Patagonia: one man or a sustainability movement?

* 5 min read


Gillian adds the iconic brand Patagonia to the Sustainability Pioneers series and explores the secret to its success.



Globally recognised as one of the most iconic sustainable brands, what is the secret to Patagonia’s success? Is it Yvon Chouinard’s original vision and passion for our environment or is it bigger than that? True pioneers don’t just have a voice, they create a movement. They bring people with them to not only highlight the need for change but support others to do the same, and most importantly, evolve to remain relevant. Not only has Patagonia thrived over decades, refusing to stand still, it has realised several environmental initiatives, supported others, and as a consequence, received deserved recognition.

Established in 1973 making tools for climbers and then selling clothes specifically designed for adventures in the great outdoors, Patagonia was led by Yvon Chouinard, who not only was (and still is) an inspiring business leader but also a rock climber and environmentalist. Patagonia has enjoyed great highs but also faced some tough times over the decades, including the 1990 recession which forced the closure of showrooms and offices and redundancy of 20% of the company’s workforce.

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After surviving the downturn, a small team of senior executives went on a mission of self-discovery to the mountains of Patagonia where Yvon Chouinard asked his team, “Why are we in business, anyway?” They decided that not only were they dedicated to making the best quality products which were durable, simple, require little care and have minimal impact on the environment but they were also dedicated to supporting environmental causes with its profit. The trip was regarded as a watershed moment with Yvon saying “I knew after 35 years, why I was in business”.

Patagonia has refused to stand still. This is evident with recent ventures into food with Patagonia Provisions and a venture capital fund to support small start-up companies. Patagonia has also partnering with four other businesses and solar-power installer Sungevity, together they have created a $35 million fund to finance residential rooftop solar power. Sustainability at all levels is being tackled by Patagonia and there appear to be no limits in its success and its future aspirations.

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In 2019 Patagonia received one of the highest honours when it won the UN Champion of the Earth award in the category: outstanding entrepreneurial vision. It’s obvious that from day one Patagonia have incorporated sustainability into their DNA. With a clear mission statement, ‘We’re in business to save our home planet’ who can argue they are not achieving that when the brand is dedicated to creating sustainable products most importantly doing so with a conscience.

Patagonia has realised multiple initiatives for the environment including:

  • The Worn Wear Program – an e-comm shop where you can buy second-hand Patagonia products, extending the life of their product instead of always buying new
  • 1% for the Planet – in 2002 Yvon Chouinard co-founded the non-profit initiative, by joining companies pledge to donate 1% of their sales to good causes
  • Action Works – a website that allows you to connect to local / regional environmental protection groups globally

As expected, Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia are looking for new challenges with fresh summits. It aims to be carbon neutral by 2025, source 100% of their energy from renewable sources and move toward 100% renewable and recycled raw materials.

There is no doubt in my mind that Yvon Chouinard is the orchestrator of Patagonia’s success and evolution, but this remarkable man created something much bigger than a brand, he created momentum long before the recent awareness of environmental concerns and encouraged others to do the same – he created a movement. Even the world’s biggest retailer, Wal-Mart, asked Patagonia for advice to become more sustainable. I am also proud to have consulted with Wal-Mart on their sustainability goals, and in our own way we too are creating a movement.

I have consulted in packaging for over 20 years and never has there been the momentum for change that there is now. The inspiration I will take from Patagonia is that one voice is not enough. There does need to be a leading voice, but that voice needs support and real passion behind improvement and true sustainability. We can all Influence others through leading by example, I will continue to pioneer sustainability, and I will also have the courage to venture into new areas ‘traditionally’ that are outside my influence. I’m sure Yvon Chouinard encountered many obstacles and commercial challenges along the way but he continued to persevere and evolve the brand anyway.

Patagonia is not just an eco-conscious brand trying to manage its own environmental footprint, it’s a force for change in business and in the world.
GC1Gillian Garside-Wight
Key takeouts
  1. Words are easy: to be successful sustainability needs to be embedded in your DNA
  2. Create reason beyond profit: what makes you different, surely it’s not just the bottom line?
  3. Passion in leadership: great leaders inspire others to be just as passionate
  4. True sustainability impacts product, people and planet, do the best you can for all 3
  5. Support others: it’s just the right thing to do!


The Author: Gillian Garside-Wight - Sustainability Partner

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