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Brand Deep DivesOctober 1, 2021

How Patagonia Created the Blueprint for Sustainable Brands

October 1, 2021
Cory Profile Picture
Cory Schröder
Senior Content Marketing Manager

It’s rare to see a brand as outspoken and dedicated to living its brand values as Patagonia.

From fighting the US Government for land preservation to boycotting giants like Facebook for violating U.S. civil rights, Patagonia means business when it comes to standing up for what it believes in.

And while some brands engage in activism for show or to superficially improve brand image, Patagonia considers itself an “activist company” — giving substantial time, money, and energy to figure out how to “sell products in a way that (doesn’t) kill the planet.”

As more and more consumers are looking to support brands that align with their personal values — sustainable, ethical brands like Patagonia are leading the way. And leaving behind a trail for other brands to follow.

So how did Patagonia go from a small company interested in environmental causes to a trailblazing giant of the industry, changing the face of modern consumerism? And what can other brands learn from their journey and success?

Let’s take a deep dive and find out.

Patagonia’s Journey to Success

Photo Source: The Guardian

In the late 1950s, Yvon Chouinard was a young, avid rock climber who taught himself how to blacksmith — making hand-forged climbing gear that quickly became a must-have for other climbers in the area.

Before he know it, he’s started a business selling his gear up and down the coast of California. In 1965, Chouinard teamed up with friend and fellow climber Tom Frost and founded Chouinard Equipment — spending the next nine years redesigning and improving their climbing gear.

By 1970, they were the “largest supplier of climbing hardware in the United States”, but dealt with some warranted backlash, as the pitons they sold were damaging the rocks they so loved. Because of this, they began to minimize the pitons sold — taking their first real step towards protecting the environment.

By 1972, they replaced pitons with chocks — small aluminum wedges that were inserted into cracks by hand instead of hammers. Within a few months, chocks were flying off the shelves and the partners expanded their offerings — rugby shirts, bivouac sacks, gloves, beanies, and more hit the market.

Chouinard and Frost spent the next few years developing new fabrics for outdoor wear — to keep warmth in or wick moisture away from the skin depending on the use.

In the early 1980s, Patagonia made an important decision for their products going forward — one that helped define their brand image. Instead of sticking to traditional tans and greens, they released a new line of vividly colorful coats, which were immediately identifiable as “Patagonia”.

Over the following two decades, Patagonia expanded its product line to include backpacks, camping gear, athletic equipment for sports other than climbing, and even camping food. With hundreds of stores spread over ten countries and five continents, Patagonia is a now globally recognized brand.

Throughout the years, as they developed new products and expanded their reach, Patagonia stayed true to its roots: to make the earth a better place for everyone.

Since 1985, the company has contributed 1% of its total sales to environmental groups through One Percent for the Planet — an organization that Chouinard helped found. In 2015, Patagonia launched an “auction-style platform that facilitated direct sales of used Patagonia clothing”, called the “Common Threads Partnership”.

Instead of constantly encouraging consumers to buy new products from them, the brand chose a much more sustainable approach — giving pre-used clothing the chance for further use, thereby eliminating unnecessary waste.

And Patagonia really does mean business when it comes to eliminating waste and frivolous purchases. In 2016, the brand donated 100% of its Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental organizations — a whopping $10 million.

Using the proceeds from the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts, Patagonia donated another $10 million to “groups committed to protecting air, land and water and finding solutions to the climate crisis.” A big payout that most brands would have gladly accepted — but not Patagonia. Not when it goes against their brand values.

In April 2017, Patagonia launched their “Worn Wear” website, which allows customers to return merchandise in good condition for new merchandise credits. The used merchandise is then cleaned and repaired by Patagonia before it’s sold at a discount.

As of April 2020, Worn Wear had sold more than 120,000 items — doing its part to “upend the fast-fashion industry that is filling up landfills, leaching chemicals into the ground, and contributing heavily to carbon emissions.”

In 2019, the brand also launched a program called “ReCrafted”, which creates and sells clothing that’s made from left-over scraps of used Patagonia gear. An ingenious way to upcycle and create one-of-a-kind items, this program has been incredibly successful — often selling these pieces for more than new versions cost.

Through donations, boycotts, sustainable practices, and sheer willpower, Patagonia has become one of the most successful and well-known “activist companies” around. Other brands would be wise to follow suit, as this savvy company proves that sticking to your guns and caring about more than just profits pays off.

What Can You Learn From Patagonia?

Photo Source: Marmind

Every brand can do its part to be more sustainable — especially ones that contribute to the fast-fashion industry.

A recent study by McKinsey revealed that 48% of both Gen Z and Millennial respondents expressed an intent to purchase more second-hand clothing after the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s a large chunk of the population with a growing interest in sustainable fashion.

Between 2013 and 2018, the share of consumers who prefer apparel from environmentally-friendly brands grew by 26%. And with interest in sustainability growing for all industries, consumers want to know that brands’ values align with their own.

