Like most of the business world, our office was abuzz with the news that Yvon Chouinard and his family had essentially “given away” Patagonia, their 50-year-old, $3B company, to benefit the planet and fight climate change. He created a new business model to ensure his purpose-driven company remains so.
As Patagonia customers, spending money with a company that gives back makes us feel good. I imagine employees are proud to work for a successful company that is also doing good with its profits. This unprecedented move by Chouinard was, of course, well received by the media. And that’s because it’s more than just a piece of good news or a feel-good story. The move was 100% aligned with the brand we’ve all come to know and love. And that is the brand and corporate communications lesson to heed.
There is increasing recognition amongst corporate leaders that there is both business and brand value in having a “doing good while doing well” purpose, from customer loyalty to employee engagement and retention. As a result, there is a growing contingency of Certified B Corps in the U.S. and globally. There are more than 2,000 in the U.S. and Canada – and more than 5,000 around the world as of this year–including Uplight, which V2 is proud to have on our climate tech client roster. To certify as a B Corp, a company must pass a test to prove that they use the company for a force for good. They are measured against impact areas, including the environment, community, customers, governance, and workers. The core idea is to bring benefits not just to shareholders but to all stakeholders, including the people and places impacted by its work. There are also Public Benefit Corporations (PBC) that share a similar intent (operating in the best interest of all stakeholders). A PBC is a legal status, not a certification, but they are not mutually exclusive. V2 client Veeva Systems falls into this category and was the first publicly traded company to adopt this status. Patagonia is both a Certified B Corp and a PBC.
Many traditional companies are also looking to distinguish their businesses as good corporate citizens. The rise of ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) programs and reporting has been driven by increasing pressure from stakeholders – including investors – who want to know the companies they do business with are ethical and well-run.
The brand danger here is for companies to look at ESG or other corporate social responsibility programs as public relations tactics. One-offs or inconsistent behavior does not translate into the same type of brand value that is built over time. Patagonia’s brand is so well-regarded because Chouinard was consistent in his commitment to the environment and his employees. Consider:
- In the 1970s, Chouinard realized that one of its core climbing tool products was damaging rock surfaces – and despite most of the company’s revenue was derived from this product, he stopped selling them and worked to create alternatives
- As early as the 1980s, the company began sourcing sustainable materials and product production, well before it became a major consumer consideration or competitive differentiator
- Since 1985, the company has donated 1% of its total sales to environmental groups through the organization One Percent for the Planet
- The company has consistently supported the circular economy in its product strategy – in 2011, Patagonia launched an initiative urging customers to send back worn clothing to be repaired and refurbished for resale. The company even took out an ad on Black Friday encouraging people not to purchase anything they don’t need
- Perhaps that ad didn’t convince people not to buy because in 2016, the company pledged to contribute 100% of Black Friday sales to environmental organizations, which totaled $10M
- You may remember last year (2021), the company made headlines by closing its stores, warehouses, and offices in the U.S. and Canada from Christmas to New Year’s – an unheard-of benefit for retail company workers
This is not an exhaustive list of purpose-driven actions Patagonia has taken. Nor does it suggest Patagonia has never had missteps in its business. However, the purpose-driven brand was built over time, with consistent action backing up the company ethos. Consistency and commitment are the brand lesson of Patagonia.