‘Vogue magazine called me one day from New York saying “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, all the models, Naomi and everyone, are wearing your Synchilla jacket. What are you going to do?’ As Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, tells the story, the news made him recoil. During the 35 years he has spent building up one of the world’s best known outdoor clothing companies, fashion has never been something that Patagonia does. In truth, Patagonia’s core customer is more likely to be a Hawaiian grandmother, who clocks up hundreds of miles kayaking solo in he North Pacific. ‘Our philosophy is to make the best product and that means clothing that doesn’t wear out or need ironing and definitely no fashion,’ says Yvon. Surprisingly for a fashion company that's simultaneously anti-fashion, this stance has brought Patagonia impressive success and a large collection of ‘firsts’.
Take cotton for example. In 1996, Patagonia switched all of its cotton to organic and has never looked back. Only recently have apparel giants such as Nike and Timberland started to do the same. In 1993, Patagonia started to produce post-consumer recycled polyester fleece. Out of every 25 recycled plastic drinks bottles comes one fleece. Since then, it has diverted 92 million bottles from landfill. It took British high street favourite Marks & Spencer until 2008 to follow suit. Patagonia’s first catalogue using recycled paper was in 1990. Asked about his greatest achievement, Yvon points to the ‘earth tax’ that Patagonia started paying in 1985, which is either 10 per cent of profits or one per cent of sales, whichever is greater. This has resulted in grants of more than $25 million to grassroots environmental groups that other grant-making groups deem too politically risky. ‘We measure our success on the number of threats averted: old-growth forests that were not clear cut, mines that were never dug in pristine areas, toxic pesticides that were not sprayed,’ he wrote in his book Let My People Go Surfing.
In 2001, he expanded the ‘earth tax’ idea to create the ‘one per cent for the planet' initiative, which has been so successful, it now operates as an independent NGO in its own right and has hundreds of companies on its books. 'Our success is measured in old growth forests not cleared, and mines not dug,' says Yvon. 'The 700 member companies (46 in the UK) based in over 20 countries have contributed $21 million to environmental organisations so far this year.' Yvon isn’t surprised: most one per cent members are smaller, privately owned companies and start ups: ‘The revolution starts at the bottom,’ he opines, adding that shareholders of big publicly owned companies are not the most progressive when it comes to the idea of ‘giving back’. ‘I was recently on a panel that included Coca Cola, reps from which spoke about how they will start recycling plastic bottles next year. They were completely unaware we’ve been reusing their bottles for the past 15 years. I asked why aren’t they proactive on issues, instead of just waiting until the customer demands it. If, for example, Coca Cola switched from high fructose corn syrup to cane sugar [which is more fully metabolised], this in itself could change the world. They just stared at their feet.’
From the modest beginnings of its 2005 Common Threads Garment Recycling programme, where customers return old underwear and fleeces, Patagonia has now hit its 2010 target of producing all its clothes made from recycled materials. 'The two main challenges we still have are luggage - most of which is made of heavy duty nylon - and the wetsuits,' says Rob BonDurant, Patagonia's Vice President of Marketing and Communications. 'We have over 700 products that are fully recyclable and we're within 18 months of figuring out how to deal with the luggage and wetsuits. In fact, we've already figured out the process - we're just looking for suitable partners.' The company has become the guineapig of a $100 million polyester recycling plant in Japan, which takes all things plastic and polyester and reprocesses them into fabric. ‘ In Japan they are thinking about the end of petroleum and understand we’re running out,’ says Yvon.
An in-house Lifecycle Analysis revealed that recycled polyester brings 76 per cent in energy savings compared to using virgin polyester. While the fabric comes from overseas, garments will be sewn in California and Mexico. ‘With the end of petroleum the cost of shipping will be the highest. But when you look into it, as we did, shipping by sea brings less damage than trucking throughout California. Local doesn’t necessarily mean less energy. We’re the last big privately owned outdoor company in the US, all the rest are owned by bigger multinationals. If we sold out, buyers would realise we’re undervalued, and we’d lose our image and purpose in a grab for growth. We spend less than one half of one per cent on advertising and have intentionally held growth back. We don’t want to create artificial demand,’ he says. He likens commercial growth to learning how to ski. ‘You start out shaky for a while, have one lesson then jump to plateau. A learning curve isn’t smooth. With Patagonia, one-year growth is 10 per cent and another three per cent. Growth stems from recognising our customers are frustrated because they try to order and we’re out of stock.’
In the dying days of August, from his log cabin in Wyoming in the Teton mountain range, where Yvon has spent summers since 1956, he reflects on a lifetime of climbing, fishing and surfing. ‘A lot of the climbs I used to do no longer exist. The experience was in doing it and now it’s over. I’ve witnessed the decline of the Atlantic salmon, the near end of the steelhead, [rainbow trout] my favourite fish. It’s really sad it’s all changed.’ Do thoughts of climate change and peak oil keep him awake at night? ‘Oh no, I sleep. I’m not trying to hold on to anything, not trying to hang on to the idea that we are God’s ultimate creation. We are a destructive species. The best thing I can do is lead an examined life, bear witness and report back to headquarters.’ A humbling thought that colours his own mission with Patagonia: ‘There is no doubt that we’re not going to save the world by buying organic food and clothes – it will be by buying less.’
Find Patagonia at the new Langley Street flagship in London's Covent Garden, or online at www.patagonia.com
Yvon’s book Let My People Go Surfing (Penguin Books, 2005) is a rumination on subjects ranging from climbing to business ethics, with a history of Patagonia in between. Required reading for anyone trying to make head or tail of how business can be a force for good.
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