Thursday 14 February 2013

Rip It Up And Start Again: Patagonia And A New Way Of Doing Business

Are you happy? Do you feel like you're spending your life the right way? Or do you get through the week trying to make enough money to pay the bills, put food on the table, have a bit left over for a nice holiday or a treat?
We live in a society where the pursuit of profit is engrained as the only pathway to success. But of course, that might not be true. And as we start to see that old business model crumble round the edges whilst scandal after crisis engulf us, the question is being asked: is there another way?
Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company who have been questioning the very idea of consumerism for several years, are about to step up and face down capitalism itself. Fresh from their controversial "don't buy this jacket" campaign and the recycling initiatives and Ebay club it set up last year, the company is about to embark on a two-year mission exploring new ways of running a business. Ways that don't depend on selling ever larger amounts of clothing.
Sound crazy? Don't be so quick to judge. Vincent Stanley, who co-runs Patagonia with his uncle, founder Yvon Chouinard, is looking at consumerism as a whole, and seeing something that's frankly unwell. He likens consumerism to an addiction, and one that requires several steps to cure. The first is realising that there's a problem in the first place.
He says:
"Our head of environmental initiatives says prosperity tied to growth is the elephant in the room that nobody is really prepared to talk about. Certainly businesses would be reluctant to talk about it. So I think it's time to talk about the elephant. I have been meeting with college students as well as customers at Patagonia stores and the response to this is very strong, I think people are looking for a deeper conversation than we have been having about what business should be doing or can be doing."
Once we start to see that there's something wrong, then we can identify the issues and start asking the right questions. What does prosperity mean? What does growth mean? If you take economic activity out of the equation, then suddenly all sorts of new definitions and ideals come into play.
The notion of a happiness index, a measure of how content we are with our lives, is becoming as important a metric as financial gain. The simple matter is that happiness doesn't increase past a certain level of monetary security. In fact, the opposite is true. A recent survey using the happiness index showed that the richer you are, the more unhappy you're likely to be. The old saw that money can't buy you love is dead on.
So why do we spend most of our time chasing the bigger house, the faster car? What happens if we look beyond that, to a model based not on profit, but on quality of life and recognising the value of nature's services, and using our expertise to protect rather than exploit them?
Here's where it gets tricky. There's a good chance that an immediate knock-on effect will be that things get more expensive. Respect has a cost, too. But then, as Pier Crush Vivienne Westwood says, Buy Less, Choose Well, Make It Last. Can we continue down the fast fashion route when the impact these clothes have on the environment is so blatantly, obviously harmful? Of course not. Vincent points out that the jacket that Patagonia urged us not to buy last year had problems. It's long lasting, and made from 60% recycled materials. But it still costs more than it was selling for. Making the jacket uses enough water for 45 people and generates 20 times its weight in CO2 emissions. That's unsustainable--which is why Patagonia have never called themselves a sustainable business.
We have no real way of knowing where the path Patagonia are taking will lead them. But one thing's for sure. It's a journey in which we all have a vested interest. A changing world needs a change in attitude and maybe Vincent and Yvon are onto something. Maybe it really is time to look beyond the profit line, and towards a future that will make us rich in a very different way.

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