Ahead of Their Time

I mean, what other companies were focused on being responsible environmental stewards at that time? Well, it turns out that the answer is … at least one.

When I tell the Ray Anderson story, I try to contextualize it in various ways. I usually start by saying that Ray was a small-town Georgia boy who got a chance at a quality education because of his skills as a football player. If he had been any less dedicated on the gridiron or in the classroom, he may never have become an industrial and environmental pioneer.

I talk about his burning drive to be an entrepreneur and his committed belief that carpet tile would be the future of commercial floorcovering in America. He was ahead of his time when he launched Interface in 1973, and his first-mover advantage led to much of the company’s success in the decades that followed.

Then I share that Ray’s environmental epiphany came way back in 1994. Again, I stress that Ray was ahead of his time. I mean, what other companies were focused on being responsible environmental stewards at that time?

Well, it turns out that the answer is … at least one.

Patagonia, under the leadership of its founder Yvon Chouinard, has been environmentally pace-setting the business community for more than a generation. One of their earliest stories comes from 1972. At the time, Patagonia (then Chouinard Equipment) was the market-leader in climbing pitons, which are metal anchors that climbers hammer into rocks and connect to their safety ropes. These reusable pitons would be repeatedly hammered into and back out of the rock faces, eventually fracturing and disfiguring the climbing routes.

Recognizing this negative impact, the company innovated a replacement product, called a chock. Made of aluminum, these anchors could be set by hand, allowing climbers to be safe without damaging the rocks. Patagonia then phased out the pitons, which were still the mainstay of their business. Fortunately, Patagonia’s customers rewarded the company by shifting their demand to the new chocks.

In 1986, Patagonia made a truly groundbreaking promise. Having become increasingly aware of environmental degradation across the globe, Patagonia recognized the power of small, local NGOs dedicated to protecting ecosystems. Properly supported, these organizations could keep forests intact, rivers clean, and endangered species protected. Patagonia committed to donating 10% of annual profits to such organizations, later increasing their pledge to 10% of profits or 1% of sales, whichever is higher. They’ve honored that pledge every year.

About a decade later, following a commissioned environmental audit of their textile fibers, Patagonia was surprised to learn that cotton was the worst offender in their supply chain. Why? It turns out that since the second World War, cotton has been grown with massive amounts of toxic pesticides that pollute soils and local waterways. Patagonia committed to switching entirely to organic cotton, and they succeeded in completely transforming this portion of their supply chain in 18 months.

Today, they continue to lead by encouraging customers to repair gear and clothing instead of purchasing new items from them. They source recycled content in their products and make sure their facilities are operated efficiently. They accept all of their products back at the end of their lives for recycling or repurposing.

In short, they truly live their mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Next week, I’ll lead you on a tour of Apple’s commitments. They’ve still got work to do, but if they reach their goals, the benefits will be immense. Cheers y’all!