In 1991, Patagonia was growing at a rate of 50 percent a year, and we hit the wall in the midst of the savings and loan crisis. The bank reduced our credit line twice in several months, and we ended up borrowing from friends to meet payroll. We laid off 20 percent of our workforce on July 31, 1991. That’s a day we still refer to as Black Wednesday.
Patagonia had exceeded its resources and limitations. Like the world economy, we’d become dependent on growth we could not sustain. In the end, we had to look at what “sustainability” might mean in the same sentence with “business.” If we hadn’t stayed in business, we never would have realized – the hard way – the parallel between Patagonia’s unsustainable push for growth and that of our entire industrial economy.
The global push for growth has led people into two impoverishments: The first is a feeling of “not enough.” We once asked the owner of a successful business if he had enough money and he replied, “Don’t you understand? There is never enough.”
We don’t have enough money, and we also don’t have enough time. We don’t have enough energy, solitude or peace. We are among the world’s wealthiest countries, yet UNICEF ranks the wellbeing of American and British children last compared to other rich nations. As Eric Hoffer, the mid-20th century philosopher, put it, “You can never get enough of what you don’t really need to make you happy.”
The second impoverishment is that while we work harder to get more of what we don’t need, we lay waste to the natural world. We want oil for our cars, so we drill in deep waters where it’s hazardous for workers and the cost of a spill is now all too familiar. We cut down whole forests, we pollute precious water. We are using one and a half planets’ worth of resources to “sustain” our way of life on our one and only planet. “We are sleepwalking into disaster,” says Dr. Peter Senge, writer and senior lecturer at MIT, “going faster and faster to get to where no one wants to be.”
What to do?
After Black Wednesday, Patagonia wrote a new statement of purpose which included this line: “All decisions of the company are made in the context of the environmental crisis … growth and expansion are values not basic to this corporation.” And ever since then, like a married couple that slowly realizes the extent of what they promised on their wedding day, we’ve been figuring out what those words mean.
As Patagonia examines its corporate life in the context of the environmental crisis, we invite you to examine your private life in the same context. We are each a consumer and a citizen. In each of these roles, we have environmental impact. As a consumer, you can decide which companies to buy from, based on what the companies do to reduce their environmental impact. As a citizen, you can look over the records of your candidates and find out how they voted on efforts to make our lives less ruinous and more sustainable.
Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time, and a healthy planet is necessary for a healthy business. We want to act responsibly, live within our means and leave behind not only a habitable planet, but an Earth whose beauty and biodiversity is protected for those who come after us.
We need leaders who are committed to this vision. Patagonia has a stake in this election, and we plan to bring our deepest values with us into the voting booth in November. We ask you to join us.
Vote for the world you want to live in.