From Past to Present
How responsibility and activism are integral to the Patagonia brand
Words: Ali George Hinkins
Patagonia is one of those brands that pretty much everyone knows of, whether they own a piece of their kit or know someone that does, they are up there as one of the most iconic and well-recognised brands in the industry. Full stop. That prestige comes from a whole host of places, including iconic garments they have produced such as the Snap-T fleece – a historic item that Adrian Bianco covered for HHV Journal.
When you’re browsing the web hunting down the latest pieces from Patagonia, you might notice that certain stockists of the brand tell you something along the lines of, »1% of annual Patagonia sales goes towards the Earth«. I mean, how many brands can you name, especially in today’s day and age, that pledge to donate 1% of their annual sales towards restoring and protecting the natural environment through support of grassroots movements? No one does it quite like Patagonia!
Through a number of measures like encouraging conscious consumer decisions, using recycled and responsibly sourced materials and supporting grassroots environmental programs, Patagonia understands the complexity that surrounds being a more responsible consumer in today’s day and age. As a result, they take a multi-faceted approach to tackling the problems that we face by actions that are accessible to Patagonia consumers without affecting their experience with the brand. Patagonia’s most recent film, We The Power, follows a number of »rebels« from across Europe – Germany, Spain, UK and the Netherlands – who are actively trying to overhaul the traditional, monopolist energy sector and put the power, literally, back into the hands of the people.
To fully understand the extent of which Patagonia is committed to social and political activism, we have to trace back to the early days of their journey when people only knew of Patagonia as the southernmost region of South America. In 1957, Yvon Chouinard salvaged a used coal-fired forge, a 138-pound anvil, hammers and tongs from a junkyard and started teaching himself how to blacksmith. Given Chouinard’s love for climbing, it only seemed natural that he begin by making his own set of climbing pitons from an old harvester blade which he began selling to friends of his for $1.50. Hauled up in a makeshift workshop in his parents« garden, Chouinard was developing his skill as a craftsman so he could go on to bigger things. In 1965, Yvon Chouinard partnered with Tom Frost – an aeronautical engineer at the time – to start Chouinard Equipment which saw the duo redesigning and improving almost every climbing tool to make them lighter, stronger, simpler and more functional. By 1970, it had become the largest climbing hardware producer in the United States, but Chouinard was wholly dissatisfied with the environmental damage caused by their equipment which was leaving permanent holes and cracks in the rocks through continuous hammering. As a result, they took a stance and minimised their pivoting business which, at the time, was a risky move but one that has underpinned their responsible ethos ever since – an orchestration of Patagonia’s seemingly counterintuitive ways of working, whereby ethics come first before profit, as they should.
The early 1970s marked the beginnings of Patagonia, formerly named Chouinard Equipment, as they embarked on producing hard wearing clothing that aided climbers. The first of which being a long sleeve rugby top that Chouinard acquired in Scotland; he discovered that despite their sports-oriented design, they were perfectly suitable for climbing as the material was durable and the collar shape prevented waist pack slings from digging into the wearers neck. By 1973, Patagonia was established in Ventura, California where the company’s headquarters remain today. The years that followed Patagonia’s »official« inception were characterised by them developing innovative products that prioritised a sensible and more thoughtful approach to design, such as considering how the materials used were made. One of their earliest, most coveted garments was the Pile Fleece Jacket inspired by the hardy gear worn by fisherman and while it was immediately successful, they worked tirelessly to improve the quality of the fabric. Through a partnership with textile manufacturer, Malden Mills, they came to develop Synchilla which was lighter than wool but warmer and faster drying; in later years, it would be entirely made using recycled contents. As time went on, Patagonia continued to develop apparel and accessories that held the consumer in mind without being so damaging to the environment.
Their early commitment to more responsible practices is a pillar of Patagonia’s ethos that sees them continue to marry functional products with a need to protect the same oceans, mountains and hills their consumers enjoy their wares on. Patagonia is one of the few brands that are actively engaged in talking about social and environmental issues, but when it’s so deep-rooted and integral to their brand, you know that they are genuine about it. Some of their pledges are bold and overt statements; one such example was in 2018 when they donated $10 million worth of tax cuts to “groups committed to protecting air, land and water and finding solutions to the climate crisis.” On the other end of the spectrum, while equally as viable and impactful, are their more covert attempts to be conscientious throughout the process that may not be immediately obvious to the consumer, such as using 100% traceable down and 100% of their electricity needs in the US are met by renewable energy.
