We are in the earliest stages of learning how what we do for a living both threatens nature and fails to meet our deepest human needs. The impoverishment of our world and the devaluing of the priceless undermine our physical and economic well-being.
Yet the depth and breadth of technological innovation of the past few decades shows that we have not lost our most useful gifts; humans are ingenious, adaptive, clever. We also have moral capacity, compassion for life, and an appetite for justice. We now need to more fully engage these gifts to make economic life more socially just and environmentally responsible, and less destructive to nature and the commons that sustain us.
We can’t pose Patagonia as the model of a responsible company. We don’t do everything a responsible company can do, nor does anyone else we know. But we can tell you how we came to realize our environmental and social responsibilities, and then began to act on them. Like other things in human life, it began with one step that led to another.
In the spring of 1988, Patagonia opened a store in Boston on Newbury Street. Within days, the people who worked in the store were sick: mainly headaches. We hired an engineer who told us the problem was the ventilation system: it was recycling the same tired air. But what was in the air? Probably formaldehyde, she told us. From the finish on the cotton clothes stored in the basement. Formaldehyde? This led us to commission a study of conventional cotton, and the discovery that cotton grown with pesticides is one of the most destructive crops in the agricultural world. Knowing what we knew, we could not continue to use conventional cotton for our sportswear. We went organic in 1996.
Once you start, you can’t stop. “Living the examined life,” said our founder, Yvon Chouinard, “is a pain in the ass.” From cotton, we moved to what happens in Patagonia’s name in every step of the supply chain, from crop to fabric to finished garment. We measured the environmental impacts of selected articles of clothing and published them on The Footprint Chronicles®. We worked with an outside auditor and an in-house corporate responsibility specialist to establish the working conditions and pay for every person who sews a Patagonia garment. We learned how to make fleece jackets from recycled plastic bottles and then how to make fleece jackets from fleece jackets. We examined our use of paper in catalogs, the sources of our electricity, the amount of oil we consumed driving to work. We continued to support employees with medical insurance, maternity and paternity leave, subsidized child-care and paid internships with non profit environmental groups. As we have for many years, we gave one percent of sales to grassroots activists. This one percent commitment isn’t typical philanthropy. Rather, it’s part of the cost of doing business, part of our effort to balance (however imperfectly) the impact we have on natural systems – and to protect the world on which our business, employees, and customers rely. After many years of giving money to activists, we realized that if we could share profits, we could also supply time and muscle.
Underlying much of what challenges Patagonia is the modern commitment to growth and consumption. We’ve begun to look seriously at these twin conundrums and took out an ad on Black Friday in 2011 that read, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.”
In the end, Patagonia may never be completely responsible. We have a long way to go and we don’t have a map – but we do have a way to read the terrain and to take the next step, and then the next.