Most of us associate Patagonia with the rugged, southernmost tip of America and/or with a brand of colorful, high-tech, high quality (and somewhat high priced) outdoor clothes one would wear to explore that place. And most of us have at least a feeling that there is some deeper, ‘ecological twist’ to how the two relate to each other, if not some knowledge of it. No wonder, Patagonia is a leading outdoor gear brand with over well over half a billion dollars in sales worldwide to its name.
But it all started very humbly with an 18-year old selling climbing spikes out of his parent’s backyard of who seemed to be on a mission.
Myth and Mission
Young Yvon Chouinard was an outdoorsman (others would call him a ‘bum’) hanging out with like-minded climbers and surfers in wilderness camps in the mountains and on the beaches of the Western US. They sometimes sifted through supermarket dumpsters and grilled poached squirrels to stretch the limited budget. It was to supplement that budget and because his fellow climbers asked for his superior, self-designed climbing equipment that Yvon started a business of hand-forging climbing pitons from old car axles in the early sixties. By 1970, the company* was the biggest specialty climbing gear maker in the US. As his pitons became more and more popular, he found more and more scarring signs of them being used along climbing routes, thus defacing the previously pristine landscape he admired so much. So in 1972, Yvon and his business partner took the dramatic (and for the business traumatic-) decision to discontinue their best-selling product (70% of sales) and replace it with aluminum chocks which required climbers to adopt a new technique of wedging the chocks into existing cracks in the rocks and retrieve them as they move on. Chouinard explained the decision and made a passionate appeal for “clean climbing” in a 14-page essay in the company’s printed catalogue, the early-days-equivalent of a popular ‘blog’ for outdoor enthusiasts like him.
The company’s creation myth is physically enshrined in a little corrugated tin shed that served as the first ‘forge’ and sits next to the company’s modern headquarter building in Ventura, California. But the sustained power of the myth stems from it being religiously re-told, re-enacted, relived. Whether it is by elder Chouinard himself still insisting he is a craftsman, not a businessman while fiddling around on an energy-efficient camping stove in that shed (Inc, 2013) or being interviewed while scaling Mount Arrowhead without cams (Outside, 2001). Or his friends, employees and disciples living the ‘Patagoniac life’ and reporting about (view more examples of ‘organic brand storytelling’ below).
The piton episode in the early history of the company also reveals key elements of what will shape up to become the uniquely defining mission of the brand: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” (Patagonia.com)
Already in 1974 Chouinard reasoned in one of his catalogue essays that “No longer can we assume the Earth’s resources are limitless; … Mountains are finite, and despite their massive appearance, they are fragile.” And Patagonia has taken many – often drastic – steps to balance the desires to make the best designed outdoor gear possible and to protect that outdoor environment to be explored. For Patagonia believes that getting out there and exploring nature is the best way to appreciate and ultimately wanting to protect it. Thus the original and popular Patagonia clothes made of top quality, rugged cotton had to be laboriously and expensively ‘re-sourced’ when the companies found out through its own environmental audit in the early nineties that the industrial treatment of cotton had a very negative ecological footprint. As in the case of the pitons, Patagonia went about advocating the use of pesticide free cotton by the clothing industry and that consumers should insist on it. Creating moral and physical demand ahead of supply, Patagonia’s move triggered the birth of the California organic cotton industry and chaperoned it to world leadership. But Patagonia did not stop there. Its declared goal is to make all its clothing eternally re-usable or compostable.
Patagonia’s iconic, brightly colored fleece “Snap-T Pullovers” – which were launched, became extremely popular (and copied) in the eighties – and its leadership in the use of performance synthetic fiber use- since carry the same the same distinctive brand DNA. Fleece turned out to have the concurrent warming, wicking and water-repelling characteristics that outdoor sportspeople where yearning for. At the same time, it opened up the possibility to be made of recycled materials such as soda bottles, manufacturing waste … and worn-out Patagonia clothes. The signal-colors, when traditional outdoor gear sported ‘earth colors’, serve as a call to attention and action: ‘Use these technically and environmentally more superior and meaningful products (instead).’ The consumer followed the call enthusiastically – way beyond the early adopter mountaineers and surfers. And Patagonia was actually happy, indeed encouraged entire outdoor and fashion industry to follow its pioneering lead. Increasing demand made recycling processes scale-able, more affordable and thus more broadly used. Today, most Patagonia fleeze are made of recycled materials – Originally toilet covers and now from the equivalent of 25 empty 2-liter bottles of pop of which there is excess supply, as the website will educate you.
