The most impressive thing to me about Patagonia’s decision to give all profits made on Black Friday to grassroots environmental groups was the time frame.
Based on what the company’s VP for environmental activism says, it sounds like the plan came together in around two weeks. An internal team came up with the idea in the aftermath of the election and made the announcement just before Thanksgiving.
Taking their word, it really seems that Patagonia was moved to give in the same way that individuals have flocked to nonprofits in the wake of Donald Trump’s frightening victory. That's exactly the kind of perceived sincerity that makes people adore the brand.
Of course, they didn’t know at the time that it would mean giving away $10 million; they expected to do about $2 million in sales, but an enormous response beat the projection five-fold. The company already gives quite a bit to environmental groups, ever since 1985, when it decided to donate 1 percent of its global sales. But the Black Friday scheme ended up raising more than the company donated in the entire last fiscal year, around $7.1 million.
Second-most impressive is who the money goes to. Patagonia gives mostly to small, local grassroots groups (you can check the recipients in your area), and prefers direct action and public involvement. It supports a network of around 800 groups—that requires a lot more commitment than, say, sending a big hunk of money to one of the big greens (sorry Apple, sorry, WWF).
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It’s easy to be cynical about Patagonia’s giving, or any environmental corporate giving, for that matter, since capitalism as we know it tends to be consumerist and extractive. But Patagonia is at the forefront of a movement of companies that incorporate sustainability efforts and some sort of social activism into their business models.
The company is a B Corp, a certification of for-profit corporations that meet certain social, environmental and accountability standards. Its latest score under the rubric was 151—max is 200 and the median of companies that go through an audit is 55. Aside from its 1 percent giving program, the company takes a set of aggressive corporate responsibility steps, including scrutinizing its materials and supply chain, and fixing and recycling large quantities of its used products. It also launched an investment fund for environmentally responsible startups.
The company is the first to admit that it's not perfect, and it remains in many ways part of the problem. It's still a big company with a large footprint. Greenpeace has criticized it and other outdoor companies for using toxic chemicals in certain products. There’s also the fact that the company’s clothing is pricey and mainly serves as a luxury brand for upper-middle class environmentalists.
This raises the paradox surrounding the marketing genius of Patagonia's anti-growth message. The company has embraced an anti-consumerist campaign/marketing strategy in which it encourages people to buy less, and purchase only products they need and that are long-lasting. But sales and profits have gone up. Similarly, the Black Friday giving will very likely be great business for Patagonia. The company announced that thousands participated who had never purchased anything from them before.
The company has chalked up this anti-growth growth to more people getting onboard with its anti-consumption platform. In other words, growth in its own sales could lead to overall fewer products sales. But who knows if that's how it really plays out?
So is this good philanthropy, or is it good marketing? I’d say it’s both, and the two are actually intertwined.
Corporate philanthropy at its worst happens when a company publicly gives small amounts to solve a problem, but its other actions are completely out of step, directly perpetuating the problems. In the case of Patagonia, there’s an impressive synchronicity between its giving (which again, supports great organizations) and its corporate behavior, as well as the way that they both reinforce each other.
The question remains as to whether the greater textile industry can become truly environmentally friendly, or if a luxury outdoor clothing brand can steer it that direction, which can make the whole thing feel somewhat contradictory. But Patagonia is taking the right steps, walking the walk in what feels like a sincere way, far more than most companies in its industry. And through actions like its Black Friday giving, it’s sending a message to competitors that there’s success to be had in doing so.