Dubroff: Patagonia trailblazers highlight the role of a responsible firm
Reading “The Future of the Responsible Company,” the latest book by Vincent Stanley with Yvon Chouinard, is a bit like putting on your favorite piece of Patagonia clothing.
It is functional. Stylish. And it makes a statement about how you feel about the planet.
The timing of this work, a follow-up to “The Responsible Company,” published a decade ago, is significant. The September publication date celebrates the one-year anniversary of the Chouinard family’s donation of 100% of Patagonia’s stock to a trust and a nonprofit that will dedicate the company’s profits to earth-related causes, making Earth “our sole shareholder.”
From the table depicting the book’s own environmental impact to the closing checklists for running a more conscious enterprise, The Future of the Responsible Company is a guide for companies that want to better job of serving their communities and the environment.
The subtitle “What We Learned from Patagonia’s First 50 Years” is a nod to the Stanley/Chouinard book from a decade ago, “The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned From Patagonia’s First 40 Years.” At that time, Patagonia had pioneered the idea of a “B Corp.” or Benefit Corporation run for the public good.
But a lot has changed in the past decade, as Stanley, who serves as Patagonia’s director of philosophy and has been with the company off and on since its earliest days, makes clear. For the planet, climate change has manifested itself in new and deadly ways.
For Patagonia, the damage from the Thomas Fire was severe enough to shut down operations and the COVID-19 pandemic had profound impacts. And it has become far more active in environmental causes, taking on the Trump Administration in the battle over preserving the Bears Ears National Monument and thinking much more deeply about the environmental impact of its supply chain, even encouraging customers to repair their Patagonia garments rather than replace them.
Stanley, who is also a resident fellow at the Yale University School of Business and Environment, does not mince words about Patagonia’s founding or its failings. At first, it was supposed to be an “easy-to-milk cash cow,” to offset the losses at founder Yvon Chouinard’s climbing equipment business. It briefly poisoned employees at its state-of-the-art Boston retail store because the ventilation system was picking up formaldehyde residue from its cotton clothing.
It did not realize that factory-farmed cotton was “as dirty as coal.”
And despite best efforts, Patagonia still can’t quite liberate itself from suppliers who rely on coal-fired plants for electricity or fossil fuels to transport goods.
But for Stanley and Chouinard, the effort to leave as little impact on the planet as possible is worth it. That’s why corporate titans like Walmart consult with it to learn about sustainable packaging and supply chain accountability.
That’s why Patagonia has branched out into supporting regenerative farming and studying projects like the Halifax model, which is creating a blueprint for sustainable aquaculture.
Stanley’s research has led him to some interesting places philosophically. He credits former President Richard Nixon with recognizing the environmental threats in creating the Environmental Protection Agency. He credits Dwight Eisenhower with providing an important clue to solving Patagonia’s supply chain issues, repeating the former president’s dictum that “whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve I make it bigger.”
“The Future of the Responsible Company,” has a hopeful message about the ability of for-profit companies to innovate in ways that create opportunity and reduce harm. And about the ability of democratic governments to find policy solutions, especially by listening to citizen activists.
It is critical of Big Tech leaders who want to hide in the metaverse or abandon Earth to a polluted future. And it raises a dire warning about autocrats obsessed with self-preservation who “will never work for harmony and justice,” the first principles for a sustainable economy.
Reading “The Future of the Responsible Company” sent me back to my closet to dig out my old-school Patagonia Synchilla jacket. I think I’ll wear it a lot this fall.
And as for the book, it’s going to the free little library down the street. You never know who might read it next.
Henry Dubroff is the founder, owner and editor of the Pacific Coast Business Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.