Erik Nesler: Learning a thing or two from Patagonia

Sunday, October 7, 2018 - 2:07pm

Erik Nesler

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Early last week, nearly 150 companies launched a collective campaign to increase voter turnout in the upcoming midterm elections. The effort, known as Time to Vote, is backed by some of the largest U.S. companies, including Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Levi’s.

According to a Pew Research Center study after the 2014 midterm elections, a plurality of eligible voters couldn’t find the time to vote, citing that work or school made it difficult. Because less than half of  of the eligible population voted in the last midterm elections, companies decided to come together to give their employees (along with the general public) an opportunity to vote Nov. 6.

Levi’s, the company known for its quality jeans, is giving its corporate employees five hours and its retail employees three hours to vote on Election Day. Lyft chose to participate in the effort by giving its customers discounted rides to polling places. The ride-sharing app is also planning on providing free rides to people in the most underprivileged neighborhoods.

The company taking the boldest action to further improve voter turnout is Patagonia, which has committed to completely shutting down its corporate headquarters and all of its retail stores on Election Day.

Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario underscored the importance of getting people to vote, asserting “a vibrant democracy relies on engaged citizens voting” and “business can play a vital role by removing barriers.”

While the companies claim the effort is nonpartisan, their rationale is quite obvious given the decisive nature of this election season. Patagonia in particular has voiced its strong disapproval for the current administration.

When President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, Patagonia was one of hundreds of companies to condemn his decision. In addition, the company filed a lawsuit last year against Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other Trump administration officials. The company, along with several other parties, chose to fight the president’s decision to reduce the extent  of two national monuments in Utah – Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante – to less than half their original size.

Since its founding in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia has been unapologetically political. The company has devoted itself to positively impacting societyparticularly in regard to environmental stewardship. The company is well known for its corporate social responsibility efforts, which include its pledge to give 1 percent of its revenue to grassroots environmental organizations every year.

Beyond simply donating money, the company has proven to be radically transparent in regard to its production processes. On the company’s website, you can find “The Footprint Chronicles,"  an interactive map that catalogues the complete environmental impact of its products. You can see the entire production process – from the farm to the mill to the factory. Patagonia continues its devotion to maintaining sustainable production processes with its selling of second-hand products on its website. The company also recycles products for customers when they’re no longer wearable.

With its commitment to corporate social responsibility and its astounding level of transparency, Patagonia has surely fulfilled its mission to “use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”  

While Patagonia may appear to function like a nonprofit, which would prioritize environmental sustainability over profits, the company has achieved impressive financial results over the years. The company rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue per year – making Chouinard a billionaire. It’s clear Patagonia’s commitment to environmental preservation has attracted a substantial (and growing) consumer base that values companies with a conscience.

Patagonia isn’t the only company that can achieve such favorable results. Private sector entities have been (and should be) involving themselves in the public sphere. In a piece for The New York Times, David Gelles writes of a survey’s results comprising more than 1,000 Americans’ thoughts regarding CEO involvement in the public sector. He states more than 33 percent of survey respondents view it favorably and almost 50 percent believe CEO activism can influence government policy.

The private sector can learn a lot from Patagonia and a slew of other companies that are working to change the world. Society could benefit immensely from the private sector committing itself to furthering socially beneficial goals – goals that go beyond just maximizing shareholder value.

 

Erik Nesler can be reached at egnesler@umich.edu.