Tag Archives: Patagonia

“There’s no such thing as a sustainable business”

That’s not me talking but clothing company, Patagonia.

Their mission statement is ‘Build the best product and cause no unnecessary harm’.  ‘Unnecessary harm’ is an interesting choice of words because they understand that their actions will inescapably damage the environment, because they are a business.  It’s just that the harm that they cause is as limited as possible.   However, it is still harm.

With a mission statement like that, it’s clear that they care about the environment.  However, if they REALLY cared about the environment and to take it to it’s logical conclusion, then they would shut down as a business as this would cause no harm at all.

This taps into what seems to be a fundamental question in this whole sustainability debate.  If Patagonia happen to be right and there is no such thing as a sustainable business (are they right?) and we need to be living on the planet in a sustainable way, then can you have businesses?  Or rather, what form should a business take?

Okay, you can revert back to subsistence farming and living in villages, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.  This is because that’s literally ‘living in the past’ and doesn’t take into consideration any positive progress that happened in the 20th Century.

So, how can you can you create businesses, en masse, that are sustainable?  For example, in the future we could all be driving about in electric cars, where the electricity is produced by renewable sources.  That all sounds fairly sustainable, but what about making the cars?  What about the material extraction, manufacture of parts and assembly?  Can that ever be sustainable?

If not, does that mean that we shouldn’t have cars?  Is that possible?  This, very quickly, makes my head hurt.

Without getting too deep into that rather huge debate, back to Patagonia.  The good news is that they do appear to be taking things seriously when they consider the impact that the production of their clothing has on the world.  With this in mind and in the name of transparency they’ve launched the footprint chronicles which show you the journey that different items of clothing take from design to delivery.

However and perhaps most interestingly (thanks David for this), is when you go into a Patagonia store, choose something and go to pay for it.  When you do this the sales assistant will ask you ‘Do you really need this item?’.  This, to me, is verging on the revolutionary as it strikes at the heart of consumerism.  The thought that a business, any business, would actively discourage a customer from buying something when they have their money out to pay seems remarkable.  On the one hand it’s very confrontational as you’re directly questioning the consumers ability to make the right decision.  Yet, on the other hand, it’s really naive in that it’s a really simple question that would hopefully get the consumer to think about the answer.  Now, how many people want to stand corrected and will put it back is an interesting question, but the sheer principle of asking the question is great.

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