Patagonia’s sustainability journey is disconcertingly simple. It articulates a powerful story. In the organization’s recent book, “The Future of the Responsible Company,” founder Yvon Chouinard describes their awakening as progressive, paced by the growing impact their organization had on its environment.  

Reading between the lines (and with almost no professional bias) we could say that the process and governance that turned this family business into the world’s most influential organization in corporate sustainability, and one of the most desirable brands in the world, is simple for one reason: it is anchored in a great story. 

A great story is a vision, expressed. 

Yvon’s first anecdote takes place in ’72. Albeit small, the company was already the largest supplier of climbing hardware, including pitons, which when used by several climbers on the same route, destroyed mountains. So they invented aluminum chocks that were a lot less invasive and disruptive to the environment. They quickly surpassed Pitons in sales.  

A later example of “spontaneous responsibility” takes place later in the ‘70s – as founders brought kids to work and employees started doing the same, the increasing noise levels prompted a discussion about facilitating babysitting on-site, not as a progressive measure, but as a reaction to what current employees needed. Patagonia now offers on-site childcare services across their facilities, and they send providers along with executives on business trips so they can keep nursing and caring for their young kids.  

In the ‘80s, Patagonia had grown big enough to realize that if it cared about the environment, they had to look inward, to what their business was doing to the planet by using cotton, employing vast international supply chains, and incentivizing consumption. So they had to become experts at identifying, inventing, and rewarding better environmental and social standards in their supply chain, using and transforming cleaner cotton, educating all stakeholders about issues and challenges, and setting up recycling and upcycling programs for their clothes. All are described at length in the book.  

In 2022, Patagonia’s owners gave the whole company away to a Non-Profit Organization and Trust whose missions are to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the world. 

And according to Yvon, they got there by just making one obvious decision after another: “Responsibilities as businesspeople came slowly and almost involuntarily to light as we focused on the “real” work of designing, making, and selling our clothes.” 

Yvon’s take is both unsettling and inspiring. But reading through it, it also reveals something about the role of stories and public relations, and how important they were in shaping the success of his organization’s innovation, governance, and overall business strategy. 

The common belief is that the Public Relations function is an enhancer of a brand’s value proposition. It begins with the product, and then comes the story. 

What Yvon teaches us is that it begins with the story. Stories that are true, relevant, and aspirational bring people together, who build great products and deliver great services to other people, in turn giving way to more great stories. 

Yvon and his team might as well be the best storytellers on the planet because they understand the role and responsibility that come with telling stories.

Stories need to be true. 

Patagonia adapts its business to the truth, not the other way around.  

The now famous “Do not buy that jacket” ad printed in the New York Times on Black Friday is a great ex

ample. It pointed to the impact of over-consumerism, launched their up-cycling framework, and made the brand known and remembered as a unique corporate sustainable actor. Prioritizing the truth over the product elevated the company’s brand and access to consumers, on top of opening new revenue streams in the company’s secondhand product marketplace.  

The company’s approach to environmental impact disclosures (before they were a thing for anyone) is another example of how the truth guides and amplifies messaging. As soon as Patagonia started investing in impact studies, they ensured that the results were accessible to anyone, regardless of their audience’s prior level of knowledge of the textile industry or of sustainability jargon. Their “Our Footprint” report reads like a product catalog and points to both the positive and negative aspects of their supply chain and operations in a simple, digestible way. They choose to sell the truth, not the product.  

This approach, according to Yvon, has not only reinforced their connection with consumers but has also “elevated the watercooler discussions” in the organization, effectively leading to creative solutions to environmental issues stemming from departments not supposed to be “in charge” of them.

Stories should be told in different voices. 

This is a critical, and powerful, part of Patagonia’s sustainability and storytelling strategy: it involves different stakeholders, a lot. 

As the organization (and the world) discovered that the textile industry was polluting water, they not only connected with specific NGOs to devise solutions, but also engaged with other corporate actors to innovate solutions. The book gives a full page of credit to Samsung, the first appliance manufacturer to engage with their efforts, for developing a washing machine that captured most of the polyester fleece shed while washing.  

Samsung’s new product was marketed in partnership with Patagonia and an NGO dedicated to protecting world oceans, Ocean Wise. 

In 2011, after years of informal sharing of environmental best practices with Walmart, the two companies cosigned an invitation to a “21st Century Apparel Leadership Consortium” to be held in New York three months later. The invitation was sent to 16 of the world’s largest companies; 15 of them attended the event and agreed to create the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to devise practical ways to measure and limit the environmental impact of the apparel industry.  

Today, the current membership of the Coalition generates a third of the footwear sold worldwide.  

Another fantastic example is when Patagonia mistakenly awarded a production contract to a factory in India that had not gone through their standard (and extensive) supplier vetting process. When it was later found out that the factory violated several terms of their code of conduct, Patagonia offered the owners to document publicly the issues and the process of solving them on the Patagonia website.  

The owners accepted; The reach, brand endorsement, and quality of the messaging earned the factory new clients and grew their business.  

Stories should be told well. 

The fun part, and the one that is feeding our “Creative Economy.”  

As early as the ‘70s, sustainability was not only the reason why the company innovated, but also what it talked about when it wanted to sell, and when it did, it ensured that it was done eloquently. When the company replaced pitons with blockers, they did it using the voice of pro-climber Doug Robinson, who started his byline with “There is a word for it, the word is clean.” 

The very book we are discussing here is a testament to Patagonia’s storytelling capabilities. It’s a book written by a brand, about how cool and nice and kind that very brand is, although it doesn’t come across as such.  

As Yvon puts it:  

“For the responsible company, then, strategy starts with the real story. To be credible – and relatable – a company’s story includes its virtues and vices, its strengths and weaknesses, as well as its aspirations. It must resonate with your employees’ perceptions of the company and their role in it. To be credible, the story you tell your employees should be roughly the same one you tell your banker, your customer, your suppliers, and the community at large. When your stories align, your stakeholders believe you. Your business strategy becomes something nobody wants to ignore.” 

Yvon Chouinard helps us flip the PR playbook, through the eyes of an entrepreneur who has agency over his product, company, and operations.  

He thinks of the truth he wants to tell, before he thinks of the company he wants to lead or the product he wants to sell. This has helped him align his company with his truth, and hence tell a very compelling story.  

And at a time of increased scrutiny, brand stories can easily be applauded or debunked, consequently raising the standard for truthful storytelling higher than ever. It’s a   challenge that extends to marketers that shape these narratives—a challenge we welcome and embrace. 

In May 2024, Vero became the largest Southeast Asian Communications Consultancy to be recognized by BCorp for its operational and governance standards. The high level of self-awareness that the certification required, and the transparency and disclosure requirements that it entails are giving us a unique opportunity to keep telling important stories about our role as an employer and a Consultancy in Southeast Asia.  

Yvon and Patagonia’s stories inspired us to think of our business differently.  

Flip the playbook, start with the story.