When thinking about sustainable (outdoor) clothing, Patagonia immediately comes to mind for many people. This is not only because of the current hype, but above all because founder Yvon Chouinard has placed value on the preservation of nature and the environment from the very beginning.
The Patagonia story begins with Chouinard, himself an avid climber, making the first climbing hooks from old lumberjack knives for himself and his friends. When he noticed that the chrome-plated steel climbing tools were eroding the rocks, he switched to softer aluminium.
This considerate way of doing business continues at Patagonia to this day, and recently experienced a new high.
“PATAGONIA FOUNDER GIVES AWAY COMPANY”
This headline spread like wildfire in late September 2022. The 83-year-old company founder and sole owner Yvon Chouinard is giving away his $3 billion company to two foundations. From now on, the company’s property and assets will be used to fight the environmental and climate crisis.
The news also caught Michael Austermühle off guard. “There were question marks in my head,” the German head of Patagonia tells ZEIT ONLINE. No wonder. Because what the quirky Patagonia founder announced that morning to his employees gathered around the world in front of screens contradicts the essence of all business management textbooks.
Chouinard renounces the maximisation of self-interest. His goal, as he explains in an open letter, is to fight the environmental and climate crisis and protect nature: “We are in business to save our home planet.”
Earth is now our only shareholder.Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia
Patagonia’s transfer to charitable foundations also sparked a debate that has accompanied the company’s environmental and social commitment since its founding in 1973:
Can a profit-oriented company operate sustainably? Is green capitalism possible? Patagonia will remain profit-oriented even after the transfer. Only in the future, the profits will flow into the foundation for combating the climate and environmental crisis. Chouinard himself no longer has access to them.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABILITY?
The concept of sustainability entails not consuming more than what can grow back, regenerate or be made available again in the future. It is about managing and living in such a way that comparable resources are available to the next generation. In other words, it is a dynamic balance.
Humans currently consume so many resources that 1.75 Earths would be needed to cover our consumption in the long term. And the trend is rising. Earth Overshoot Day is celebrated annually to mark the day on which a year’s worth of resources is used up. In 2022, this was on 28 July.
There are three guiding strategies for becoming sustainable:
- Sufficiency: reducing production and consumption
- Efficiency: more productive use of material and energy (e.g. increase in output for the same input).
- Consistency: nature-friendly material cycles, recycling, avoidance of waste
If one takes a broader view of the term sustainability, it includes not only the ecological perspective but also the social perspective. This means that not only nature and its resources are treated with care, but also, for example, business partners, employees and society are taken into consideration.
WHAT IS PATAGONIA DOING FOR ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY?
Patagonia is a growing and globally operating company. Full sustainability can hardly be guaranteed on this scale. That is why Patagonia itself does not talk about sustainability. “We leave a footprint, there’s no question about that. That’s why we are not sustainable, but rather see ourselves as responsible.”
For Patagonia this means: Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle.
SUFFICIENCY AS AN ADVERTISING MESSAGE
Reduce. As a global player in the free market economy, Patagonia’s corporate goals naturally include growth and profit maximisation. This is legitimised by the claim to be better than the competition. And also in terms of sustainability. The aim is to outdo less sustainable competitors and, ideally, to reduce overall consumption.
In 2011, a now legendary ad appeared in the New York Times. Just in time for the consumer peak of the year on Black Friday, a full page showed the Patagonia jacket with the message “Don’t buy this jacket”. Underneath, readers were told about the environmental costs of producing the jacket.
The anti-advertising was a statement against superfluous consumption. The message: only buy this jacket if you really need it.
EFFICIENCY IN PRODUCT DESIGN
Repair. Patagonia believes that having a broken jacket is no reason to buy a new one. Many minor damages can be repaired quite easily. Especially with Patagonia products. They are specially designed to be able to make minor repairs.
You can find online instructions for repairing minor damage yourself. Spare accessories such as backpack buckles or zips can easily be requested on the website.
Patagonia repairs broken outdoor clothing free of charge in its shops and has been sending a repair service across Europe with the “Worn Wear Truck” since 2017 (current tour dates can be found on the company website). Read more about this topic in our blog article about the Worn Wear programme.
Since the beginning of the campaign in 2005, over 400,000 Patagonia items have been repaired in North America alone.
Reuse. Patagonia is clearly in favour of everyone using their products for as long as possible. “Worn Wear” also serves as a label for Patagonia’s second-hand market. On this platform, used Patagonia clothing is refurbished and traded. Every Patagonia customer can resell their used clothing here.
Recycle. When reuse or repair is no longer possible, the recycling option comes into play. Patagonia takes back all garments and recycles them. This helps save many high-quality materials from going into the incinerator or landfill.
Patagonia has been producing most of its synthetic fibres from recycled PET bottles for a long time.
Patagonia is also researching and developing more sustainable materials. As a young man and passionate surfer, Chouinard was bothered by wetsuits made from crude oil. Later, as head of Patagonia, he developed a wetsuit made of natural rubber.
Patagonia has also been using only organic cotton for a quarter of a century and was one of the first companies to ensure that organic standards were implemented in cotton farming.
1% FOR THE PLANET
Because that was not enough for Patagonia, and Chouinard realised as early as the 1980s that things could not go on like this, Patagonia began donating to environmental organisations. At first 10% of profits were donated and later on 1% of sales.
The “1% for the planet” initiative, which Chouinard founded, has led numerous companies to commit to environmental protection since 1985. Patagonia is still working on expanding the network today.
WHAT IS PATAGONIA DOING FOR SOCIAL SUSTAINABILITY?
Social sustainability is basically another term for corporate social responsibility. Companies have a social responsibility. This includes fair payment and treatment of employees, as well as social engagement outside the company.
The exploitation of nature is one consequence of the profit motive of capitalist enterprises. The exploitation of people is another. Workers in the textile industry are among the lowest paid. Working conditions are deplorable. Reports about sweatshops in Southeast Asia, China or Eastern Europe regularly fill the media and newspapers.
Most fashion labels and outdoor manufacturers do not produce their goods themselves. They outsource production to countries where wages are lowest. Patagonia also produces mainly in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. But since 2014, Patagonia has participated in the Fair Trade programme. Today, 83% of the assortment is Fair Trade certified. By 2025, all garments are to be produced in factories that pay living wages.
„Vote the assholes out“ was found on Patagonia labels. This was sewn into garments after Donald Trump’s election victory. At the time, Chouinard took it upon himself to do everything in his power to fight the Republican’s disastrous climate policies.
The Patagonia founder also reacted sensitively to the popularity of his products among investment bankers. The self-confessed despiser of the stock market forbade the supply of products to financial institutions. Again and again, the “activist company” interferes in politics with campaigns like this or through petitions.
IS PATAGONIA SUSTAINABLE?
We leave a footprint, no question. That’s why we are not sustainable, but rather see ourselves as responsible.Michael Austermühle, Head of Patagonia Germany
What Patagonia has been doing for almost half a century now is trying to participate in our economic system with decency and a sense of responsibility. The exploitation of nature and people is not forbidden in many places. On the contrary, it is extremely lucrative.
Patagonia wants to play along without exploiting these opportunities. The company plays the same game as everyone else. It sells goods for profit. But Chouinard and his team of over a thousand employees worldwide are asking new questions and setting different priorities. Innovations do not fall from the sky. They begin with the creation of goals. Those who aim to conserve resources move forward differently than those who aim to maximise profits.
“We leave a footprint, no question. That’s why we are not sustainable, but rather see ourselves as responsible.” Being responsible means widening one’s gaze and looking where others look away.