“If you wait for the customer to tell you to green your company, you’re way too late.”
Patagonia’s founder and owner, the iconoclastic entrepreneur Yvon Chouinard, doesn’t like to think of himself as a businessman. But, the son of a French-Canadian blacksmith living in California, by the age of 17 he was already creating reusable climbing tools for himself and his friends as they pioneered new routes in mountain ranges around the world. By the time he was 30, Chouinard Equipment was the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the US.
In 1972, climbing clothing was dull-coloured and boring, so when Yvon was spotted testing out a colourful rugby shirt from Scotland on a climbing trip, his friends asked where they could get one, and the idea for Patagonia was born. Named after a far-off, interesting, not quite on the map destination which brought about ‘romantic visions of glaciers tumbling into fjords, jagged windswept peaks, gauchos and condors’, Patagonia produces sustainable outdoor clothing for the ‘silent sports’: climbing, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running – whose reward is a connection with nature.
Patagonia’s values reflect those of a business started by a band of climbers and surfers, and the minimalist style they promoted. ‘How you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top,’ writes Chouinard in his book Let My People Go Surfing: the Education of a Reluctant Businessman (2006), which covers challenging conventional wisdom, leading a simpler and more examined life and making a living without losing your soul.
The company’s mission has remained constant: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. ‘At Patagonia, preservation of the environment isn’t what we do after hours. It’s the reason we’re in business and our every day work,’ says Ryan Gellert, Patagonia’s General Manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA).
Over the last 30 years, Patagonia has been ‘taxing’ itself against the negative impact the company has on the planet – from lighting stores to dyeing shirts – and moving from minimising harm to doing good. The company uses organic cotton (to reduce the use of pesticides) from regenerative farms, pioneered the use of recycled polyester and created neoprene – free wetsuits made from Yulex natural rubber. A new Fair Trade certified swimwear collection is part of a broader drive to better support workers, elevate communities worldwide and work in a truly equitable way. Its newest initiative, Patagonia Provisions – attempts to address the crisis in the food industry by providing food for the trail in partnership with forward – thinking farmers, ranchers and fishermen who embrace regenerative growing methods.
As a founding member of ‘1% for the Planet’, it donates 1% of sales to grassroots environmental groups worldwide – over US$82 million to date. Last year, US$450,000 was awarded to 85 NGOs across Europe including Riverwatch and EuroNatur’s Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign – with a petition delivered by kayak – to stop dam development on the Vjosa in Albania, Europe’s last large wild river. ‘We think deeply and in detail about our supply chain and its environmental impact. I think this – combined with financial and vocal support for activists working on issues around the world – is unique,’ says Gellert.
‘Think twice about your consumption and its impact,’ Gellert advises travellers. According to WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), wearing Patagonia’s clothing for an extra nine months reduces your carbon, waste and water footprint by 20-30%. ‘Spending time in wild places gives each of us an appreciation for how important they are. Sustainable travel is about having fun, but also committing to minimize your impact on the planet and its fragile ecosystems.’