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Patagonia: in brands we trust?

Few companies evoke a sense of admiration and goodwill like Patagonia. Famous for its eco-friendly apparel, it’s a poster child for purpose-driven business. Its mission statement says it all: “We’re in business to save our home planet.” Sign me up.

For any leader aspiring to rally a team around a mission statement, Patagonia is worth studying: it practices what it preaches.

For example, it was the first company to give one percent of annual sales to the environment, inspiring others to follow.

It’s also published an impressive catalogue of written and video content documenting its environmental activities. Any business leader would do well to emulate its Roaring Journals blog and take an idea or three from its Business Unusual page.

Patagonia has also consistently driven growth around core values, one of which is to cause no unnecessary harm.

Then we’ve got what I call its belief statement, also known as the company vision:

“A love of wild and beautiful spaces demands participation in the fight to save them.”

This is the cornerstone of Patagonia’s identity and purpose in the world. It knows words are useless without sustained action, and even activism. Let's briefly look at how it's using storytelling to advance its purpose and mission, and what lessons you can learn.

Patagonia’s latest work, a feature film released on 25 September called Public Trust: The Fight for America’s Public Lands, fits well in the activism mould. It’s described as a feature-length documentary about America’s system of public lands and the fight to protect them.

Patagonia founder, and author of Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard spent years personally defending Public Lands in the United States, as illustrated by his starring role in this TV ad in 2017.

Summarising the issue, Chouinard says:

“Public lands have never been more threatened than right now because you have a few self-serving politicians who want to sell them off and make money. Behind the politicians are the energy companies and the big corporations that want to use up those national resources. It’s just greed.”

Now 81 years old, Chouinard is back with Public Trust. Joined by iconic actor and activist Robert Redford as executive producer, he's released a 1.5 hour documentary exposing the extent to which political and special interests continue to exploit precious public lands (click here for the official trailer).

It features interviews with tribal leaders, journalists, and activists fighting to protect lands that have traditionally been free and open for any citizen, honing in on Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota, and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It looks at the issues through the eyes of Hal Herring, an investigative journalist from Montana who’s exposed the extent to which special interests have swayed politicians.

It’s a story about equality, fairness, corruption, greed, environmental destruction and the sheer relentlessness of the oil and gas industry.

Timing is everything

Public Trust comes at a critical point in American history. Just weeks before the election, it attacks the Trump administration's efforts to reduce the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, opening the door for mining, oil and gas.

It also details Trump’s winding back of Obama-era environmental protections, his undermining of the Antiquities Act, created to give Presidents the power to quickly protect historic and significant sites and create national monuments.

Meanwhile in a parallel universe, serendipity is apparently at play. Netflix recently published David Attenborough’s ‘witness statement’, A Life on Our Planet.

A masterful, emotive documentary in its own right, the messaging couldn’t be better timed. The scale of environmental destruction witnessed by Attenborough in his lifetime is unprecedented, and will dramatically alter life on this planet for the generation of children born today.

While the famous naturalist is hopeful about our ability to make the necessary changes to avert disaster (more biodiversity, stable populations, sustainable energy, more trees etc), his message is a clarion call. His view is we simply can’t continue treating the world as an infinite resource when it remains finite.

The point?

Public awareness of climate change and its impact on our environment is taking ground as a mainstream issue. If you’re a company like Patagonia with a lifelong cause forming your identity, there’s been no better time to go big with activism.

For most corporate leadership teams, however, it could be a bridge too far.

Fear of the unknown, of upsetting some customers, or simply wanting to avoid the intensity of public relations battles are enough to prevent them from carving out their own battlefield like Patagonia.

Yet here, there’s no such fear. The cause is simply too important - once public lands are sold to oil and gas, they’re gone forever.

It turns out this question of fear is a good litmus test for aspirational, purpose-driven leaders. Sure, you’ve got a great cause. But just how far are we willing to go to turn your beliefs into a sustainable movement? Are you willing and able to put your money where your belief is, to adapt a common phrase?

It might just be time to take those corporate values a little more seriously.

Keep believing,


Mark Jones is an author, brand strategist and former journalist determined to inspire more leaders to use the power of storytelling to change the world for good. You can buy his book here or book him to speak at your next client or team event and take advantage of his full production team and Certified Virtual Presenter status to give your guests a memorable, professional and interactive experience.

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