How Patagonia maintained eco-friendly authenticity in the age of greenwashing

How Patagonia maintained eco-friendly authenticity in the age of greenwashing

Matthew Healey

Matthew Healey

In a time when brands are facing reputational challenges over greenwashing accusations, Patagonia has remained authentic to its environmental responsibilities through a simple, but definitive statement - that it is not a sustainable brand.

Last year, Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard announced the radical move to give the company away to a trust, with all future profits going towards climate crisis initiatives. While consumers are rightfully sceptical when it comes to trusting brands’ environmental claims, Patagonia demonstrates how brands can be active participants in the battle against climate change.

Sustainability from the start

Sustainability has been at the forefront of Patagonia since the beginning. Even when the company only existed as an equipment catalogue, it encouraged customers to ditch its pitons, after noticing rock-faces were being damaged with its use. Since 1985, it has been donating 1% of its annual sales to fight climate change and went one step further by establishing ‘1% for the Planet’, encouraging other companies to adopt similar policies. 

For Patagonia, it’s been essential that its messaging strategy should not just promote the brand’s products, but also actively encourage environmentally positive actions. This philosophy is evident across campaigns such as ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’. However, there is a contradictory nature in wanting to be sustainable, but also having revenue growth as a business imperative. Authenticity is felt when a brand, like Patagonia, tells its customers that its product shouldn’t come at the expense of the environment. It communicates a message that the company is willing to sacrifice profits for a greater purpose, and reassures its consumers that product is built with quality in mind.

In March, Patagonia launched a campaign establishing the principal messaging defining its future aims with “What’s next?”. Companies that rest on their laurels, despite how successful they have been previously, eventually face backlash for lack of action. Effectively communicating that the business has clear future environmental plans assures consumers that your company is in it for the long haul.

The Patagonia paradox

“Never being done” is the ethos that guides Patagonia. It’s the idea that to truly have a positive effect, you not only need to continuously invest resources, but need to reflect on your company’s negative impact on the planet. [SJ1] No business-for-profit is perfectly sustainable, but Patagonia understands that this does not negate the fact that the private-sector can have a positive environmental impact. 

This all starts with an open and transparent communication strategy. Patagonia understands that accountability is the first step in winning consumer trust. After revealing that 95% of its carbon emissions come from its supply chain, it’s looking for ways to offset this by increasing second-hand materials and restricting product-line output.

Patagonia also set-up a “joint funding mechanism” where smaller brands can partner up. Notably, the company states it only has an inclination this will work, with no guarantee of results. In a time when many marketers are concerned with projects being accused of ‘greenwashing’, Patagonia presents an alternative through transparent communication. 

Purpose-driven practices 

Patagonia’s driving narrative resonates with so many because it remains ethically consistent, and this can be felt across every aspect of the business. If a brand truly wants to be sustainable, it will need to integrate planet-first policies widely into every part of its organisation. This includes being transparent about sustainability issues. Reputational risk that comes with hiding environmental issues far outweighs the backlash of being transparent with where improvements are needed.

Being perfectly sustainable is impossible, but communicating where the company plans to improve and invest, shows your organisation is serious about tackling climate challenges.

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