No Business On a Dead Planet

July 22, 2008 at 9:36 am 2 comments

Unless you are already an environmentally conscious consumer (like me) you may not know the name Yvon Chouinard. However, it is very likely that you know Chouinard’s business. From it’s humble beginnings selling rugby shirts and boiled-wool mittens, Patagonia has evolved into one of the most recognizable trademarks on the planet, all the while continually blazing a trail of environmentalism for other businesses to follow.

Etched into the front door of Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, California are the words “There is no business to be done on a dead planet”, a quotation from the legendary Sierra Club executive director David Brower. It is more than a simple quote to Chouinard, but a motto by which he does business. In his book “Let My People Go Surfing” Chouinard writes, “I would never be happy playing by the normal rules of business.” It is for this reason that Chouinard is constantly criticized by fellow business owners for throwing away profits to shore up his ideals.

In the 50s, Chouinard’s infatuation with rock-climbing led him to begin hammering out pitons in his parents’ garage in a homemade forge. In the early years, he nearly starved himself to death trying to sell the climbing hardware out of the back of his car for $1.50 each. However, his climbing skills eventually established him as one of the great climbers of his era and led to the development of more and better climbing tools which were sought after by the climbing community.

Chouinard may have continued along the path of maintaining his meager business had it not been for the love of a woman. In the late 60s, Chouinard met an art student named Malinda Pennoyer who shared his passion for rock-climbing. In 1970, she became his wife. It was Malinda who was the driving force behind the expansion of the business with a small line of clothing and eventually the formation of a new company called Patagonia aimed at manufacturing a variety of outdoor clothing styles.

In 1977 the company designed a jacket made of polyester pile that repelled moisture while retaining heat. Though it lacked style and comfort, the jacket allowed the wearer to brave harsh environments where avoiding hypothermia was preferable to looking good. Working with fabric manufacturer Malden Mills, Patagonia worked to refine the jacket using a finer. It resulted in the development of a softer version of the polyester material called Synchilla. It became Patagonia’s defining product and sales exploded.

When Chouinard and his clothing experts later discovered they could make Synchilla using recycled plastic, the type used in the manufacture of soda bottles, he saw a way to reconcile the conundrum of expanding his business versus manufacturing’s destructive effects on the environment. Patagonia started performing an assessment of all materials used in the manufacture of their products. The assessment process allowed the company to determine if the materials used in the manufacture of a given product caused an impact on the environment, if recycled materials be used in a product, and if the the product itself be recycled.

“We didn’t have any of the answers,” Chouinard recalls. “There was no book you could pick up and say, Here’s what we need to do. We didn’t know that making clothes out of a synthetic was better than making them out of a natural material. And so what about rayon? It’s made out of cellulose, which is made out of trees–that seems like a good product. But then you find out they use really toxic chemicals to convert it.”

The most shocking information to come from the introspective look at their business was Patagonia’s use of conventionally grown cotton. To ensure a successful cotton crop many conventional farms employ the use of pesticides, insecticides and defoliants – an environmentalist’s worst nightmare. Upon the receipt of this news Chouinard gave his managers 18 months to make the change to organically grown cotton.

At that time in his business’ history, organic cotton was rare and cost substantially more. Given that a fifth of Patagonia’s business came from cotton products, it was no small change and involved substantial risk.

Despite internal strife and the departure of several suppliers, his gamble paid off. Patagonia’s sales rose 25 percent and, more importantly, established an organic-cotton industry which allowed other companies to more easily make the change. Demand grew and prices decreased, which lead to even more demand.

Patagonia continued to look into their business practices, this time considering not only the manufacturing process but the company as a whole. They discovered that airfreight requires eight times energy than shipping by ground or sea. Although Patagonia continued to offer overnight shipping on their products, they began to advise customers to “ask yourself if you really need that pair of pants sent overnight.”

The inconvenient truth is this: all companies leave a footprint no matter how much they refine their processes to protect the environment. This is what keeps Yvon Chouinard up at night. At the end of his book he paints a dark picture, but gives reason to hope.

“Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible. It will never make a totally sustainable, nondamaging product. But it is committed to trying.”

By briansrapier

[via CNNMoney]


Entry filed under: Case Studies, Environment, Informational, Manufacturing, Research. Tags: , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Os Melhores da Semana (Parte 32) | Os Amorais  |  July 11, 2010 at 9:08 pm

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