Patagonia was still a fairly small company when we started to devote time and money to the increasingly apparent environmental crisis. We all saw what was happening in the remote corners of the world: creeping pollution and deforestation, the slow, then not so slow, disappearance of fish and wildlife. And we saw what was happening closer to home: thousand year-old Sequoias succumbing to L.A. smog, the thinning of life in tide pools and kelp beds, the rampant development of the land along the coast.
What we began to read – about global warming, the cutting and burning of tropical forests, the rapid loss of groundwater and topsoil, acid rain, the ruin of rivers and creeks from silting-over dams – reinforced what we saw with our eyes and smelled with our noses during our travels. At the same time, we slowly became aware that uphill battles fought by small, dedicated groups of people to save patches of habitat could yield significant results.
The first lesson had come right here at home, in the early ’70s. A group of us went to a city council meeting to help protect a local surf break. We knew vaguely that the Ventura River had once been a major steelhead salmon habitat. Then, during the forties, two dams were built, and water diverted. Except for winter rains, the only water left at the river mouth flowed from the sewage plant. At that city council meeting, several experts testified that the river was dead and that channeling the mouth would have no effect on remaining bird- and wildlife, or on our surf break.
Things looked grim until Mark Capelli, a 25-year-old biology student, gave a slide show of photos he had taken along the river – of the birds that lived in the willows, of the muskrats and water snakes, of eels that spawned in the estuary. He even showed a slide of a steelhead smolt: yes, fifty or so steelhead still came to spawn in our “dead” river.
The development plan was defeated. We gave Mark office space and a mailbox, and small contributions to help him fight the River’s battle. As more development plans cropped up, the Friends of the Ventura River worked to defeat them, to clean up the water and to increase its flow. Wildlife increased and more steelhead began to spawn.
Mark taught us two important lessons: that a grassroots effort could make a difference, and that degraded habitat could, with effort, be restored. His work inspired us. We began to make regular donations, to stick to smaller groups working to save or restore habitat rather than give the money to NGOs with big staffs, overheads, and corporate connections. In 1986, we committed to donate 10% of profits each year to these groups. We later upped the ante to 1% of sales, or 10% of profits, whichever was greater. We have kept to that commitment every year since.
In 1988, we initiated our first national environmental campaign on behalf of an alternative master plan to deurbanize the Yosemite Valley. Each year since, we have undertaken a major education campaign on an environmental issue. We took an early position against globalisation of trade where it means compromise of environmental and labor standards. We have argued for dam removal where silting, marginally useful dams compromise fish life. We have supported wildlands projects that seek to preserve ecosystems whole and create corridors for wildlife to roam. We hold, every eighteen months, a “Tools for Activists” conference to teach marketing and publicity skills to some of the groups we work with.
We also, early on, began initial steps to reduce our own role as a corporate polluter: we have been using recycled-content paper for our catalogs since the mid-eighties. We worked with Malden Mills to develop recycled polyester for use in our Synchilla fleece.
Our distribution center in Reno, opened in 1996, achieved a 60% reduction in energy use through solar-tracking skylights and radiant heating; we used recycled content for everything from rebar to carpet to the partitions between urinals. We retrofitted lighting systems in existing stores, and build-outs for new stores became increasingly environmentally friendly. We assessed the dyes we used and eliminated colors from the line that required the use of toxic metals and sulfides. Most importantly, since the early nineties, we have made environmental responsibility a key element of everyone’s job.
We have never had to make a “break” from the traditional corporate culture that makes businesses hidebound and inhibits creativity. For the most part, we simply made the effort to hold to our own values and traditions.