Patagonia's Yvon Chouinard goes off the grid in Wyoming.
His solution, for now, is simple: Have a Patagonia ski parka with a rip in the arm? Don't throw it away and buy a new one. Send it back, and the company will sew it up. Is your tent beyond repair? Send it back, and Patagonia will recycle the material.
You can almost hear Wal-Mart's executives gasping all the way from Bentonville, Ark. But Patagonia may be onto something. The private company, with annual sales of $400 million, reports that it makes money even while encouraging its customers to consume less. And in at least one sense, it has won over Wal-Mart (Fortune 500). In 2008, Patagonia joined with the big-box store to launch the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, whose members now produce more than 30% of all clothing sold globally. The goal is to develop the tools to measure, monitor, and reduce the impact the apparel industry has on the environment. It is no easy task. Tracing the origins of, say, a shirt's raw materials can be devilish. You might know that a Chinese maker of the cloth is doing her best to uphold environmental standards, but what about the company that supplied the dye? ,
Chouinard's critics point out that he can afford to go radically green because, as the owner of a small private company, he can think long-term without the pressure of public outrage at quarterly earnings. Reducing a corporation's impact on the environment is good for shareholders, he counters. The next generation of consumers -- including millions of millennials who eat and wear organic -- do not take kindly to polluters. The consequences in this age of social media can be severe. Chouinard also says he believes that companies that make their products with fewer resources will lower their costs and be in a better competitive position as the prices of oil, steel, water, and other raw materials inevitably rise due to increased demand from growing populations.
When one looks at the unbridled growth in China, India, and other parts of the developing world, where billions are vying for an American lifestyle, it's hard to imagine that Chouinard's utopian world of less consumption, less waste, and higher-quality goods will prevail. (How low-income consumers will afford high-quality products, he doesn't say.) He does understand the challenge, pointing out that a Patagonia polo shirt, made of organic cotton, consumes in the making enough daily drinking water for 900 people and produces 30 times its weight in CO2 and three times its weight in waste. Sustainable? No economic activity is yet sustainable, but Chouinard is leading the charge to get us there.
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