But don’t mistake these stories and statistics for the ever more common, symbolical but also superficial forms of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’. Patagonia goes ever deeper in peeling the onion and following its ideology of doing what is right for the environment. In 1985 it was one of the first companies to introduce ‘tithing’, giving back 1% of sales/10% of profits to tackle what Chouinard calls today “the symptoms of man’s exploitation of the planet for growth” (Chouinard, Seventh Generation interview, 2011). Patagonia raised funds to protect clean water, wild trout, bird- and fish migration paths, for example by un-building dams. Now Patagonia is seeking to tackle what it calls the “white elephant in the room” – Growth Based Capitalism – which it sees as the driver for humans consuming more resources than they need and that the earth can provide in a sustainable way (Patagonia.com). To tie its fate inextricably to promoting the “Responsible Economy” and doing right by the environment and humanity, the company changed its own corporate classification to that of a “Benefit Corporation”. In this novel form of corporation, the company will be publicly accountable to “create a material positive impact on society and the environment; expand fiduciary duty to require consideration of non-financial interests when making decisions; and report on its overall social and environmental performance using recognized third party standards” – and that despite being a privately owned company. (benefitcorp.net)
Unsell and Behold!
What can be a gauge of the sincerely and dedication to embracing this holistic mission? Patagonia has concluded several times over the past two years that the “responsible” answer was not to buy its product: In 2011 Patagonia audited its supply chain to find out if some of its down feathers might be sources from farmers force feeding geese. Patagonia.com recommended that vegans or other people who oppose force feeding and foie-gras production might not want to buy other products or wait until a possible issue might be rectified. Later that year, Patagonia ran an ad in the New York times and on the web asking consumers to not buy their Jacket – if they don’t truly need it. The ad reads. “Don’t Buy This Jacket – […] one of our best sellers. To make it required 135 liters of water, enough to meet the daily needs of 45 people. Its journey from its origin as 60% recycled polyester to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. […] knit and sewn to a high standard; it is exceptionally durable, so you won’t have to replace it as often. And when it comes to the end of its useful life we’ll take it back to recycle into a product of equal value. But, as is true of all the things we can make and you can buy, this jacket comes with an environmental cost higher than its price.” The ad concludes with a call to “think twice before you buy” and go to Patagonia.com to take the “Common Threads” Initiative pledge and join Patagonia in reimagining “a world where we take only what nature can replace.” This is what we call ‘unselling‘.
Of course Patagonia elevates its products in this process of ‘un-selling’ them. They gain respect for the way they are conceived and made. Not peddled to be consumed – but praised and priced to be carefully considered bought, taken back and – eventually be re-born. Consider the mythical story about Chouinard going berserk about a shirt having lost a button in use and instructing product design to find an unfailing solution – no matter the cost; Or quotes around simplicity and functionality having divine qualities, such as the humble knife … or the Patagonia short. Not a volleyball- or a summer-short, but a simple short that will serve all activities and won’t let you down for decades – or be happily exchanged. Strong sales – even through the recent economic recession – prove that people behold the holistic qualities of such a short and accept the multiples it costs versus fast fashion alternatives (see the story of the short be told in a Patagonia film below).
From discontinuing your mainstay product because it defaces the mountains to making people consider buying Patagonia used on e-bay rather than waste resources and money on having a new one made, Patagonia has held its mission to help you explore nature without unnecessary harm and its product high, very high. And consumers have loved the brand for it.
Longing and Belonging
This mission is lived and spread through a group of disciples who could be labeled missionaries, are officially presented as “Ambassadors” but prefer to call themselves “Dirt Bags”, like Chouinard likes to call himself (read Mark Jenkins’ article on the ‘King of the Dirtbags’ below). They are the kind of person one saw in the brand’s catalogue swimming in a mountain stream, playing hacky sack in the middle of an ascent or enjoying a beer while free climbing a sheer face – cloths on or not. Today, you can access over 80 detailed profiles and hundreds of videos that document the soloing-, snowboarding- or surfing adventures of these extreme ‘product testers’ in vivid visuals and words next to dozens of short- and longer films and essays about nature, its exploration and preservation.
The Patagonia team knows about the strong appeal of feeling part of the bigger cause whether it is by emulating those ‘Dirt Bags’, by joining them in one of their activist causes or by making a pro-nature statement in wearing Patagonia. The brand offers them many forms and levels of engagement. ‘Fashion’ is the declared enemy, the ‘f-word’ in the language of the ‘Patagoniacs’ and there is a more or less open contempt for the companies who create fads or the consumers who fall for them mindlessly. Yet, the fact that more Patagonia products are worn by hipsters sitting outside a coffee shop on a chilly morning than by fly fishers in the wild has not escaped Chouinard who already commented back in 1992: “We outgrew our loyal customer base and increasingly were selling to yuppies, posers, and wanna-bes […] These people don’t need this shit to get in their Jeep Cherokees and drive to Connecticut for the weekend”. At Sundance, paparazzi shoot celebrities donning ‘Patagucci’ at the après-film and the crowds follow them – one can only hope for the right reasons. To which the brand publicly declares that it would be too late for mother earth if it were to wait for the average user to understand and ask for more responsibly made products. The Patagoniacs need to lead the way.
