Prodigal Son of Sustainability


Patagonia is a company that has always sparked my interest. Prior to arriving here at Bucknell I had rarely heard the name Patagonia and kind of thought it was just another “Bucknell Brand” similar to vineyard vines that everyone wears here. As it was talked about more in many of my classes I came to realize that it was so much more than this. There are many aspects of this company that are great and the one that people hear about the most is their “lack of impact on the environment”. After a simple google search it is easy to see why so many people feel this way, because it is true. Their supply chain is arguably the cleanest and most sustainable in the entire world. The company takes corporate social responsibility to an unseen level, it starts with their mission statement which is: build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. They pride themselves on having transparency in all aspects of their business. I was able to find a valuable case study online that analyzes the sustainable value of Patagonia and talks more in depth about why they are very highly regarded when it comes to sustainability efforts.

Sustainability ethics is something that has been on Patagonia’s mind very obviously for quite some time. David Orr discusses many aspects of sustainability ethics that Patagonia is following through on. For example if you look at “The Crisis of the Social Trap” which states that people only do  something because they don’t know what it is going to cost them in the future. Patagonia understands this and they put warning labels on products that have used or contain products that are harmful for the environment. They even had a sign up that said “Do not buy our jacket” because of the harmful element that was on the lining. They have several articles posted on their website about this harmful substance and how they are working as hard as they can to remove it. This “Crisis” that David Orr mentions is one of the first things that came to mind after hearing about this “advertisement” by Patagonia. There are countless other literary works that address the idea of sustainability ethics but one that happened to catch my eye was about a “corporate sustainability stewardship” by HaeJung Kim in the International Journal of Consumer Studies. The stewardship consists of a corporations’ responsible management practices that pursue a “triple bottom line of economics, social and environmental performance in business, supporting human well-being as well as that of ecological systems.” Patagonia is the poster child for a name like this between their success in growing their income as well as their success in finding and maintaining their suppliers who both treat their workers with respect and use sustainable resources.

Patagonia has not come without their flaws though, they have had several scandals that have made it seem that their business model is too good to be true. A few years back it was discovered that there were workers that had to pay in order to work. This was immediately addressed by Patagonia who paired up with an NGO to fix the problem that was taking place. They accomplished their goal and the problem was fixed. However recently there has been another problem with one of their wool farms. PETA released a disturbing video of mistreatment of a lamb for its wool. This is a much more difficult problem to address because wool is a very large part of the Patagonia product. They addressed this by vowing to either fix the problem immediately or stop buying wool. After the story died down Patagonia resolved to be as transparent as possible with customers and provide them with an interactive map showing every aspect of their supply chain. Patagonia is a company that everyone wants to be. They have sustainable business practices, they are popular, and they are successful.

I have had some difficulty trying to find a policy that ties along with Patagonia and their sustainability efforts. I would very much like to continue on this same subject. I have not done nearly the research that I believe is possible on this subject and I am sure there are animal protection laws that are going to be in place in the near future. There are other things aspects of their business that could fall under a certain policy. All ideas are welcome! Overall Patagonia is a great company that even with little research appears to be doing everything right.

Sources:

Patagonia’s website is extremely helpful

Incorporating sustainable business practices into company strategy

sustainability stewardship

David Orr “Problem of Sustainability” reading

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7 thoughts on “Prodigal Son of Sustainability

  1. Very cool choice of topic, Ben. Patagonia is an interesting company and I like how you address both the good and the bad associated with the company. This could be helping in itemizing the positives and negatives of their business model to determine the net impact of the organization. Certainly, however, I think its hard to debate that–at least in comparison to other clothing companies–Patagonia is a sustainability pioneer.

    For a greater policy issue, I think you can consider linking this topic to the broader issue of animal rights and specific legislation that may address sustainability initiatives in the sourcing or manufacturing of various clothing products. Are there any sorts of tariffs, taxes, limits, restrictions, etc. on goods that contain various types of harmful materials or were made from animal abuses? The UK just applied a tax to goods with a high amount of high fructose corn syrup, maybe something similar has been enacted somewhere that addressed these concerns. If not, what is being done in order to advance this movement? I know its something that a lot of people are very passionate about. Organizations such as PETA certainly provide a good starting point for research into this policy arena. Good luck!

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  2. A good choice in companies, Ben. In a way, the playing field is wide open for you to tackle any number of subjects: animal abuse, sustainability initiatives, quality of work, etc. I read Ivon Chounard’s autobiography (he’s the CEO and founder of Patagonia) and I saw how easy it was for me to “demonize” an organization like Patagonia when scandals like this would come out, when in reality, this guy and his company were actually trying to do the best they knew to. However, I think a problem occurs when you DO hold up such a high sustainable standard that there are no holds-barred when it comes to digging up any and every imperfect detail with a supply chain – did Patagonia intend to use an abusive contractor? No. Are they now responsible for the actions and morals of their partners? Yes. And this is the can of worms that companies like Patagonia has opened. Longer can we turn a blind eye to how our supply chains treat or mistreat their resources. So in a sense, you could analyze how their endeavor to “do right” and be clairvoyant made them a target for precise scrutiny when and where it can be found. Their virtue ethics are in the right place, but it has conflicted with their deontological ethics to be stewards of the Earth as part of their “duty.”

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  3. I think you have a clear ethical argument here. Setting up the problem of social traps using Orr, you can say that Patagonia, as a firm, enables its customers and other stakeholders to avoid social traps.

    To act in a way that enables us to overcome the social dynamics of social traps would be a cool ethical argument to make.

    As for policy, there are many directions you could go. One is how to encourage less obsolescence in products. I think about this often. It is an extension of the social trap, I think. We all need good products. And competition in markets should deliver value at multiple price points. But, when this cycle makes cheap, throw-away crap, we suffer in terms of waste or pollution.

    Can policies at government or firm level change the incentives? Like, one clear one might be a heavy tax on trash. Or, other ways to force firms to internalize the externalized costs of waste.

    Whether you focus on voluntary policies that an industry could pursue or governmental policies is your choice. How does this sound?

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  4. Also, Patagonia has been written on by about 4,356,789 of my former students. Look at past blogs to get papers. Use their source lists so you have the BEST Patagonia paper ever.

    🙂

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