addition, the company works to not only eliminate unnecessary environmental harm from their production but also to eliminate all unnecessary social harm to their workers, including ensuring that all of their employees are paid fair wages and are working in comfortable and safe conditions. In 1988 Patagonia faced a moral dilemma when unknown chemicals in some of the Patagonia cotton apparel caused various minor health problems in its employees in a Boston store. After doing a study that led to the discovery that formaldehyde (commonly used to keep cotton from wrinkling) off-gassing and pesticide use in some of the cotton apparel was what caused the symptoms, the company began the transition to using organic cotton; in 1996, Patagonia finished the transition and has only uses organic cotton in its cotton products ever since. “We decided to take back responsibility for understanding what was going on throughout our supply chain that we had delegated to other people at that point and time, and we made a commitment to know what was going on in our supply chain,” Cantu said. Patagonia uses a four-fold approach in its supply chain management: business capabilities, quality, environment, and social.

Photo courtesy of Patagonia.com

Patagonia factory (photo courtesy of Patagonia.com)

Another management aspect of the company is a commitment to transparency: on their online store, each of their products’ pages includes information about that product, including the factory it was made in, the mill that made its fabric, the organic cotton farms, etc. As of 2004, their down fabric is also 100% traceable and certified, meaning that none of their down comes from geese that are live-plucked and/or forced fed. Their wool is not left out of their efforts: through a conservancy organization, they have a partnership with sheep ranchers in the Patagonia region in Argentina that helps them restore and heal their grasslands, producing a high-quality wool that is used in many of the company’s base-layer products.

Besides using recycled and organic fabrics, Patagonia’s main form of being environmentally conscious is building their products to be extremely long-lasting. Cantu comments, “One of the most important things that we can do as a company is to make high-quality product that lasts years and years and can be repaired so that you don’t have to buy as much of it. That is probably the single-most important factor in environmental impact and foot printing for a product: its overall lifetime durability.”

Photo courtesy of Patagonia.com

Reclaimed wool to be used in Patagonia products (photo courtesy of Patagonia.com)

Outside of their products, Patagonia is committed to investing in grassroots environmental efforts that disrupt current harmful social and business norms in diverse types of sectors ranging from unnecessary dams to unnaturally-produced foods. Add in a venture capital fund focused on investing in environmentally like-minded companies, formal certifications binding the company to these values, and a formal alliance with various other outdoor apparel companies, and Patagonia has consistently worked to not only pursue environmental efforts but to spread that mindset around the world.

Patagonia’s mission statement is: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Cantu’s presentation of Patagonia shows that the company has used its mistakes and struggles as learning experiences, and it has continually worked to improve their environmental efforts, minimize future mistakes, and help other businesses to do the same.

If you missed this exciting International Speakers Series presentation or would like to to watch it again click here.

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