Living the Dream and Moving with Gravitas
Chouinard’s memoires entitled “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman” (2006) summarizes his approach to organization- and business building. Patagonia is a mostly self-selective organism where like-interested and –minded people join and thrive. Chouinard and other leaders are also known to hire people he meets while surfing or mountaineering together. In hindsight, Chouinard thinks that one of his biggest organizational mistakes was to bring in ‘professional managers’ in the 80ies, to manage explosive growth. Their profit-maximization and financial risk-avoidance culture clearly clashed with the Pargoniacs. – Apparently, the ‘suits and ties’ working in Finance were kept off-campus (Inc, 1992). The structure and people did not last.
Rose Marcario, always a passionate hiker and kayaker and since 2013 CEO of Patagonia joined after what she describes as a “midlife crisis” and refocus on her deep personal values (the Guardian, 2014). She is not shocked that some ‘board meetings’ are held in wetsuit. The entire organization lives what, what many think of as a dream. Former sales manager, now VP Vincent Stanley says he got the job because he was usually the only one around the office at noon – called surf-time (Yale conference, 2013). Everyone seems to agree that the sometime month-long excursions of the owner provides valuable feedback on products, ideas for new ones and new connections to the outside and outdoors. Patagonia was famous for being the place where employees play beach volleyball or BBQed in the backyard – decades before Google was born. It pioneered employee care innovations like on-premise child care (at the initiative of wife and co-owner Malinda) and pushed its customer care to extremes like a free hot line for fly-fishing tips (the order line was not toll-free). In the 70ies it invented the ‘corporate activist’, inviting a biological scientist who fought for conservation of the Ventura River to stay with them and teach the staff. In 1993 it instituted an ‘Environmental Internship Program’ providing two months paid leave of absence to join an NGO employees feel committed to and support if they want to join it. Hundreds of the most diverse causes have been initiated or supported by employees. They are always discussed, sometimes debated with friends and customers via the company’s blog “the cleanest line”. So, for example, the support for film and project ‘DamNation” (proceeds from limited edition T-shirts sales help with funding) which is a recent example of the long passion for helping to restore rivers to their natural condition.
These engagements are not the typical ‘work/life balance measures,’ ‘social media campaigns’ or random acts of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’. There are born and sustained the deep, uniting believes of the organization and create a most passionate, knowledgeable, authentic and thus admired and trusted human backbone to the brand.
Such depth of dedication is not achieved overnight and requires a special type of ownership. Over the decades Yvon Chouinard has declined the advice to sell-out or offer to inject private equity money to accelerate growth many times. In fact, he tells of experiencing the consequences of ‘excessive growth’ as a watershed experience that taught him to ensure the brand grows at an organic, un-promoted pace: Patagonia rode a wave of immense popularity in the fad-thirsty and free-spending 80ies. Then, as the financial crisis hit, the fad disappeared and so did bank credits. Large inventories piled up in Ventura and at retailers. Patagonia had to sell down and let go of 20% of its employees to save itself. At that tragic juncture, ‘industry experts’ judged that the ideological approach to branding and business had brought about the demise of Patagonia.
Eddie Bauer President Wayne Badovinus commented in a 1992 interview with Inc. magazine: “A lot of people assume that these tribal rituals make a business better. But in the final analysis, clear measures of your progress — sales and profits — help guide you a lot more.” History proved him wrong. Eddie Bauer went bankrupt in 2009 and was picked up by a private equity firm. Patagonia recovered after renouncing to chase ‘the consumers’ and focus on those who recognize and are willing to pay for enduring quality and values. The business has a compound annual growth rate 16% annually over the past 35 years – despite trying to fight it….
‘* Back then the company was called Chouinard Equipment the Patagonia brand was created in 1976.)
Sources and Further Reading:
To read more about how brands like Patagonia become enduring businesses and legend read our other blog posts or – better still – our latest book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands“.
This feature on Patagonia by Complex News is just one of the many times and ways in which the Patagonia founding story is being re-told and the myth re-made. Paid advertorial or another free piece of awareness creation courtesy of a brand history and -life that the media feel is ‘authentic’ (vs ‘commercial’) and worth being told.
Patagonia tells the “Stories we Wear” in a series of films and on a dedicated blog called ‘Worn Wear’. It is these authentic stories, told by the wearer that elevate the brand and its products beyond the material good to be owned to stories to behold.
Mark Jenkins interviews and observes the “King Of The Dirtbags” in this great piece in Outside Magazine where he goes ‘core with Yvon Chouinard – leery capitalist, walking contradiction’. The story of the ‘reluctant activist’ and conflicted business man (‘l’activiste malgre lui’, if you like) is certainly a rich one to found a mythical brand on.