The iconic 1995 Patagonia catalogue image pictures a baby being thrown over a ravine from the arms of her mother into the outstretched arms of her father. It’s one of those rare snapshots that takes your breath away for a moment, the baby (Jordan Leads, now 27 years old) is captured mid-air, vulnerable to the elements for a split second. The parents, two climbing enthusiasts, represent an appetite and curiosity for the outdoors that have always been central to Patagonia’s brand identity.
Despite overwhelming success over the years, Patagonia’s core value system has remained refreshingly constant: a brand determined to empower people to protect their environment.
An Early Connection To Nature
Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard spent his childhood in California. As a young boy, Chouinard would look for ways to live off the land; establishing a connection to nature early on in his life. Continuing to study the rhythms of his surrounding environment, Chouinard developed a passion for falconry and “got his start as a climber in 1953 as a 14-year-old member of the Southern California Falconry Club” (Patagonia). Climbing up to peer inside a hawks nest and scaling the rock face instigated a lifelong passion for both climbing and the great outdoors: “I get all my good ideas outside”, (YouTube) Chouinard once mentioned in an interview. In 1965, after years as a climber living on “oatmeal, potatoes and poached ground squirrel and porcupines” and living on the climbing gear he sold out of his car, Chouinard established Chouinard Equipment with his climbing companion Tom Frost. Their mission? To redesign climbing equipment “to make them stronger, lighter, simpler and more functional” (Patagonia). “I became a blacksmith with a view towards making climbing equipment” (YouTube) Chouinard says of these early years. By 1970, the company had become “the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the United States” (Patagonia). It was during this time that Chouinard and Frost were forced to observe the impact that pitons – a metal spike that is driven into a crack or seam in the climbing surface with a climbing hammer – had on the rocks. The equipment they had been selling “had become an environmental villain” (Patagonia), creating cracks in the rock face and leaving lasting damage. Chouinard saw this as symbolic of the imprint that humans leave on nature (YouTube) and thus the two founders decided to halt the sale of the pitons and explore less damaging alternatives, such as aluminium chocks for fixing the climbing rope. The chocks “could be wedged by hand rather than hammered in” (Patagonia) and soon they were flying off the shelves. It is here that the brand made one of its first commitments to the environment through design and manufacture.
The Beginnings of an Apparel Brand
Chouinard’s deciding moment to manufacture apparel came as he was travelling through Edinburgh whilst in Scotland for a climbing expedition in the 1970s. Chouinard picked up some rugby shirts he had spotted in a shop window and wore them whilst climbing; the stiff collar kept the climbing rope from rubbing his neck. Impressed by their sturdiness – the shirts “had rubber buttons, everything was reinforced so it wouldn’t rip” (YouTube) – Chouinard brought some back to the states. After selling “like crazy of course” (YouTube), Chouinard began to understand the demand for clothing which embraced “the principles of industrial design, rather than fashion design” (YouTube). With these ideas at the forefront of the design process, Patagonia was born: a brand that encourages longevity and durability rather than trend-led design. Chouinard has previously stated that this understanding for a functional purpose has been a vital component of the brand’s success. (YouTube).
An Appetite For Innovation
1972 marked the beginning of apparel sales for the brand; Patagonia began to provide revolutionary outdoor clothing for nature enthusiasts. Gone was the heavy wool, and in its place, Patagonia began to introduce the benefit of layers:
“We became the first company to teach, through essays in our catalog, the concept of layering to the outdoor community: inner layer against the skin for moisture transport, middle layer of pile for insulation, outer shell layer for wind and moisture protection. It didn’t take many seasons before we saw much less cotton and wool in the mountains—and a lot of badly pilled powder blue and tan pile sweaters worn over striped polypropylene underwear.” (Patagonia)
Despite seeing huge success with the sale of its garments manufactured from pile and polypropylene, Patagonia recognised the problems raised by both fabrics: according to research only 1% of polypropylene used for packaging is recycled and “incineration may release dioxins and vinyl chloride, both of which are poisonous’ (AZO Cleantech). Through extensive research and an appetite for innovation, Patagonia developed Synchilla®, “a post-consumer plastic (PCP) based polyester fibre” (Arcgis). The iconic fleece for which Patagonia is now so famous is manufactured with Synchilla®, which is just one example of the many discoveries in material research carried out by the brand.
As the sale of apparel continued to be boom, Chouinard began to understand the responsibility that comes with the manufacture of clothing. At a store in Boston, Patagonia employees were suffering from a sickness that could not be defined. After calling in experts to look at the air conditioner it became apparent that the clothes treated with formaldehyde – a colourless, strong-smelling, flammable chemical (CANCER.GOV) – were infiltrating the lungs of those standing on the shop floor. If this substance was poisoning the employees what other dangerous chemicals were being included in the manufacture of clothing? This was the catalyst that led Chouinard to understand that asking questions and would not only be fundamental to the success of the brand but also a complete necessity. Asking sufficient questions over the years has enabled Patagonia to almost completely clean up its entire supply chain. (YouTube)
Worn Wear Clothing Scheme
Described as an “anti-consumption cooperation” by PBC News Hour, Patagonia has incorporated repair and recycling schemes since the early years of the brand’s existence: “Patagonia runs North America’s largest apparel repair centre” (The Manual). Patagonia also gives customers the opportunity to bring those pieces still in good condition back to the brand for new merchandise credits. The pieces are then cleaned, repaired and sold on the company’s Worn Wear platform, in keeping with Chouinard’s mantra: “The best jacket for our planet is one that already exists”.
Further Environmental Efforts
Since 1985 Patagonia has been a member of One Percent For The Planet, as one of the founding members Chouinard believes this should be an obligation of each business: a small price to pay for doing business and taking from the earth’s resources. Further to this, in 2016 Patagonia made 10 million dollars in sales and pledged to donate the entire sum to “a large network of nearly 800 organisations in the US and around the world” (CNN).
Patagonia’s marketing strategy has also frequently addressed threats to the planet, such as issues of overconsumption. A New York Times advert was emblazoned with the words “don’t buy this jacket; another advertisement states “tear this advert to shreds”, underneath a text reads: “we don’t care if you never buy a Patagonia coat in your lifetime, as long as you give your existing ones a second chance” (Brief-Er).
All in the Name of the Environment
Whilst enjoying notable market success, Patagonia “had an estimated $800 million in revenues in 2019” (Forbes), the brand’s two fundamental principles have remained constant since its founding year: to build the best product whilst causing no unnecessary harm to the environment.
By Eliza Edwards