Alabama Chanin has long looked to Patagonia, and Yvon Chouinard, as the standard for sustainable design, manufacturing, and corporate culture. The recent film “Legacy Look Book” (shown above) is a beautiful reminder of why we love this company so very much.
When Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he wasn’t implying that an unexamined life is boring or holds less meaning. He said the unexamined life is not worth living. As difficult as this process may be for an individual to understand and undertake, deciding that a company should live an “examined life” only adds to the challenge. It demands a carefully plotted and specific corporate mission, along with employing people who are willing to work openly, honestly, and for the right reasons.
Almost a decade ago, in Ventura, California, Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia issued the challenge for companies to adopt responsible behaviors. His reasoning: “I’ve wrestled the demons of corporate responsibility for some time. Who are businesses really responsible to? Their shareholders? Their customers? Their employees? None of the above, I have finally come to believe. Fundamentally, businesses are responsible to their resource base. Without a healthy planet there are no shareholders, no customers, no employees. As the conservationist David Brower liked to say, ‘There is no business to be done on a dead planet.’”
This leads directly to the question of how? How do we establish meaningful corporate responsibility missions that are not merely public relations campaigns? For Chouinard, the first step in the equation is to “Lead an Examined Life.” At Patagonia, this meant evaluating their product fiber content, sources, and production specifics. Over ten years ago, examination of their location found that recycling air in a building where conventional cotton was stored and used was sickening employees with formaldehyde, one of the chemicals used to treat the cotton. Further examination of materials revealed that conventionally grown cotton (which used 8 percent of all agricultural pesticides) was the most toxic of all fabrics used in their facility. To correct the problem, Patagonia made a widely recognized overhaul of their products and processes. Their examined life had an immediate impact upon their employees and their customers.
How far does Yvon believe we should take the examination? The Patagonia site has a section called The Footprint Chronicles that shows the origins of Patagonia products and materials. The supply chain is completely transparent, an expensive and involved process to prove. He admits that revealing the process for each product “costs a fortune and it’s a lot of work…and it adds a different element in business.” He continues, “This company exists to ask the questions and make the choices, and then prove that it’s good business to other companies so that they can do it.”
Through this transparency process, Patagonia reveals their errors as well as their successes, so that other companies can, hopefully, learn from those mistakes. Chouinard believes it is important for smaller companies to see a large company make a mistake and learn a lesson. “I think only by being honest, can we show the full extent of the problem.” Through the Footprint Chronicles, Patagonia has passed along the information they learned about the lack of viability of bamboo and corn-based fibers, the carbon footprint a garment earns through travel, and the sheer difficulty of remaining transparent. “Yeah, leading an examined life, I always say, is a pain in the ass. It adds an element of complexity to business that most businessmen don’t want to hear about. They just want to call a fabric manufacturer, and say, ‘Hey, give us 10,000 yards of shirting,’” Chouinard says.
For Patagonia and its smaller companies, there are four steps that follow “Lead an Examined Life.” They are: Clean up our act; Do our penance; Support civil democracy; Influence other companies.
Alabama Chanin, as a small business, is constantly in the process of trying to examine our materials and where they come from, how we grow our business, and, above all, ceaselessly examine our lives, or structures, and our processes. But, it is taxing for a small business, because the examination never ends. However, like the Patagonia team, we believe consumers are more interested than ever in where products come from and how they are made.
We draw inspiration from Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley’s book, The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 Years.
Yvon Chouinard created his first set of goods for Patagonia 40 years ago. The initial intent was to create quality products that lasted. As years passed, and the negative impact of production on the environment became evident, Patagonia added to the mission, “cause no unnecessary harm.” Now, their mission statement – or “reason for being” – reads: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” This year, in celebration of the company’s 40th anniversary, they looked to their roots and reimagined some of those iconic Patagonia pieces in a 10-piece Legacy collection, bringing the classic products inline with the contemporary vision. It is a collection reflective of a company dedicated to examining.
“We need to give ammunition to the consumer. If we can get consumers to perform the good kinds of work that citizens do, that’s a revolution. And I think given the choice of buying a product that was made irresponsibly, and one that is [made responsibly], I think people will choose the responsible one.” – Yvon Chouinard
Photos of Patagonia’s iconic garments were provided by Patagonia. Images from the Legacy Collection look book, by photographer Foster Huntington, are used here with permission from the artist and Patagonia.