By Jai Bashir, Office of Sustainability
One of the most pervasive myths surrounding sustainability is that big business must be eradicated in order for a more socially conscious world. In a utopic society, such an idea may be easier to realize; however, a market-based economy is deeply rooted in the democratic vision of the global north and that idea is increasingly being adopted by the global south. “The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned From Patagonia’s 40 Years” is an optimistic antidote for connecting economic and sustainability pursuits. It seeks to deliver a navigable paradigm shift for individuals who believe that business has no place within the sustainably movement.
“The Responsible Company” is a short and well-designed book that seeks to be a roadmap for anyone in the world of business—from grassroots entrepreneurs to large company CEOs—to visualize how becoming sustainability-based alters incomes by creating a better product that enhances customer satisfaction, strengthens relationships between the customer and the company, and cuts costs.
The book, written by Patagonia founder and co-owner Yvon Chouinard and Footprint Chronicles co-editor Vincent Stanley, Chouinard’s nephew, uses the story of Patagonia to show the failures and triumphs of a small company that has created a brand name focused on quality and a commitment to the environment. Founded in 1973, Patagonia, Inc. is a Ventura, California-based outdoor clothing company that is most well-known for their jackets and fleece outerwear. The company originally started as Chouinard Equipment, but moved away from mountain climbing gear when Chouinard realized that the steel pitons that company was producing harmed the mountain environments they were used in. The company eventually moved to aluminum pitons that have now become standard in mountain climbing globally.
However, this realization moved Chouinard from the company’s original mission to that of the creation of outdoor apparel that also represented a love of nature and the planet. This realization ignited a commitment to the environment that has evolved as Patagonia has grown as a company. By making more sustainable and quality apparel, Patagonia seeks to drive people to buy only what they need. By buying quality products, people need to buy less apparel, which creates the idea of Patagonia clothing as a worthwhile investment. What if more companies were to follow this model of creating products of all varieties with more visibility of the product’s journey from origin of resources to the industrial or commercial process? Within environmental dialogue, reimagining our consumption habits is integral to how we utilize resources and reconfigure our economy.
The book centers around a simple and valid message: There are no “responsible companies, but rather companies who choose to act responsibly” and finding meaningful work that comes from a place of passion. However, underneath this book’s breadth of positivity and yes-we-can attitude, there are still larger looming questions it does not dare to answer. The book uses Patagonia’s consultations with retail juggernaut Wal-Mart as a way of showcasing how Patagonia has grown from a company started by inexperienced surfers and mountaineers to one that can influence a company that has driven out a massive amount of local “mom-and-pop” stores. I also must question has Patagonia cultivated its status as the premier responsible producer of apparel because it is such a niche core of clothing manufacturers?
There are no revelations of major company secrets, just reassertion of how every company has the potential for positive change and impact. The book is not a book on economics, or about how to curb our culture’s appetite for consumerism; it is only a map that must be explored in order to make real change. One must also question what is the intent of such a book being published and released by a clothing company? Patagonia has become notorious for their inventive public relation and advertising tactics, such as one of the most memorable pieces of advertising in recent years with the “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad on Black Friday in 2011.The campaign was a success for the company because it demonstrated commitment to their values, and a recent study shows that mission-led businesses outperform other companies by a 9:1 ratio. Paradoxically, in 2011 Patagonia’s sales increased 30 percent over the previous year.
The book also shies away from larger and more complex discussions of what are the implications of building a retail empire on clothing that is mostly unaffordable for the global population. Patagonia strives to be a different kind of “brand name,” but remains within a culture that seeks to validate class through consumption. However, as a citizen of a world proliferated by consumer culture, it is an important read as a way to differentiate between business models that are only using “green washing” and businesses that you can feel good about supporting because the business model seeks to help the planet in various methods.
I recommend this book, partially because of its extensive appendix provides resources to follow the book’s message of responsible behavior. The appendix serves as a checklist for businesses to implement practical and profitable solutions. Ideas for making responsible changes range from heating and cooling suggestions to community building and strengthening to lunchroom and café tips. The expansive list is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to show how if one method of becoming more responsible is not feasible, than another one may be. Many books around personal responsibility or the role of business ethics in our world are often centered on a big idea model of thinking that temporarily excites readers. Instead, “The Responsible Company” provides what can be done in the here and now within our society’s status quo.
In order for our species to make the behavioral changes needed to make our planet more sustainable, we need to hear successful narratives to envision how sustainable change is really possible, attainable, and perhaps even profitable for all of humanity. On one hand, one reading of this book could see Chouinard and Stanley as altruistic peacemakers in business who are offering their insights to highlight how companies, big and small, must evolve and realize that to sustain business there also must be a component of companies taking responsibility for actions and consequences. To others, the book may be just as fuzzy as the recycled material from which Patagonia makes their popular jackets with a starting price from over $100. One could argue that the “feel good” nature of this book is also its largest shortcoming. However, for those of us who are feeling the collective anxiety of the planet in jeopardy, it is a breath of fresh air in lungs that are being darkened every day by the irresponsibility of other companies’ model of “business as usual.”
Jai Bashir is a senior in Environmental and Sustainability Studies and Gender Studies. She is a sustainability ambassador for the Office of Sustainability.