Photo by Justin Tuerk.

20 Jul 2010

Origins: Patagonia

by Karen Feridun

Pitons are rock climbing tools, spikes driven into cracks in rocks as anchors to protect climbers.  Until the late 1950s, pitons were left in the spots where they’d been placed. That’s when Yvon Chouinard developed a reusable piton and a small, but successful, business was born. Chouinard, a dedicated climber, hand-forged all of the pitons he made, often operating out of the back of his car between climbs. He didn’t make much money, but he was fine with that. In fact, he and his friends took pleasure in the knowledge that climbing had no economic value. Yvon Chouinard was a rebel.

Fifty years after he forged his first reusable piton, Chouinard was interviewed for a piece on his company in Fortune magazine. No longer manufacturing hardware for climbers, he had long since moved into manufacturing high-end sportswear for climbing, surfing, skiing, fly fishing, and hiking under the name he’d chosen for his company for its “far-off, interesting, not quite on the map” quality, Patagonia.  Don’t let his success fool you - Chouinard is still a rebel. He owns 100% of his company. (He’s quoted by friend, Tom Brokaw, as saying he doesn’t want a “Wall Street greaseball” running his company.)   Patagonia’s annual revenues are about $316 million  and Hoover’s lists Timberland, Columbia, and Adidas among its competitors.  Chouinard probably finds Patagonia’s presence on other lists more satisfying, though. Ethisphere named Patagonia one of 2010’s Most Ethical Companies.  Outside Magazine and the Outdoor Industry Association listed it as one of this year’s Best Places to Work.  The company has been a regular on Working Mother’s 100 Best Companies for years. Even Fortune’s piece on Chouinard was called Blueprint for Green Business. Patagonia is a company with a strong sense of social responsibility.  The roots of Patagonia’s conscience can be traced back to the days of the hand-forged pitons.

By the mid-1960’s, Chouinard’s pitons had become so popular that he couldn’t keep up with the demand for them, so he started producing machine-made versions. He and fellow climber, Tom Frost, used the opportunity to redesign all the traditional climbing tools and called their venture Chouinard Equipment. As Patagonia’s own history states, within a few years, Chouinard Equipment had become a “villain” because the popular pitons were damaging rocks. The company took the bold step of phasing out of the piton business and migrating to the aluminum chock business. Chocks could be inserted by hand – no hammers required, no damage done. Chouinard’s 1972 catalogue explained the environmental hazards posed by pitons and provided instructions for using chocks. Within months, the risk paid off as the eco-friendly chocks became the hot item, rendering pitons obsolete.

Visit Patagonia’s website today and you’ll find the company’s mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”  You’ll find environmental essays and descriptions of the company’s own environmental campaigns, as well as those they support – you could easily forget you’re looking at a sporting apparel website. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find much more. Unlike so many companies that are secretive about their suppliers (see Origins: iPod), Patagonia provides a downloadable factory list for review by “NGOs, customers, and other stakeholders”.  The company is completely cognizant of the industry in which it operates, the industry in which the term “sweatshop” was coined, so it prioritizes transparency.

Created in that same spirit is an extraordinary feature on their website called the Footprint Chronicles,  an interactive tour of a product’s story, from design to distribution, plotted on a map with links to photos and videos of production processes and interviews with executives, employees, partners, and suppliers. In addition, information on energy consumption, distance traveled, carbon dioxide emissions, waste generated, and water consumption is available via clickable icons. The Kamala Skirt, for instance, contains cotton fibers from Izmir, Turkey and a cellulose fiber called Tencel© that comes from sustainable trees grown in Heiligenkreuz, Austria. The fibers are spun, knitted into fabric, and sewn in Bangkok, Thailand. The finished skirts are then shipped to Patagonia’s distribution operation in Reno, Nevada. Along the way, enough energy is consumed to burn an 18W compact fluorescent bulb around the clock for 67 days and the amount of water consumed is the equivalent to the amount of water an average adult drinks in 199 days. Patagonia then sums up each product. In the case of the Kamala skirt, the plus is that the fibers are environmentally-friendly; the minuses are that work is still being done to make the fabric more recyclable and that much more water is used in the production of the Tencel©/cotton blend than is used in the production of other synthetics. Of course, for many, another big minus would be that the skirt is not manufactured in the United States.

The section of the Footprint Chronicles called “Digging Deeper” discusses issues surrounding global supply chain, sustainability, and quality. Patagonia is not apologetic about its offshore manufacturing contracts. At one time, the company manufactured more than half of its products here, but migrated overseas as domestic production costs rose beyond the point of being “commercially viable”. Today, Patagonia frames offshore manufacturing as the business model for the 21st century, regarding itself as a design company or brand manager rather than as a manufacturer, and directs its efforts at protecting the rights of the workers in the overseas factories they contract with, as well as protecting their environment.

So much transparency must open the door to lots of criticism, right? Wrong. It’s hard to find any criticism of Patagonia. Maybe it’s because the company responds directly to the few critics they have. When Customer Service received a letter from a Footprint Chronicles reader suggesting that manufacturing in the United States would create jobs here and significantly reduce the company’s carbon footprint, the letter was forwarded to Chronicles editor, Vincent Stanley, whose lengthy response included an admission that it wasn’t written to win over the reader. The letter and response were then posted on the company’s Facebook page.  Patagonia is often held up as a role model for its commitment to social responsibility, environmentalism, and sustainability, but it may well be that some of the most valuable lessons can be learned from Patagonia’s belief in transparency and the healthy recognition underlying it that the company is, like all of us, a work in progress.

Next time, McDonald’s Hamburger (by request!)