As an outdoor clothing and gear retailer, Patagonia might be considered an unlikely catalyst for political change. Yet the company, started by west coast climbers with an environmental bent in the 1960s, has become something unique in American politics. Patagonia is perhaps the best example of a company that has baked advocacy right into its business model. As The New York Times wrote, “Patagonia has been unapologetically political since the 1970s.”
The company website proclaims it boldly: “We’re in business to save our home planet.”
The stance puts Patagonia on the forefront of an emerging trend. American businesses are increasingly getting active on social and political issues, a strategy that would have been anathema to many companies just a few years ago. Yet today, corporations have spoken out on some of the most divisive issues on the political landscape, including climate change, gun control, immigration and more.
“Companies are coming to understand that American consumers want them to be more vocal on social issues,” said Jeb Ory, co-founder of Capitol Canary. “Patagonia has understood this for years and they have championed a value system shared by their customers. They are in a class by themselves. They are pioneers.”
That makes Patagonia a company to watch in this year’s election. Whatever the company chooses to do, it’s voice is formidable and will be taken seriously.
A growing body of research suggests that customers want companies to play a leading role in solving social problems, much the way Patagonia has.
The Edelman Trust Barometer, which has studied trust globally for almost two decades, indicated last year that Americans place a great deal of faith in their employer and in company leaders. Consider:
- 76 percent said CEOs should take the lead on change, rather than waiting for government solutions. This included leadership on issues such as race discrimination, equal pay and sexual harassment.
- 71 percent said it was important for their employer, and specifically their CEO, to respond to challenging times. This included industry issues, national crisis and political events.
- 80 percent of Americans said they trust their employer, far more than the 47 percent who trust the media and the 48 percent who trust the government.
- 58 percent said they trust their employer as a trustworthy source of information about social issues.
While not every company will be as comfortable with activism as Patagonia, it’s clear that many companies are looking for ways to become more active, particularly in the 2020 election. In many cases, civic engagement—registering people to vote and providing information—has become the answer.
A study by Harvard researchers Sofia Gross and Ashley Spillane in 2019 examined the civic engagement activities of eight major companies in the 2018 midterm elections. “We know politics at work can be tricky, but there’s evidence that corporate political engagement is beneficial to businesses,” they wrote in Harvard Business Review. “Studies show that consumers are more loyal to brands that take a clear stance on issues they care about.”
Patagonia is a case study in that principle and the company’s reputation as an advocacy leader is well earned. The company funded more than 1,000 grassroots groups in the last year and, devoting 1 percent of sales to activist efforts (what it calls the “Earth tax”), has raised more than $89 million since the 1980s.
But few issues attracted more attention than the company’s fight against the Trump administration over protection for federal lands. When the administration decided to substantially reduce protected land in Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments in 2017, Patagonia fought back.
The company sued to block the administration’s move and, in a dramatic gesture, blacked out its home page and delivered a simple message: “The President Stole Your Land.”
“For Patagonia, joining the legal fracas was both extraordinary and obvious,” the company said on its website. “For more than a decade the company has worked side by side with the tribes, climbers, canyoneers, trail runners and anglers to protect these public lands, so when Trump tried to offer them up to oil, gas and mining interests instead, the decision to sue came quickly.”
Patagonia General Counsel Hilary Dessouky explained: “It took exactly one email to the board. And the response was instant: ‘Yes. Absolutely. Go for it.’”