Since its founding in 1973, Patagonia has led the pack in not only designing and producing sustainable outdoor apparel, but also rallying support – and inspiring action – to address the environmental crisis. The company’s 1% for the Planet campaign, environmental activism, and constant product innovation have made it an exceptional pioneer in sustainable, ethical, and environmentally friendly business.
Patagonia’s Mission Statement, which guides its business, is:
Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire, and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
We spoke with Patagonia’s chief storyteller, Vincent Stanley, who has been involved with the company since its inception, about the evolution of its mission, what it means to build a company culture, and how he views the current rise of mission-driven companies.
Good Companies: Tell us about Patagonia’s mission statement. Has the company always had this mission in place? How has it changed over the years?
Vincent Stanley: It hasn’t always been the mission. There were certain values we shared from the beginning. We came out of a small company that made climbing equipment, and most of the early employees were climbers and surfers. There was always a strong love of the natural world, a desire to protect it, and a shared experience of being out in it and being vulnerable to forces larger than yourself.
I think [the mission statement] is far truer of the company now than it was in 1991 or 1992, when we wrote it. [Patagonia] has come to inhabit that mission statement and to share it. It’s ingrained in the everyday working lives of the people who are part of the Patagonia community.
GC: You’ve talked about the importance of ensuring employees are engaged participants in the company’s values and mission. How do you achieve that day to day?
VS: I don’t get in the way. [Laughs.] People want to live out values at work and when they leave work. If you give people permission to be their full selves at work, to address issues of environmental and social harm, it becomes part of the culture, and then it becomes part of an ongoing cycle: you want to outdo yourself. If you had 450 products made by certified Fair Trade labor the season before, you’ll want to increase that.
GC: Patagonia’s founders are pioneers of the sustainability-driven business model. Do you have advice for entrepreneurs that share those values?
VS: The biggest trap is to say, “We’re going to build a business to a certain size, and then, once we can afford it, we’re going to live by our values.” Your business doesn’t have to be a do-gooder business, but every business should have social and environmental standards to address the crisis we have going on today. If you determine your values at the beginning, everybody has a common language; you’re not surprising your investors, your employees, your customers, or your community with some new element to the business that wasn’t there from the start. This work builds on itself: the earlier you start to do the work you believe in, the greater chance you have of success.
GC: You’ve used the word crisis several times: what do you see as the current crisis?
VS: The environmental crisis is the steady desertification of the planet. It involves global warming, loss of biodiversity and fresh water, degeneration of the soil, desertification of the oceans. We’re going to reach a point where the planet will go on, but it will not support the kind of life that enables us to live.
We also think there are social crises related to it, like inequality in this country and the refugee crisis in Europe. It’s not outside the realm of human life to deal with these issues so why should this be outside the realm of business?
GC: Patagonia hasn’t been afraid to speak up, politically or socially, in a way that companies of your size have not historically done very often. Why do you feel that’s something Patagonia can do?
VS: The stances that we’ve taken have a lot to do with the business we’re in and the work we’ve been doing for 45 years. Sometimes people ask our opinions on things outside our expertise that don’t have much to do with the work we do, and our opinion may be no more valid or informed than anybody else’s so we try to avoid [speaking out]. But when you’re talking about environmental protections, that’s an area we feel we can speak on, and we have a duty to do so.
GC: What are some of the practical things consumers can do to help address the environmental crisis?
VS: Think about what you can do at work. People tend to focus on their lives at home, but something like 70% of environmental damage happens in a productive workplace. I think it helps for people not to think of themselves as consumers but as citizens with an obligation to reduce environmental harm in both our productive and our regular lives.
GC: Half of the businesses on Good Companies are working to address environmental issues. Are you optimistic that there are going to be more companies and people focused on the environment, or do you feel this is something that’s topping out?
VS: I think it’s just starting. The younger generation grew up with a knowledge of what the environmental crisis means. If you look at the businesses, what’s going on with alternative energy, what’s starting to take hold, the interest in organic food and regenerative agriculture—which is on fire right now—I think all that is just really starting up.
GC: As millennials become a bigger portion of the world, it seems that people care more and more about how people live their whole life, from work to home to everything they do.
VS: The nature of business has changed very much. For some of us brought up in an older time, it’s hard to see. I’ve been here since the beginning. Sometimes I step back in amazement look at what were able to do. We weren’t a very extraordinary group of people. It’s amazing, when you keep at something for a very long time, and you keep a culture alive, the kinds of things that can happen.