How to be brave and still make a profit

Patagonia
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Six lessons from Patagonia.

While developing our 2021 report, The Bravery Mandate, an employee suggested featuring Patagonia as a brand that takes bold stands to live its values. 

A few people objected. “Everyone talks about Patagonia,” one said.

But we realized that was exactly why we should feature Patagonia. Our data revealed that people expect brands to help our troubled world more than ever. But while brand leaders know that corporate responsibility and purpose are essential, many also worry that acting on societal issues will damage their bottom line. 

Patagonia’s experience should allay some fears. Patagonia has been a thriving brand for 48 years with a long history of acting with clear-eyed, unequivocal purpose. Most recently, in October, Patagonia called on businesses to join them in pressuring Facebook to fix issues on its platform.

This outspokenness is still rare in corporate America, but it shouldn’t be. Patagonia is proof that a brand can thrive financially while taking bold stances for the common good. 

Have a great product. If customers want what you’re selling, you have a lot of leverage to speak out. Pulling ads from Facebook did impact Patagonia's business, as did its decision to include “Vote the Assholes Out” tags on its clothes in 2020. These stands have certainly angered some customers, but the $1 billion business is going strong because people love Patagonia’s stuff.

Know thyself. Corporate activism doesn’t start with a focus group. It starts with a company leadership’s deeply held values and beliefs and the culture they create. Ninety percent of respondents in our report agreed that brands should be clear on what they stand for. 

Patagonia was founded with a core value of protecting the natural world its customers and employees love. This is evident in its commitment to sustainability, even when the company makes choices that appear to work against its interests. Remember Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad in the New York Times? The brand wanted to discourage customers from tossing out good clothing, showing its genuine commitment to sustainability by offering repairs and reselling gently used items.  

Live your values. Employees are your most important stakeholders, and wellbeing is important to them. So before you try to save the world, ensure your own people are treated well. 

Patagonia not only offers good pay and benefits, it also transparently audits its supply chain with outside authorities. It is a certified B Corporation, evaluated by peers for its positive impact, and a founding member of the Fair Labor Association, an independent auditing organization that monitors suppliers’ pay and practices. Patagonia has also worked with MIT’s Sloan School of Business to assess its suppliers’ labor and wage policies.

Embrace controversy. Patagonia pulled its products from a resort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming after its co-owner hosted a right-wing fundraiser featuring Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, stating that it didn’t want to conduct business with anyone giving a platform to “anti-democratic conspiracy theorists.” 

Once again, the move cost Patagonia some customers — many wrote angry letters and returned products. But Patagonia has learned that taking controversial positions consistent with its values won’t ultimately hurt the business. “It’s worth losing a few customers — we always gain more when we take one of these positions,” Patagonia spokesperson Corley Kenna told the LA Times.

Make it real. The U.S. government is restoring Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, reversing the Trump Administration action that reduced their size significantly. Patagonia has been a fierce advocate for the monuments from the beginning. Immediately after the Trump action, its homepage made its position crystal clear: “The President Stole Your Land.” Patagonia also joined a coalition of Native American and grassroots groups and took the administration to court. 

Backing up bold statements with action is particularly important today, as customers have become jaded by superficial “purpose-washing.” Consumers have high expectations of brands, but many say they have yet to deliver. 

Be honest. When Business Insider asked Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert about the company’s greatest weaknesses, he didn’t hold back: “We have issues around microplastics and microfibers. Our business is wholly reliant on the oil and gas industry. We used petroleum-based products, and even though we have transitioned overwhelmingly to recycled content, we ship products around the world and so we’ve got a carbon footprint. We use a lot of water to make the products. And we make things that people may love, but they don’t necessarily need. Those are all things we’re really uncomfortable with.”

Your brand doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even have to be Patagonia. But if you conduct your business committed to quality, honesty and respect for your stakeholders, you can help make the world a better place — while making a profit, too.

Kristin Flor Perret is EVP and head of global marketing at WE Communications.

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