BACK IN THE freewheeling days of the 1970s, when “extreme sports” were the realm of a few crazy lads, a bunch of climbers were scaling the big walls of California’s Yosemite National Park wearing decidedly untechnical gear: beat-up, thrift-store clothes, mostly cotton.
Back in the freewheeling days of the 70s, when “extreme sports” were the realm of a few crazy lads, a bunch of climbers were scaling the big walls of California’s Yosemite National Park wearing decidedly untechnical gear: beat-up, thrift-store clothes, mostly cotton.
But that was all to change when local climber and surfer Yvon Chouinard introduced an unlikely replacement: rugby jerseys. Widely known and respected for inventing game-changing climbing hardwear – such as hard-iron pitons, and later hexentrics – Yvon shifted focus to importing the jerseys, made of robust fabric. And with that, Patagonia was born.
From the beginning, Patagonia focused on quality outdoor clothing and the company’s key consumers: climbers and surfers. Founder Yvon was the dreamer, the climber, the ideas man. He refused to be chained to the office or become one of “those” corporate types, preferring to do what he did best – exploring the outdoors, and creating and testing gear. He left the business side to a core group of friends and family.
That model obviously worked because 2013 is the company’s 40th anniversary, and the brand is as strong as ever. Patagonia is renowned for its quality clothing; in 1980 it pioneered polypropylene underwear and promoted the concept of layering – a base layer for wicking sweat, another for insulation, then a shell for protection. This replaced the heavy, woollen clothes that alpinists had largely been wearing. Thinner synthetic layers were more effective and adaptive in the volatile weather of the mountains.
The company also distinguished itself by its strong commitment to social and environmental responsibility. In 2012, Yvon, who still solely owns Patagonia with his wife, told the Wall Street Journal, “I never even wanted to be in business. But I hang onto Patagonia because it’s my resource to do something good. It’s a way to demonstrate that corporations can lead examined lives.”
Walking the talk, Yvon was willing to put business on the line for his environmental beliefs. Hard-iron pitons were the core product of his early hardwear business, but after he realised they were destroying his beloved cliff faces, he stopped making them and created aluminium chocks called hexentrics, which could be removed to leave no trace on the rock.
The turnaround was about more than the environment, says Vincent Stanley, acting vice-president of marketing and Yvon’s nephew, who has been with Patagonia from the beginning. It was also the start of a dialogue with Patagonia’s customers. By treating people with respect and intelligence, says Vincent, the company was able to convey a complex reasoning for the apparent backflip on its core product. “We found if we talked to customers as friends, we could talk about issues that were controversial,” he says.
Patagonia prides itself on its environmental record, which is a natural extension of the love of the outdoors. “The fact that we started as a climbing equipment company staffed by climbers and surfers has influenced everything we’ve done,” says Vincent. “It influenced the kind of quality we make, and gave the company an environmental interest very early on. Many people who worked here had some sort of ties to the environment, the mountains.”
In the ‘80s, long before environmentalism was cool, Patagonia donated 1 per cent of sales (not just profits) to grassroots green groups. Vincent estimates that over the years more than 1000 small organisations have benefitted from almost US$55 million. “But it’s not enough,” he adds. “We may be winning skirmishes, but not winning war.”
Patagonia was doing more than donating money. “Initially the environmental awareness was about giving grants to grassroots organisations. But as time went on we started to look at the environmental implications of what we’re doing,” says Vincent. “That commitment has deepened.”
The brand continues to review its practices, from design to product. “Build the best product (and) cause no unnecessary harm,” reads the mission statement on the website. Converting to organic cotton and hemp fabrics, replacing polypropylene with Capilene and using recycled soft-drink bottles to make polar fleece have been some of the developments.
Patagonia urged customers to take action as well by offering a service to recycle old polar fleeces – of any brand. Even Patagonia stores are built with environmental impact in mind.
Behind the scenes
Patagonia is also a signatory of the international bluesign standard, which evaluates environmental impacts through the supply chain. In 2010, Patagonia formed the Sustainable Apparel Coalition with an unlikely ally: Walmart, the US retail giant. They brought into the fold other big companies, such as Levi Strauss, Nike, Gap and Adidas. There are more than 100 members; most of the big clothing and shoe brands are represented. Taking Patagonia’s lead, these companies are pledging to reduce the social and environmental impact of their products.
Despite having grown into a global brand (with gear sold in 14 countries), Patagonia still feels like a grassroots organisation. It has dozens of ambassadors from its core sports, such as climbing, surfing, and skiing. “The climbing, surfing world rapidly changes, and we want to make sure we’re close to the ground,” says Vincent.
It’s a brand that always comes back to its roots.
1973 Established the main clothing company.
1983 Earth Tax (donating 1 per cent of sales to green groups).
2005 Common Threads program for recycling Patagonia clothing introduced.
2008 Set up shop in Torquay, Victoria.
2010 Created Sustainable Apparel Coalition to reduce enviro/social impact of clothing products.
Parent company: Owned by the founding family.
Based in: California, US.
Claim to fame: First to develop clothes layering: base layer for wicking; mid layer for insulation; outer layer for protection. Also first to have polypropylene underwear.
Known for: Quality clothes and customer loyalty.
The extra mile: Environmentally responsible from farm to fleece.
Hot products: Synthetic underwear; recycled soda-bottle fleece.
Mission statement: Build the best product, causing no unnecessary harm.