Patagonia’s schemes, efforts and principles are widely noted, but we’ll name some of them off the bat to give you a rough idea. Most of us are familiar with Yvon Chouinard’s involvement in the »1% for the Planet« non-profit organisation where they encourage multinational corporations to donate 1% of their total annual sales to help grassroots groups and affect real change around the world. Since 1985, Patagonia has donated over $100 million dollars through this scheme. In 2016, they donated 100% of their »Black Friday« proceeds, totalling to $10 million, to environmental organisations which caught the eye of many; in the years since, they have altogether refused to participate in frenzied »Black Friday« sales. Two schemes they continue to run with are their »Worn Wear« and »ReCrafted« lines which allows customers to return their pre-loved and worn Patagonia gear and get a token towards their next piece. As a result, it extends the life of a garment that you would have normally thrown away, reducing the burden on the environment and giving someone else the chance to wear it. However, not all of the items that Patagonia are sent back are worthy of cleaning and re-selling so they are cut up and repurposed into a new garment through their »ReCrafted« scheme which produces some very nice pieces, but, for now, is only available in the United States.
Now that we live in modern and, for the most of us, post-industrial nations, the energy sector is heavily monopolised by large corporations that hold the key to supplying us with power by way of unsustainable fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. Now really is the time for change and by encouraging communities across Europe to take action into their hands through local, citizen-run renewable energy projects, we can boost local economies through job creation, reduce energy bills and our reliance on environmentally harmful pollutants. Patagonia’s »We The Power« campaign does just that – a 36-minute film that follows the journey of five energy cooperatives from across Europe who have taken action into their own hands with their sights set on reducing their reliance on the national grid and investing in the communities they live in and care about. Through shared involvement, we can all try and do our part to invest in our future.
Repowering London is one of the groups featured in the »We The Power« film. Founded in 2011, Repowering has made it their aim to empower communities to fund, install and manage their own clean, local supply of renewable energy. In 2012, they were responsible for the UK’s first community energy project on social housing in Brixton, London, setting a precedent and benchmark for like-minded individuals to strive towards. Through their community schemes, they have been able to promote technological innovation and train interns to learn new skills, all whilst providing a sustainable source of energy for the communities. As a result, Repowering London alone has been able to avoid emitting 114 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year, instal a total of 532kWp of solar capacity and raise over £150,000 for local communities to spend.
Another inspiring story is that of the EWS Schönau (Schönau Electricity Company). After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, residents of the small town of Schönau, located in the midst of the Black Forest in Germany, were worried about the resulting spread of radiation coming from the disaster site and spreading over much of Europe including their own town. A few people (mostly parents, doctors and teachers) were fed up with being dependent on big power companies and facing the dangers of nuclear power. Fearing for the health and safety of their own children as well as all future generations, they were determined to take matters into their own hands. After ten years of hard work and dedication fighting for permissions, referendums and raising enough money, the Schönau citizen’s initiative finally brought back their town’s power grid from the big monopoly and founded their own electricity company. What started as the idea of a handful of people in a small town is a striking example of regaining responsibility and power, of refusing to simply accept the structures that are more beneficial to capitalism than to the people and the environment. The initiators of the EWS Schönau were called the Power Rebels back then and they are still fully committed to the phasing out of nuclear energy worldwide. Today, more than two decades after the movement started, they take pride in being a multi award-winning power company with 100% clean, renewable and sustainable power, operating not only in Schönau and the region, but all over Germany.
Patagonia’s »We The Power« campaign is another testament to their longstanding commitment to the environment that dates back to the early 1970s. Through a series of calculated and conscious decisions that not only underpin their design process but also influences their vocality on social and environmental issues, Patagonia has rightfully earned the respect of consumers and industry folk alike. Through the products they make and the principles they stand for, Patagonia is wholeheartedly devoted to making the world a better place.
Their »We The Power« film is available to watch now:
Campaign Page – Main Hub: eu.patagonia.com/wethepower
Campaign Page – Regional pages: eu.patagonia.com/de/de/wethepower/getinvolved/germany
Get active – citizen energy organizations in your region: www.buendnis-buergerenergie.de/karte
Want to learn more about renewable energy and how you can be part of the solution? We invite you to a virtual evening with experts from the citizen energy movement on May 05th: wethepowergermany.splashthat.com
Visual Content: Patagonia