In late May I had the pleasure of moderating the fully digitized Global Communication Summit 2020 in Berlin. It was a first for the event in this form, the “global” moniker the logical evolution of the European Communication Summit which saw continued success for over a decade in Brussels and Berlin, and – thanks to Covid-19 – the first time we all met virtually. As Europe’s leading event for professionals in communication, PR, public and corporate affairs, it promised the usual cutting-edge content, with an opening keynote by Corley Kenna of Patagonia that spoke volumes about how purpose-driven companies can harness the potential of public value, and why doing business differently – for people and planet – makes good business sense.
Corley Kenna is Director for Global Communications & Public Relations at Patagonia, a leading outdoor apparel company that’s had environmental activism as part of its DNA since its inception in 1973. Founded by Californian rock-climber Yvon Chouinard, it was his vision that made the firm a trailblazer in terms of environmental awareness & protection. Today Patagonia remains a privately held firm that can call its own shots – and it doesn’t shy away from getting political if there’s a chance it can make a difference.
Some examples: since 1985, Patagonia has pledged 1% of its sales to saving & restoring America’s natural environment, and since then they’ve given away millions of dollars to grassroots environmental groups. In 1993 it produced the first polyester fleece jackets made from recycled plastic bottles. The following year it commissioned an environmental impact assessment of some of its textiles and got wise to how much damage conventionally grown cotton did to the environment. That started the switch to organic cotton, which involved getting all farmers in their supply chains certified and on board. Sales took an initial hit, but after the transition was complete, they only went up.
One of their most memorable campaigns was “Don’t Buy This Jacket” back in 2011 – when they entreated customers to rethink their consumption patterns. Instead Patagonia urged them to repair their garments at one of their many repair centres around the globe, and created a trade-in scheme to recycle its used clothing.
Kenna joined the company in the fall of 2016, just prior to the presidential election, and she described the sense of foreboding in Patagonia’s ranks at the time. They could already predict that environmental issues would have to move even higher up the agenda, so as a proactive statement ahead of the holiday season, they ramped up their usual 1% for the planet and gave 100% of Black Friday sales —about $10 million— to environmental causes. The move gained them thousands of new customers, and that’s when Kenna realised she was working for a very different kind of company.
2017 was dominated by efforts to protect Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. Having lobbied hard to have it protected, Patagonia withdrew from a major outdoor trade fair there when state legislators made it clear they wanted to rescind the area’s protected status. Other outdoor brands like Arc’terix and Polartec were quick to follow suit in support. The éclat didn’t stop there, though, and when President Trump moved to drastically reduce the size of Bears Ears, Patagonia reached for the last available tool in its toolbox: a lawsuit against the President. Meanwhile the trade fair moved permanently to Colorado, and the court case is still ongoing.
Finally, in late 2018, when Trump’s overhaul of the U.S. tax code for corporations generated a $10 million windfall, Patagonia donated that too. And promptly changed its mission statement to “We’re in business to save our home planet.”
A radical approach to public value pays off
This radical approach has more than paid off – making Patagonia into a billion-dollar global brand, and a best case company that “does good to do well.” Kenna said decisions like the Black Friday donation or suing the President were simply based on showing their long–held values. All teams from leadership through legal and comms to the environmental activism team were aligned to go forward – and use the company’s considerable economic clout to influence decision-making and planet-positive behaviour. Customers that came on board as a result have largely stayed with them.
While it’s easy to be sceptical of an apparel company that wants to save the world and yet just keeps on growing, Kenna explained that Patagonia is effectively making the business case for reinventing capitalism. And as the first company in California to sign up for B Corp certification back in 2012, its longstanding commitment to workers, the community and the environment has credence.
“Our planet is suffering and we need to change how we do business – and we need to change right away,” she said. “The covid crisis has been called a “dress rehearsal” for the climate crisis, and that’s exactly right, especially in the US where this health crisis has exposed how fragile our institutions are, and just how small our safety net really is. So we all need to recommit to doing business differently and be that force for good and positive change. It’s possible, it’s necessary, and it’s worth it.”
Staying consistent with values and quality over decades have been determining factors for the company’s success, but Kenna says it’s “the demonstration of care for people and our planet that makes Patagonia so special.” And especially after covid hit, customers have noticed the brands and businesses putting people and planet first.
“I hope what will come out of this is that people will support the businesses that are looking out for more than just profit, because it’s really readily apparent which ones are. I think if we want a world worth living in we should support the leaders, businesses and companies that are looking out for more than themselves.”
The statement rings poignant against the backdrop of American leadership today. But maintaining hard-won trust means not letting up on environmental commitments going forward, so Patagonia intends to keep upping the ante, starting with the lofty ambition to be CO₂ neutral across its supply chains by 2025.
A holistic view of supply chains and society’s needs
Alongside efforts to use only renewable electricity by 2021, Patagonia is moving forward with its food business (Patagonia Provisions), a branch designed to rethink the food chain that started up in 2011. Initiatives include the launch of a new certification for regenerative, organic agriculture, which takes a holistic view of agricultural production to encompass fair working conditions, soil health and animal welfare.
Kenna summed up by saying discipline would continue to guide how and where Patagonia takes its stand: “We speak out on our issues, but not on every issue. We aren’t afraid or apologetic about our positions, and we’re transparent when we don’t know the answers.”
Kenna doesn’t believe every company needs to get as political as Patagonia, but in these times when expectations on business to act responsibly are so high she says, “businesses in many cases are being forced to listen better – to listen to their communities, to their employees, and their customers.”
Which is why – crisis or no crisis – the company is gathering itself for what’s to come in yet another highly charged election year. “You’ll probably be hearing from us about how there’s no room in government for climate deniers,” Kenna said. We’ll stay tuned. Meanwhile sustainability pioneer and company founder Chouinard once said it best in Inc. magazine: “I know it sounds crazy, but every time I’ve made a decision that is best for the planet, I have made money. Our customers know that – and they want to be part of that environmental commitment.”
It’s a message other mission-driven companies could espouse, echo and amplify. The planet, for one, will appreciate it.