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What you believe: The best sustainability stories are true
Posted on 04.12.12
“Nobody is going to buy your product because it’s green and it is inferior. It has to be a win-win deal. It has to be better, and it has to be green.”
— Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia, Inc.
We might add to Mr. Chouinard’s observation, “Your product has to be better because it’s green.” Otherwise, your brand just gets smothered in the aroma of springtime-fresh marketing that consumers have long since learned to distrust. These days, virtually every brand has a sustainability story to tell. But just like deceptive product claims, insincere declarations of corporate responsibility rarely pass the sniff test.
As Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”
Chouinard himself serves as a perfect example. A renowned climber, Chouinard noticed in the early 1970s that his favorite routes in Yosemite were being severely damaged by protective pitons hammered into the rock. Even though he derived most of his own income from selling these same pitons, Chouinard evangelized for a different method of protection and, in the process, sold a lot of the climbing chocks that would soon transform image and impact of the sport.
In the mid 1980s, Chouinard decided to commit one percent of yearly sales or 10 percent of profits, whichever was greater, to environmental projects that were often staffed full-time by his own employees. That commitment grew into the 1% for the Planet movement, with more than 1,300 business members worldwide. In the 1990s, when a self-imposed environmental impact study revealed that “100% cotton” was actually 27% formaldehyde and other chemicals, Chouinard invested in processes to make organic cotton perform just as well, and as a result helped revolutionize the organic cotton farming industry.
Patagonia hires people and cultivates customers who share Chouinard’s values. A substantial portion of the company website is devoted to promoting those values through in-depth sustainability essays, and Patagonia reaches a wider audience through truly revolutionary initiatives such as its Black Friday Don’t Buy This Jacket campaign and its Common Threads Initiative, which encourages customers to buy and sell used Patagonia clothing on eBay rather than buying new and the throwing it out.
Reduce, repair, reuse and recycle: Contrary to conventional marketing messages? Yes. Effective? Yes, very effective for Patagonia – but only because it’s what Chouinard truly believes and only because Patagonia devotes the resources to living its principles and telling its story. That’s why a Fortune cover feature once described Chouinard’s Patagonia as The Coolest Company on the Planet.
In a world where green marketing stories are concocted in air-conditioned boardrooms, consumers are looking for ideas, actions and products they can really believe in. Patagonia’s success shows what’s possible when you have a passionate story to tell, and it happens to be true.
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