With all the hype about the minimum wage increase here in Ontario—that’s from $11 to $14 per hour CAD as of January 2018, and to $15 per hour in 2019— I thought it would be a great time to have a look over The Responsible Company: What we’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 Years. This work is the brain-child of Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley, founders of the power-house outdoor clothing and gear brand Patagonia. This short book documents their lessons learned in corporate responsibility, both social and environmental, over the company’s several decades in the business.
I must begin with a bit of a disclaimer: objectively, I’m not sure how much value this work adds to a self-guided study of ecology and conservation. The Responsible Company functions primarily as a piece of marketing literature meant to build consumer trust in Patagonia’s particular brand of corporate ethics.
That is not to say, however, that the book is ineffective at what it aims to do. It paints a refreshingly honest picture of what it means to be a major corporation in today’s consumer society: no company is sustainable; few, if any, are responsible; and all can and should strive to do better.
Much of The Responsible Company details Patagonia’s high-level business practices. It focuses on the notion that in all likelihood, no company can ever be sustainable. Manufacturing inevitably takes more away from the natural environment than it gives back. The book offers a challenge, both to Patagonia and to its peers, to constantly undertake efforts, sometimes (though not always) against what seems most profitable, in order to operate as responsibly as possible with respect to its stakeholders, stockholders, community, employees, customers, and nature.
However, since most of us will never see the inside of an executive boardroom, directly influencing these corporate practices seems beyond our grasp. We know that some employees of companies like Wal-Mart and McDonalds live below the poverty line, we know that commercial farming and manufacturing practices are terrible for the environment, we know that marine plastic debris are a huge threat to our oceans. But we often become overwhelmed when we ask ourselves what we can do to fix these problems: we spiral into into an existential crisis fueled by our powerlessness, we become environmental crusaders that no one except other environmental crusaders enjoys being around, or we simply shrug our shoulders, haul home our plastic shopping bags filled with the various consumer detritus we feel we need, and go on about our busy lives.
The Responsible Company tells consumers that we have the buying power to stem the tide and make our way toward what it calls a “post-consumerist society,” in which goods will be made in such a way to maximize social responsibility, as well as minimize environmental impacts throughout the manufacturing, life, and disposal (or preferably recycling) of each product.
Filled with the visionary big-picture thinking that enabled Patagonia to grow from a small outfit making climbing equipment out of a shed into the international multi-million dollar corporation it is today, The Responsible Company tells consumers that we have the buying power to stem the tide and make our way toward what it calls a “post-consumerist society,” in which goods will be made in such a way to maximize social responsibility, as well as minimize environmental impacts throughout the manufacturing, life, and disposal (or preferably recycling) of each product. Goods will invariably cost more, but individual consumers will not only buy fewer things they don’t need, but will make buying choices based increasingly on the business practices of the company rather than the simply choosing the item with the prettiest packaging or the lowest price, as there will be less packaging waste and buyers will presumably be making fair wages themselves.
Now, the argument can (and probably should) be made that these claims conveniently justify steep prices for Patagonia’s clothing and gear, but it’s not every day you find a retailer that urges its customers to buy fewer things: “We asked customers to pledge not to buy what they don’t need or won’t last… We promised, in turn, to redouble our efforts to make useful, long-lasting products.”
Recently, here in Ontario, controversy has erupted after the heirs and franchise owners of Tim Hortons, an iconic Canadian coffee chain, announced that they would be scaling back employee benefits, including paid breaks and insurance coverage, for employees at their location in Cobourg, Ontario in response to the minimum wage hike (link to story here). The media backlash has been fierce, and large numbers of people are calling for boycotts. However, many people are reacting against the boycotts, suggesting that Tim Hortons’ decisions were made above the heads of consumers, and insinuating that if we care about the employees of these franchises, our obligation is to continue supporting the corporation—if revenues fall, employees could suffer even more.
That type of thinking, in my opinion, gives away the only real power we have as consumers. Though The Responsible Company‘s notion of a post-consumerist society is admittedly idealistic, Patagonia’s history of collaboration with unlikely partners, including Wal-Mart, the single largest corporation in the world, demonstrates that consumer trends do have the power to influence business decisions even at the highest levels.
Why would a company like Wal-Mart seek the guidance of a relatively small outdoor outfitting company out of Ventura, CA? Because “every company should be afraid, as Wal-Mart is, of teenagers, and what they will consider environmentally acceptable or socially cool as they come into adulthood,” and Patagonia, it seems, has the inside scoop. Around 2010, Walmart received survey results indicating that “as many as 14 million people had stopped shopping at Wal-Mart altogether because they were upset by things they had heard about the company.” The collaboration between Wal-Mart and Patagonia in the following years led to drastic improvements in Wal-Mart’s supply chain and reductions in packaging, which although not nearly enough to make me comfortable shopping there is definitely a step in the right direction.
If market trends like these could grab the attention of a behemoth like Wal-Mart and cause them to consider changing environmental practices, it stands to reason that a large-scale boycott of any major organization could ripple out and incite real changes—the type of changes that are going to have to come from the highest levels of these major corporations. A shift in the market would force companies to adapt.
Although there was little take-away as far as ecological knowledge from reading The Responsible Company, it definitely offers some timely food for thought, urging us to carefully consider what we buy as consumers. Most of the products we use begin and end back up in our natural environment. We can all stand to increasingly choose products that reduce our impact, as well as support better lives for all people, including those who sew clothes, as well as those who serve coffee.