On Corporate Responsibility for Planet Earth

by Yvon Chouinard
Winter 2004

As an alpinist who set out to make gear for my friends and never thought of myself as a “businessman” until long after I became one, I’ve wrestled the demons of corporate responsibility for some time. Who are businesses really responsible to? Their shareholders? Their customers? Their employees? None of the above, I have finally come to believe. Fundamentally, businesses are responsible to their resource base. Without a healthy planet there are no shareholders, no customers, no employees. As the conservationist David Brower liked to say, “There is no business to be done on a dead planet.”

But what does behaving responsibly to the environment mean? It took me nearly 25 years in business to learn how to ask that question. It has taken another 15 years of trial and error to uncover the process that Patagonia – or any environmentally minded company – has to go through in pursuit of answers. I think I know how to break that process down to five steps. These steps apply to individuals as well as to companies who want to reduce the harm they do and make a difference.

STEP 1: Lead an examined life. Most of the environmental damage humans cause is a result of ignorance. That ignorance is willful when we avoid confronting our problems, when we refuse to learn because we don’t want to have to act on what we know.

As an example, 15 years ago we had no idea which of our four major fibers (cotton, wool, polyester, nylon) caused the most environmental harm – or what kind. We assumed then that “natural” cotton was the most benign and oil-based polyester the least. Only after we had the sense to commission a detailed environmental assessment of these four fibers did we learn the truth: Conventionally grown cotton, which uses 25 percent of all insecticides (8 percent of all agricultural pesticides), turned out to be the worst villain of all. Since then, we’ve asked a lot more questions, and these have led to a lot more action – to the use of recycled polyester and less harmful dyes and to the elimination of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) in our luggage fabrics.

STEP 2: Clean up your act. Once you learn the environmental costs, try to reduce them. And when you can reduce them, you must. Once we found out how harmful cotton was, we sought a sensible alternative. And we found one. Organic cotton posed none of the worst environmental problems but it was difficult to buy (because so little was grown) and to process. In order to go organic we had to build a new infrastructure, from farmers to ginners to spinners to weavers and knitters. We did so in only two years’ time. Everyone at Patagonia, knowing the environmental costs of the alternative, worked with gusto to make that change on an “impossible” schedule. So did our business partners. People love to figure out how to do the right thing, once they know what that is.

STEP 3: Do your penance. No matter how diligent a corporation, it causes waste and pollution. Our initial fabric assessment told us that antimony, a dangerous heavy metal, is used in the making of polyester resin. To eliminate antimony requires the action of the major chemical companies: As a little David, we didn’t think we could take them on. Like any other responsible corporation, Patagonia should pay penance for its sins – while we work to figure out how to clean up our act.

Our penance takes the form of a voluntary “earth tax.” For many years we donated a percentage of our profits to grassroots environmental organizations working to save and restore habitat. In 1996, because profit figures can be so easily manipulated, we began to donate 1 percent of sales to these organizations, in lean years and fat, without regard for profit levels. Over the years we’ve donated about $20 million to thousands of groups.

STEP 4: Support civil democracy. It’s obvious that governments and corporations hold a lot of power, but so do small groups of people who care passionately about an issue and press their cause. The great social movements of the past 200 years – for democracy itself, for women’s rights, for social equality, for conservation and preservation of the environment – rose up directly from small groups of people who spread the word to others. Today in the United States, small groups of kayakers and fishermen work tirelessly to bring down dams; duck hunters toil to preserve wetlands. And it’s mothers who exert the most pressure to clean up local toxic landfills.

I’ve learned from a lifetime of being outdoors that nature loves diversity and hates monoculture and centralization. A thousand diverse activist groups, each passionately working on a specific problem, can accomplish more than bloated, cautious NGOs or governments addressing all the big issues at once. Even though I work for tough laws, I don’t trust my government. I support the front-line activists, the river keepers and tree sitters who work to save a single patch of land or stretch of water. These are the people who do the most to hold the corporations at bay and keep the government honest. These are the kinds of groups to whom we give most of our money.

STEP 5: Influence other companies. If you undertake the other steps, this one is a natural. The company that discovers new ways to be more environmentally responsible has an obligation to spread the word to others – to share the knowledge of what can be done. Organic cotton farmers, ginners, spinners, weavers and cloth manufacturers who followed our lead have created new sources of revenue for themselves. As a consequence, the cost of organic cotton has declined with commercialization.

Again, people like to do the right thing when they know the right thing to do. Mike Brown, who headed our environmental assessment team during the 1990s, now runs an organization called Eco-Partners, which brings together environmental officers from companies like Nike, Mountain Equipment Co-op, even Ford Motor Company, to trade tips and knowledge. Yes, we are now working with fiber mills to eliminate the use of antimony (and methyl bromide) in polyester. And, finally, we’ve started an organization called 1% For The Planet to encourage other corporations to give a helping hand to the environmental activists who are doing such good.

In the end, Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible, nor at any time soon be able to make a totally sustainable (“cradle-to-cradle” recyclable) product. 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.

About the Author

Yvon Chouinard is an alpinist, surfer and fly fisherman, as well as the founder and owner of Patagonia, Inc. He also founded 1% For The Planet, Inc. an alliance of businesses committed to donating at least 1 percent of their annual net revenues to environmental organizations worldwide.