7 Weeks, 7 Communities, 70 Employees
Patagonia’s Response to the Gulf Oil Spill

Oily pelicans, tarred beaches, that ever-widening oil slick on the Gulf of Mexico’s normally blue waters – Patagonia Chief Financial Officer Rose Marcario had seen enough. “What are we doing?” the blunt-spoken New Yorker wanted to know.

Patagonia hadn’t budgeted for the unforeseen disaster, but circumstances in the Gulf were dire. And any employee at Patagonia who wants to tackle an environmental issue is encouraged to do so, often on company time and with company assistance. (Especially the CFO, who holds the company’s checkbook.)

Rose huddled with Lisa Pike-Sheehy, who heads our environmental department, to formulate a plan, which CEO Casey Sheahan quickly approved. Rose then sent an email to Patagonia vice presidents asking them to look at their budgets for any discretionary money they might contribute to a special Gulf fund.

The VP’s were able to come up with $300,000 above and beyond our budgeted environmental giving. Two-thirds of it went to emergency funding that was divided among the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Skytruth, Southwings, Gulf Restoration Network, Save Our Gulf: Gulf Waterkeepers, Gulf Coast Fund, Sea Turtle Conservancy, Gulf Future and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The first group of employees arrived in Louisiana amid a July 2010 swelter to work with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental health and justice group based in New Orleans. Six more groups followed over the next two months, everyone receiving their regular salaries and room and board while they lent a hand.

Patagonia didn’t go to clean up oil; that was BP’s job. Our employees walked door-to-door in communities across southeastern Louisiana’s coastal parishes surveying residents about the public health, cultural and financial impacts they’d felt from the spill. We received a warm Southern welcome, along with a few unfortunate incidents of dog bite, dehydration and self-inflicted DEET poisoning.

“I’d never done anything like this before,” Naomi Helbling, an employee from our Seattle store, wrote upon her return from five days in Empire, Louisiana. “The feeling was indescribable as I walked down a long, exposed driveway to the door of a complete stranger to ask, ‘How has your family’s health and livelihood been impacted by the world’s largest oil spill?’”

The Bucket Brigade wanted to document impacts from the spill because of a lesson learned in Alaska, after the Exxon Valdez tarred Prince William Sound with 10.8 million gallons of oil. Lacking really detailed information about the impacts of that disaster, it had been harder to recover damages from the oil giant for affected residents and resources.

“The Bucket Brigade’s Gulf survey was the first, and only, attempt to gather on-the-ground information in the Gulf,” wrote the Bucket Brigade’s Shannon Dosemagen. “It could not have been completed without the support and volunteer power that Patagonia provided.”

The Bucket Brigade took the information we collected in our 954 surveys and combined it with eyewitness reports from Gulf residents about odors, tar balls, mysterious coughs, etc. With it, the group created a web-based Oil Spill Crisis Map.

The map, conceived in partnership with Tulane University, visualizes the effects of the spill. Accessible through the Bucket Brigade’s website, it provides a one-stop source of information for use by NGOs, government agencies, state and local wildlife agencies and the public.

The map should prove invaluable in documenting the impacts of the spill over time and place. Its contents will not only provide greater transparency about the disaster, but with luck, more accountability from those responsible.

The Cleanest Line

Read about the experiences of Patagonia employee volunteers on our blog.

Click here for information about several groups making a difference in the Gulf.