The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 Years by Yvon Chouinard & Vincent Stanley
When Joe and I began writing this blog late in 2008, we were soon introduced to Patagonia as a leader in sustainable business practices—or, as founder Yvon Chouinard prefers to call them—responsible business practices. We found Patagonia.com’s Footprint Chronicles to be an especially intriguing—and daring—step toward a company’s taking responsibility for its impact on the environment. So, when I was offered an opportunity to review The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned from Patagonia by Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley, I eagerly agreed.
If you’re familiar with Patagonia, you’ll understand how Chouinard and Stanley are qualified to write such a book. Patagonia is known for its commitment to the environment, for its celebration of the natural world, and for providing its employees with a rewarding and well-balanced work life (see Chouinard’s 2002 book, Let My People Go Surfing).
Yvon Chouinard not only founded and owns (along with his wife, Malinda) Patagonia, Inc., he also co-founded 1% for the Planet, of which Blue Planet Green Living is a member. Vincent Stanley, Chouinard’s nephew, who has worked for Patagonia “off and on since its inception in 1973,” has served in leading roles at the company, including helping to launch the Footprint Chronicles and working on the Common Threads Initiative.
The two men have credibility, both as successful businessmen and as environmentalists and social activists. In short, they have something to say that is worth reading.
In my day job, I serve as president of a small company with a nationwide footprint. Like many others at all levels of business, I continually strive to make our company better at what we do and more responsible to our employees, our clients, and our global community. I read a lot of business books. I listen to CDs on my 20- minute commute, morning and evening. And, now that I have a Nook (thanks, kids!), I read e-books, too, which is how I read The Responsible Company. (You can purchase it as a paperback, though, if that’s your preference.)
Since I’m trying to maintain this environmental/social action blog (a labor of love) while running a company, I don’t have much spare time. When I read a book, I want it to be richly rewarding, either in the joy of the prose or the knowledge and insights I gain (hopefully both). Was it worth my time—and, by extension, will it be worth yours—to read 117 pages that mostly recount the history of Patagonia’s struggles to do better by their stakeholders? Absolutely.
There’s no self-congratulatory back-slapping in this book. The authors tell the story of their painful realization of the harm their businesses (Patagonia is “an offshoot of the Chouinard Equipment Company, which made excellent mountain-climbing gear”) were doing to the environment and the financial risks they took when they committed to improvement.
The steel pitons produced at the Chouinard Equipment Company were contributing to the degradation of the mountains Yvon loved to climb. In a risky move, the company dropped their leading product and switched to a more environmentally friendly option.
Later, at Patagonia, Yvon and his colleagues learned that the cotton used to make the company’s popular polo shirts not only required huge amounts of water, it also required inordinate amounts of pesticides. (“Who knew then that cotton could be as dirty as coal?” the authors write.) They switched to organic cotton, but it wasn’t easy—or cheap—to do so.
Through the years, Chouinard and his team have diligently worked to lessen the harm (you can’t eliminate it entirely, the authors caution) of the products they make and sell. To many consumers, Patagonia is a role model. Yet, the authors are frank in discussing their failings as well as their successes—and praising the efforts of other companies to improve their own impacts on the planet.
We can’t pose Patagonia as the model of a responsible company. We don’t do everything a responsible company can do, nor does anyone else we know. But we can illustrate how any group of people going about their business can come to realize their environmental and social responsibilities, then begin to act on them; how their realization is progressive: actions build on one another….
We now know, from talking to all kinds of businesspeople, that Patagonia, if exceptional at all, is so only at the margins. As mice and men share 99 percent of their genes, so do Wal-Mart, BP, and Patagonia. Patagonia may seem different because its owners are committed to social and environmental change; and our company is privately held, not publicly traded, so we can take on greater risks. But our management requires the same sets of skills, pursues the same opportunities, and faces the same competition and constraints as any other business….
Those who plan for the future of their businesses, in every industry, have to take into account the increasing scarcity of energy and water and their rising cost, as well as the rising cost of waste and its disposal. Every company—from Wal-Mart to the Cheese Board Collective, from BP to the makers of Fat Tire Ale, from Dow Chemical to Patagonia—is already at work, in some way, even inadvertently, to dismantle a creaky, polluting, wasteful, and increasingly expensive industrial system, and is struggling to create new, less life-draining ways to make things; we are all trying to get a new roof up over the economy before the old, sagging one caves in.
If you have an interest in making your own company more responsible, no matter at what level you work, this book will help you find ways to make a positive difference. It’s filled with success stories, wisdom, and practical steps toward making any company, large or small, more responsible to its employees, its customers, its suppliers, and to nature and the commons.
But what if you can’t make much of an impact in your own company? Or what if you don’t have a traditional “job” at all? You can still make an impact as a consumer: Your dollars have power. If you buy from companies who use responsible business practices, you demonstrate in the most significant way that you value the decisions they have made. On the other hand, every dollar any of us spends on throwaway goods reinforces the mindset of a disposable economy and a disposable world. One thing the authors make clear is that it’s not just companies who must become responsible; it’s each of us.
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