Imitation leaves a sour taste in most brands’ mouths, but for Patagonia it really is the sincerest form of flattery.
When Marks & Spencer wanted to find out how to “do” organic cotton, it turned to Patagonia, the Californian outdoor brand that has now been using organic fibre for 12 years.
The Patagonia team revealed all it knew. It continues to do so for anybody that wants to learn about organic cotton and the brand’s other eco-initiatives, which include donating 1% of its turnover to charity, and recycling old stock, including that of its competitors. Its latest initiative, the publication of its book The Footprint Chronicles, is an exercise in corporate and product transparency, detailing the social and environmental impacts of specific items of clothing.
The project has already taught the brand that transportation makes up only about 1% of its overall energy use. Head of communications Jen Rapp says: “Had we listened to the media fuss about transport’s energy consumption, we may have concentrated all our efforts on it, only to reduce our energy output by a fraction of 1%.” Instead, the brand is focusing on making changes where it can really make a difference – in the heart of the manufacturing process.
Overall, the business is an exceptionally open corporate model and one that bears the fingerprints of owner Yvon Chouinard. In the early 1970s the Canadian mountaineer launched his first range of aluminium climbing gear designed to reduce harm to the rock face. At about the same time he bought a selection of rugby tops from sports brand Umbro while on a trip to the UK, which he sold to fellow climbers in the US.
The rest, as they say, is history. And remarkably, Chouinard remains the business’s sole owner, despite plenty of investment offers. Rapp says: “We are always being approached by investors who say ‘we could make you huge’, or ‘we could get you in this store or that shop’. But the truth is we don’t want to be in just any store.”
This attitude means Chouinard is reluctant to let growth spiral beyond his control, and he reins it in to between 7% and 8% per year in order to avoid having to lay off any staff if growth cannot be maintained – as happened once in the 1980s.
But as Patagonia gathers momentum and people buy into its idea of corporate social responsibility, it is finding that growth has come from some unexpected quarters. UK sales manager Jonathan Petty has seen the account base grow from 32 to 80 in four years, with stockists now including fashion-forward players such as Oi Polloi in Manchester and both Butcher of Distinction and GoodHood in east London’s Shoreditch. “It’s not something we have chased,” says Petty. “But people that know the brand love it.”
Yet both Rapp and Petty add that the brand is not trend-driven. With its surfing and climbing credentials, the Patagonia wardrobe is all about quality basics and genuinely functional outerwear.
Patagonia 0800 026 0055 www.patagonia.com
£140m: Turnover for the year to May 2007
900: Average number of applications received for every job advertised by Patagonia
13,000lbs; Total weight of the garments recycled by the company so far