How business can thrive and look after the planet at the same time
30 June 2020 at 6:26 pm
Nikki Stefanoff from Harvey sits down with Patagonia’s environmental and social initiatives manager for Australia and New Zealand, Shannon Bourke, to find out how businesses can lead the way when it comes to environmental change.
Way back in February (yes, it does feel like a million years ago) when we were allowed out of our homes and didn’t have to wash our hands every five minutes (AKA the good old days) Harvey moderated a panel at Pause Fest discussing how businesses can take a lead on addressing the global climate crisis.
And if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be talking about this stuff more than ever. So we decided to continue the conversation. We caught up with one of our Pause Fest panellists, Patagonia, to delve a little deeper into how their business thrives while looking after the planet at the same time.
If ever there was a poster child for ethical business it would have to be Patagonia. A company as famous for taking the planet into consideration with every business decision as it is for its colourful outerwear.
Which other global business do you know that ran a wildly successful marketing campaign telling customers not to buy its products? Answer: there is no other. Patagonia is, and always has been, an outlier. And proudly so.
Shannon Bourke is Patagonia’s environmental and social initiatives manager for Australia and New Zealand, and a speaker on the Pause Fest panel. As you would expect from someone working for Yvon Chouinard’s environmentally-focused business, Shannon is personally passionate about the environment and everything her employer is doing to protect the planet.
In fact, it’s the reason she wanted to work for Patagonia in the first place.
“I first became aware of Patagonia well over a decade ago, even before the business launched in Australia,” she says.
“For well over a year I was unaware it even sold clothes! I was simply impressed by its activism and advocacy for the environment, and would religiously read its blog The Cleanest Line. Patagonia has always had such a unique voice and approach to storytelling, which was what first drew me to the brand.”
“A big focus for us over the next few years is regenerative organic agriculture because we feel like it could be a possible solution to the climate crisis.”
Patagonia’s environmental agenda is bold, and its mission “to save our home planet” is one embraced by all who work there. “There are challenges that come with always considering the environment in our decision-making, of course, but I never feel burdened in my role to do so,” Shannon says. “I’m extremely lucky because there is a culture at Patagonia where our environmental responsibility as a business is mandated as part of everyone’s job. It’s not just the responsibility of our environmental department to drive that agenda.”
Shannon sees the company’s mission statement as a lens that each Patagonia employee places over their approach to work every day. “It’s a bit of a guiding compass, so at each point we’re checking in to make sure we’re aligned with our values,” she explains. “This ensures that every single decision we make as a business is in support of achieving that ultimate goal.”
The company’s planet saving mission is its north star with all smaller goals falling under its watchful gaze. Over the next five years, Patagonia will be focusing heavily on working towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2025. Some of the key projects they are focusing on to reduce their business’ footprint include increasing awareness and access to its Worn Wear program, investing in regenerative organic agriculture, and achieving 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020. Easy, right?
The Worn Wear website launched in 2017 but repairing clothing has been part of their business model since the 1970s. After learning that keeping clothes in circulation for an extra nine months reduces a person’s carbon, waste and water footprint by 20 to 30 per cent the company decided to do something about it. “Our Worn Wear program is based on the circular economy approach,” explains Shannon. “We design with longevity in mind and repair free of charge, we recover our clothes when they’re beyond repair and repurpose those materials at the end of their life. There are repair hubs at many stores and we also have pop-up stores selling used gear and an online platform selling used Patagonia goods.”
While the Worn Wear program keeps used products in circulation for as long as possible Patagonia’s regenerative farming project is all about making sure its new offerings are even more environmentally conscious. Enter regenerative organic cotton.
“A big focus for us over the next few years is regenerative organic agriculture because we feel like it could be a possible solution to the climate crisis,” says Shannon. “We’ve built a pilot project, partnered with two suppliers and 550 smallholder farmers in India to grow the first batch of regenerative organic certification pilot cotton which we used in our products starting this year.”
The business’ interest in regenerative organics is down to it being the next step up from organics. It combines best practice for soil health, animal welfare and fair labour for farmers, ranchers and workers, plus healthier soil sequesters more carbon from the atmosphere so it could be of great benefit to the current climate crisis.
Easing the company’s carbon footprint is something Shannon and the team at Patagonia are hugely passionate about and the business aims to be carbon neutral by 2025. “When we measured our carbon emissions a few years ago we found that 97 per cent is within our supply chain and 86 per cent of that is in our materials and textiles,” she says. “For a retail company, that creates really complex problems needing complex solutions. In order to address our overall emissions, we have set a more immediate goal for ourselves to be 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020. We’re currently exploring a partnership with a local community energy retailer that we initially engaged with via our environmental grants program. The project is really promising.”
“We need to move forward together rather than moving forward in a fractured way.”
Setting, and then being able to reach, attainable environmental business goals is the reason Harvey was so keen to start the conversation at Pause Fest. Wanting to be a good global citizen and take care of the planet is something we spend a lot of time thinking about both personally and professionally. But it can sometimes feel overwhelming knowing where to start and we found we were constantly wondering: how much is enough?
The answer is that most businesses would find it hard to compete with a company as environmentally aware as Patagonia. But that doesn’t mean business owners should feel intimidated – everyone has to start somewhere.
Starting small and choosing the low-hanging fruit is often the easiest first step. “Have a thorough understanding of your supply chain, switch to renewables and become a member of 1% For The Planet,” is Shannon’s advice on starting small.
There’s no doubt that once you become environmentally aware it can be hard to go back, which is why perspective and balance remain so important. You can do your bit without having to be the perfect environmentalist.
“It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed about what’s happening in the world but I try and break down how I will personally approach it so I don’t get overwhelmed,” Shannon says. “I look at what day-to-day things I can do like reducing plastics, choosing where and how I spend my money and trying to minimise my own footprint. I also donate to and support the work of environmental organisations and think about how I can approach conversations with peers, neighbours and family in a way that isn’t preachy and listens to everyone’s point of view.”
Coming together to create a positive moment towards climate change is the only way we, as global citizens, have a chance of being heard. “We need to move forward together rather than moving forward in a fractured way,” agrees Shannon. “The 2014 Peoples Climate March in New York focused on the idea that ‘if we are to change everything, we need everyone,’ and I couldn’t agree more.”
After five years working for the brand, Shannon’s experience of working for Patagonia has most definitely exceeded her expectations. “Oh, absolutely. I’m so fortunate to be able to come to work each day and focus on projects that I am passionate about but also be able to work with colleagues that feel a similar passion for protecting nature,” she says. “There is a real sincerity and drive to see positive change occur; to set a new course for our communities and economy that ultimately secures a liveable future for people and our planet.”
This article was first published on the Harvey blog.