Business & Economy

Book Review of “The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 Years”


Andrew Hughes

In The Responsible Company, the authors—founder & co-owner of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard along with his nephew & sometimes Patagonia employee, Vincent Stanley—have a starting point which concludes that there is no responsible company, rather companies that are choosing to take different steps towards being responsible to all of their stakeholders. The book is a road-map of sorts to help employees and businesses identify their environmental and social short-comings, and take steps to become more responsible. While not intended to be a book about the Patagonia company, it naturally draws heavily from what Patagonia has learned.

A foundational question to consider as you read the book is, what are companies responsible for? Companies tend to be very responsible towards the maximization of their shareholders’ ROI, yet limit their responsibility towards their direct stakeholders to what is beneficial to their bottom line, and exclude responsibility towards their indirect stakeholders. The Responsible Company provides an example, in Patagonia, and a challenge for companies to take full-responsibility for their actions in relation to all of their stakeholders.

Including the natural world as a stakeholder is a key assumption of the book. Patagonia draws on natural resources to make its products and its customers use the products to get out and enjoy the natural world; the state of the environment is centrally important to Patagonia’s reason for being in business. The authors claim that we are in the midst of an environmental crisis that is getting worse. The book implies that a large stake of the crisis is directly or indirectly tied to the activities of businesses as they design products, source materials, and manufacture and distribute goods. Consequently, many problems can also be alleviated by businesses taking steps to become more responsible.

As an outdoor gear and apparel company started by surfers and mountaineers, Patagonia is perhaps more attuned to the impact business is having on the natural world, and more willing to change what and how they produce their products in order to stop doing harm. Several compelling stories are told to illustrate, including killing-off a primary product category because of the realization that our “hard steel pitons had become environmental villains,” destroying the very rock-faces that the company was helping outdoor enthusiasts climb. An alternative climbing device was designed: “aluminum chocks that could be wedged in and removed by hand without the use of a hammer,”(41) resulting in no damage being done to the rock surface, and the company helped start the “clean climbing” movement which was rapidly adopted by climbers around the world.

Chouinard and Stanley argue that it is not just what and how something is produced, but also why we choose to design, produce, and consume some things at all. It seems with the quest for sustained economic growth, “much of what we produce to sell to each other to earn our living is crap”(26). In asking the why question coupled with the realities of current and future natural resource shortages and price hikes, the authors speculate in a number of places on what a post- consumerist world would look like, where “we need to make less, and whatever we make should be of high quality and long-lasting to better offset its social and environmental price,”(28) and where “goods are likely to become more expensive, to reflect their true social and environmental cost.”(27)

While hints are given to some questions and problems posed, there remain many unanswered questions as to how our economies will transfer to a post-consumerist society and the upheaval the transition will cause: How are we going to afford to pay the true-cost of what we buy? What are the unemployment ramifications? These questions are of course beyond the scope of this little book, but in the book’s overall argument, the answers to the questions are critical.

Patagonia has taken aggressive steps toward being a post-consumerist company, including asking their customers to buy only what they need and re-using and recycling every product that the company makes. The company’s products are not cheap, and reflect the true costs of designing, sourcing, manufacturing, and distributing responsibly; reading the account of how Patagonia switched to 100% organic cotton gives you an idea as to why their t-shirts are many times more expensive than what you can get at the outlet mall. As a relatively small and privately owned company, Patagonia can afford to take these kinds of risks to continually transform themselves into a more responsible company—risks that large publicly traded companies cannot afford to take. As reported in the book, Patagonia seems to have been well rewarded for their risk-taking as their customer base becomes more aligned to their values and continues to buy their products as they need them.

Responsibility to stakeholders beyond the natural world is identified (e.g., communities, direct & in-direct employees, customers) and discussed well and in some detail. A section on “meaningful work” helps bind these stakeholder responsibilities together. That said, the responsibility to the natural world seems the dominant thrust of the book.

With an unstated link to customer responsibility, The Responsible Company should not be seen as just a book for business people. Consumers too can learn about the effects their choices have, and, based on information, make more responsible purchasing decisions. These decisions in-turn tell companies that responsibility matters to their customer base.

The Responsible Company tells a tale of how Patagonia actively shares what it learns about doing business responsibly with other companies, including its competitors. Patagonia’s influence also extends to companies like Wal-Mart who have approached Patagonia for help to become more responsible, and the book identifies some impressive initiatives that Wal-Mart has implemented. The second half of the book aims at helping more businesses by focusing on how employees and business owners can take steps toward responsibility in their own companies, and Chouinard and Stanley discuss identifying one’s sphere of influence and how to raise issues in the workplace. They also provide detailed and helpful checklists to help assess levels of responsibility.

As a Christian who runs a small business, and as someone who can see that our economic systems are broken—which in turn makes “our creation groan”—I found The Responsible Company to be a valuable read that helped me be more aware of the breadth and depth of my responsibilities as a businessman. More importantly, it showed me an example of a company that has made significant progress in its quest to be responsible. For people and businesses to change, we need to hear these stories so that we can envision how change is really possible, and take our own next steps into responsibility. While Patagonia is not motivated by a Christian worldview, Christians looking to bring redemption to parts of the economic system can learn much from the can-do approach of Patagonia and their willingness to be responsible regardless of the cost.

A note to finish: this reviewer did not need to purchase a copy of The Responsible Company (published by Patagaonia Books). Instead, I borrowed a copy from the public library, an action I suspect Chouinard and Stanley would deem to be... responsible.

Source: Marketplace Institute

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