While sustainability isn’t the only value that’s trending up for global consumers, it’s one of the most popular. So, let’s discuss a few tips that other brands can learn from Patagonia’s actions over the last few decades.

1. Admit to Mistakes & Make Real Change

While Patagonia may serve as a shining example for brands worldwide, it doesn’t mean they haven’t made their fair share of mistakes along the way. But it’s how the brand dealt with their mistakes that sets them apart.

Back in the early 70s when the company realized that their products were damaging the environment, they didn’t just turn a blind eye. They fazed the offending pitons off the market and came up with an alternative solution. While it would have been easier to stick with the easy-to-produce, cheap pitons, they made a decision to stay true to their brand values.

In the mid to late 2010s, the brand also dealt with backlash from animal activist groups. Accused of using live-plucked down feathers and force-fed geese in 2012 and animal cruelty towards sheep in 2015, Patagonia dealt with each crisis thoughtfully and appropriately.

While the brand denied the accusations of live-plucking, they still made changes to show consumers that the issue mattered to them. In 2014, Patagonia announced that it was using 100% traceable down.

Additionally, after PETA released footage of cruel treatment of sheep by Patagonia’s wool supplier, Ovis 21, they cut ties with the company. In 2016, the brand released the Patagonia Wool Standard, a new set of “principles guiding the animal treatment, land-use practices, and sustainability of the wool in its products.”

The Takeaway: Every successful brand will experience a brand crisis of some degree at one point or another. It’s how you deal with it that makes or breaks your business.

By admitting to its mistakes and making real, tangible changes, Patagonia earned back the trust and loyalty of its customers.

2. Money Is Great, But Action is Better

Of course, it’s wonderful when brands donate money to causes that they believe in. Donations from big brands are what help keep many important nonprofit organizations afloat.

But in this day and age, money isn’t enough. If you want to make a real difference — a statement to your target audience — you need to take action. And few brands have done more than Patagonia to stand up for their values.

In February 2017, Patagonia led a boycott of the Outdoor Retailer trade show — which usually took place in Salt Lake City, Utah. However, Utah’s state legislature has recently introduced legislation that would transfer federally-held lands to state control.

Shortly thereafter, several other companies joined Patagonia’s boycott, forcing the event organizer to reject Utah’s proposal to host the trade show.

In the same year, the Utah Governor requested that the Trump administration dissolve the recently designated Bear Ears National Monument — a roughly 200,000-acre area in southern Utah — which they did in December 2017. Having reduced the monument by 85%, this was the “largest elimination of protected land in American history.”

In response, Patagonia sued both Donald Trump and the United States Government, claiming that the Antiquities Act of 1906 does not give presidents the power to reverse prior president’s monumental designations.

This move not only made a statement about where Patagonia stood politically and environmentally, but how far it was willing to go to live out its values. Suing the United States Government isn’t cheap — but it’s the perfect example of Patagonia going the extra mile.

The Takeaway: By donating money and taking action, Patagonia sets the standard for brands that proclaim to care about the environment. However, that doesn’t mean smaller brands without the same funds need to fret.

Take steps that make sense for your current situation — donate what you can afford, take action where it matters, and keep your customers in the loop. You don’t have to make grand gestures, you just have to show consumers that you care.

3. Chose Brand Values You Can Follow Through On

While it’s tempting to share an idealized list of brand values with consumers, you should be circumspect and thoughtful when making this important decision.

You need to choose brand values that actually matter to you and your fellow colleagues. Consumers can tell if your heart isn’t in it — and inauthenticity is a major turn-off.

Patagonia has four driving brands values: build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to protect nature, and not be bound by convention.

Each of these values is lived out in the brand’s every move. They’re constantly innovating to produce more durable, lasting products, identifying unsustainable business practices and slowly fazing them out, and using their influence and success to protect the planet and its inhabitants.

Just this year, Patagonia pledged $1 million to activist groups working to challenge recent laws passed in the state of Georgia and support voter registration efforts. While this move falls a bit outside the realm of their usual activism, it shows that the brand is invested in not only protecting nature but society as a whole.

In their own words, they “embrace risk and act to protect and restore the stability, integrity and beauty of the web of life.” And what better way to live out their brand values than by actively protecting national parks, voter rights, and civil liberties?

The Takeaway: So, when choosing your own brand values, make sure they are ones that you and the rest of your company truly believe in and will work hard to support.

Be it innovation, equal rights, or sustainability — find values that work for you.

Final Thoughts

Sustainability and environmentally-friendly business practices won’t be “make or break” for every consumer — there are still audiences that aren’t incredibly invested in these values.

But times are changing and as interest in such values increases, newer brands should look to companies like Patagonia for ways to grow and find success while staying true to their values.

And if you want to learn more about the kinds of sustainable audiences that exist and how to communicate with them successfully, check out our article “The Audiences Sustainable Brands Should Be Targeting”.

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