The Exchange

Is It Time for More ‘Responsibility’ From Business?

The Exchange

By Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley, guest columnists

We understand that no one goes into business to start a responsible company. People take the risk to start a company because they care about something, or have a promising idea, or have money to invest. People go into business to do what they want to do — or to make a killing (or a living).

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When we started importing clothes 40 years ago, Patagonia was meant to be our "irresponsible company," a no-brainer adjunct to the Chouinard Equipment Company that at the time made the world's best climbing equipment but only a wafer-thin profit. We thought clothing would pay for the hardware business. It would be easy and clean: no coke ovens, expensive dies to amortize, aluminum filings on the courtyard pavement to attract the notice of the newly formed EPA. And no risk of hurting your friends should a crampon's points or an ice axe's pick fail due to metal fatigue. You had to be responsible to manufacture climbing equipment. Clothing would be fun and easy.

But it turned out that Flannery O'Connor's advice to writers — you can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has gotten away with much — applies to business as well. Business people have to be responsible for the same reason writers have to communicate clearly: We live in an interdependent world of other human beings. And that interdependent world depends on the natural systems that sustain it.

We Have a Problem

Because most of our early employees were climbers and surfers, we could see early on the damage done to nature in its wildest places that, until even 50 years ago, seemed beyond the reach of the human hand. We could see thousand-year-old trees in the Sierras dying from L.A. smog and the shrinking of glaciers at the headwaters, and note the smaller size and fewer numbers of the trout downriver.

It was not so hard for us to tax ourselves one per cent a year on our sales to donate to grassroots environmental groups working to save a patch of land or stretch of water. But for a long time we didn't begin to look at our own practices, or at the social and environmental harms done in our name by our supply-chain partners: That was someone else's problem. We did examine what we controlled directly, like catalog paper (we helped develop with our paper supplier a recycled stock that could be used to print high-quality photographs). But it wasn't until employees at our brand-new store in Boston started to get headaches during their shifts that we discovered how much deeper we needed to dig. We had the air tested; we learned that the ventilation system was faulty and off-gassing formaldehyde was poisoning our staff.

The source of formaldehyde in the store turned out to be the finish on our cotton clothes, added by the mill to prevent shrinkage and wrinkling.

This revelation spurred us into an investigation of the four major fibers used in our clothing. "Natural" cotton grown intensively with pesticides turned out to be dirtier than polyester. And we learned that it didn't have to be. It took us a couple of years but we were able to switch our production entirely to organic cotton — and in the process learn much about the supply chain we had previously delegated to others. Much of what we learned enabled us in other instances to reduce waste or lower unnecessary cost.

Responsibility Is in Style

In 15 years, we've learned we're not alone.

All businesses face pressures, not necessarily self-imposed, from university and institutional investors, young employees in search of meaningful work, and activists whistle-blowing on harmful labor and environmental practices. Standards organizations, foundations and even some of the largest corporations in the world now call for the adoption of Triple Bottom Line bookkeeping that requires businesses to at least account for harm done to the Commons.

The biggest businesses, with the deepest staff and longest views, understand just how serious are the resource constraints we'll face in the next few decades. Every big company has become aware of the constraints nature will impose in a world 40 years from now, with two billion more people and potentially billions more engaged in our high-consumption economy.

And businesses are realizing we can minimize some of the costs to do the right thing by working together. Patagonia is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a group of companies responsible for a third of the planet's apparel and footwear business, in an effort to rank products according to their social and environmental performance — and to build those rankings into member company's planning systems and eventually make them consumer facing. This is a simple, responsible, hard-won step. None of us got into business do work of this kind. But it inches us toward an economy that might deserve the name sustainable. That's a justifiable source for pride for all engaged. It's cause for hope.

Yvon Chouinard is a noted alpinist, founder and co-owner of Patagonia, Inc.,  a leading designer of core outdoor, surf and sport-related apparel, equipment, footwear and accessories, with sales last year of over $500m, and co-founder of 1% for the Planet, an alliance of businesses that contribute at least 1 percent of their annual revenues to environmental organizations.

Vincent Stanley is VP/Marketing for Patagonia and has worked with the company on and off since 1973; he has been instrumental in developing the company's Footprint Chronicles and was for many vice-president of its wholesale business. Common Threads programs.

They are the authors of "The Responsible Company" which is available now.

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