When it comes to brand activism, few do it more authentically than Patagonia.
An openly political brand since its formation in the early 1970s, the California-based outdoor gear retailer offers perhaps the best example of how corporations can effectively use activism to further their business objectives and bring about meaningful change.
One of Patagonia’s greatest strengths – and one of the primary reasons it featured in the Laureus Sport For Good Index for the second year running – lies in its ability to connect its action on the ground, including support for grassroots organisations, with its high-level activism. This is particularly evident in Patagonia Action Works, which links individuals with environmental groups in their local area, enabling them to take specific actions, from signing a petition and donating money to volunteering time or attending an organised event.
Though a long-established strand of the brand’s DNA, Patagonia’s activism has only grown louder and more direct over time. In 2018, for example, the company memorably sued the Trump Administration over its plans to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah, while it also endorsed two Democratic candidates in state elections that same year. In 2021, it donated US$1 million to combat restrictive voting laws in Georgia. But it was what Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard did earlier in 2022 that most profoundly underscored the brand’s commitment to its original purpose.
In September, Chouinard and his family bequeathed ownership of Patagonia to a charitable trust, ensuring that any future profits not reinvested in running the business will go towards tackling the climate emergency. As such, it is anticipated that Patagonia will give away about US$100 million annually to protect nature, promote biodiversity and fight the environmental crisis, therefore making good on its mission to be ‘in business to save our home planet’.
Following that seismic move, SportsPro caught up with Gina Lovett, environmental initiatives manager EMEA at Patagonia, to find out more about the brand’s approach to activism.
How is Patagonia using sport and athletes as a platform to amplify its activism and drive social and environmental change?
Patagonia has a long history of working towards protecting the places we love. Through our ambassador programme, we build a connection to the local communities and NGOs to elevate this work. Our passion lies in human-powered sports and those endeavors that strengthen our bond with the natural world that serves as our playground.
It is important to us that our ambassador network reflects this approach to outdoor sports and our activist identity. Now more important than ever, our ambassadors can give issues – local or global – a voice and bring people on the journey with us. This includes collaborations on developing more responsible products, the protection of wild spaces, and the work towards making the outdoors a more welcoming place for people of all backgrounds and identities.
Patagonia’s ‘We the Power’ campaign aims to put renewable energy projects in the hands of local communities
Patagonia has always been an inherently political brand, but in recent years the company has become noticeably more vocal and active. To what extent is high-level political activism now the primary focus for Patagonia, alongside its ongoing support for grassroots organisations?
Patagonia has never been shy of being political, particularly in the US, and when the stakes have been high for the environment, such as during the Trump administration. There are times when you cannot simply sit and look on. There’s no choice but to act.
I can’t speak on behalf of the US team but what I can say is that while most people generally think that ‘being political’ is about siding left or right, I see it as deepening our understanding of who gets what, when, where and how. Very often, it’s the naysayers who call the shots and who are benefitting from business as usual to the detriment of the greater good. If we can help raise the voice of those who are marginalised and it makes a difference for our planet, then we will do the work that supports this.
In EMEA, for example, with our campaign on community-owned, renewable energy, We the Power, we’ve been showing the possibilities for energy transformation when power is put in the hands of communities. We see new skills being learned, more social cohesion and energy poverty being addressed – and that’s as well as the cleaner energy benefits.
This year, Patagonia partnered with the Albanian government to protect the Vjosa, one of Europe’s last wild rivers
How does Patagonia go about measuring the overall impact of its activism?
There’s a whole industry out there on measuring impact and accounting for funds supporting activism, advocacy and sustainability efforts. I know that many NGOs and other types of organisations spend a considerable portion of their time on this. Unfortunately, it often eclipses the work itself and takes the focus away from where it really needs to be.
For us, a concern is where to put our focus in the first place. It’s hugely difficult for any organisation working on a wicked problem like climate change to know what is going to make a difference and where first to put focus and energy, particularly when there are limits to resources. We try to take perspectives from both the planetary boundary and tipping points level as well as the grassroots level and try to find the red threads.
Ultimately, we know we have had impact when we have achieved our goals. For example, when we stopped the funding of infrastructure by public banks that would decimate Europe’s last wild river in 2018, we knew this would make a difference.
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard recently handed over ownership of the company to a charitable trust, proclaiming “Earth is now our only shareholder”
In the interest of driving social and environmental change, what will the recent decision to transfer ownership of the company enable Patagonia to achieve that it perhaps couldn’t have achieved under its former ownership structure?
The new ownership has reset the dial in many ways. While how exactly this is going to affect our company is still unfolding – and particularly in the US we are working through this process – the biggest influence that I see is that it has inspired a new conversation around company purpose, what companies are for, and what sort of change is possible in our current world system.
The saying, ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’, for me speaks to our societal struggle with imagination. It’s easier to imagine dystopia than to picture the utopia.
Our ownership change, so that the Earth is our only shareholder, represents the beginning of a fundamental break with extractive capitalism. Rather than asking how much we can we take, this is a shift to understand what the Earth asks of us and how we can give back, through restoration, land stewardship, building social cohesion.
If we can spark these sorts of conversations, and trigger imagination to get beyond our current destructive system, then that’s a shift in collective thinking. And that is a powerful lever for change.
Patagonia was one of 29 brands recognised for its commitment to driving positive change through sport as part of the 2022 Laureus Sport For Good Index. To find out more about the index, and to discover which other brands featured, click here.