Patagonia has backed activists protecting bears ears national monument, among other causes. Photo: Brent Olson/shutterstock
High-end outdoor gear company Patagonia does not tread lightly when it comes to its environmentalist stances, especially since the 2016 election.
That’s put the firm in the spotlight, like the time it changed the company homepage to a black screen reading “The President Stole Your Land,” in response to the Trump administration shrinking national monuments in 2017. (It’s also suing the government over that decision.) Or right after the election, when the company made a remarkably rapid decision to donate 100 percent of its Black Friday sales.
The company has done it again, recently announcing it would donate the entire $10 million it saved as a result of the GOP’s corporate tax cut to environmental groups. And again, it didn’t mince words, with CEO Rose Marcario calling the tax break “irresponsible” and climate denial “just evil.”
With marketing trends driving more brands to embrace political causes, Patagonia’s past couple of years could be mistaken for a masterful PR campaign. But the company’s history shows its activism is no stunt. Patagonia is deadly serious about these issues, and a look at its grantmaking record backs that up.
No oversized novelty check to one or two NGOs, the $10 million in tax savings will almost certainly benefit hundreds of small nonprofits, part of Patagonia’s long-running support for local grassroots action on everything from clean water to climate change.
Now, it’s totally warranted to be skeptical of corporate giving, especially around environmental causes, as so much of it is transparently token gesture, if not self-serving. The apparel industry overall has a nasty environmental footprint, and Patagonia’s not free from criticism. It’s also kind of eye-roll-inducing to see an expensive brand so popular among wealthy consumers take such a radical positioning.
But Patagonia’s green grantmaking is for real, with support for activist causes that’s highly unusual in the annals of corporate philanthropy. And the company has been at it for decades.
Back in 1972, the company’s founder Yvon Chouinard first backed an environmental activist fighting development along the Ventura River near the company’s headquarters. (Check out this great NYT article on the company’s history and activism.) As Patagonia has grown, that basic approach has been replicated thousands of times, supporting local groups through retail locations, a corporate giving program, and international grants.
The “pledge 1 percent” approach to corporate philanthropy (donating 1 percent of profit, equity, time, and product) has become all the rage, with Salesforce a prominent champion. But Patagonia’s been donating 1 percent of its sales—on top of volunteer hours, donating clothes, and lately impact investing—since 1985.
That’s added up to more than $89 million in donations since it started the practice, and let’s be real, in the grand scheme of environmental philanthropy that’s not an earth-shattering amount. But the thing that’s always impressed me about these folks is the number and type of groups that Patagonia funds.
Corporate giving programs often tend toward grants to non-controversial NGOs, maybe for branded partnerships or sponsorships. Patagonia explicitly does not do this, giving between $2,500 to $15,000 grants to mostly local groups with small staffs. And while there’s a little beach cleanup stuff in the mix, the company is mainly looking for hell raisers—groups with direct action agendas involving root causes and movement building.
Funding goes through a few channels, including grants near local retail locations, a central corporate giving program, international grants, media grantmaking, and a separate program devoted to wild trout. In fiscal year 2017, it funded 954 groups across 38 countries. The United States is the largest location for grantees, along with Canada, Australia, Europe, and Japan.
Browsing through the grantees, you get a quick sense of the program’s range. There are a few big name groups, specifically the Sierra Club and its local chapters, as well as local offices of 350. But mainly you see a ton of local groups dedicated to protection of particular places, often with “riverkeeper” in the name.
Some of Patagonia’s most notable giving of late, related to its lawsuit against the Trump administration, has been around protection of national monuments. The company has been involved in the heated fight to protect Bears Ears in Utah since 2012, supporting Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Friends of Cedar Mesa, Utah Dine Bikeyah, and others.
One highlight in Australia is its backing for a group of activists who have challenged legislation undermining the right to protest peacefully, threatening farmers fighting to protect water resources from extractive industry.
The emphasis, in the last fiscal year at least, has been around protecting places—clean water, land, wildlife, keeping industry out, that kind of thing. But energy and climate are definitely in the mix. For example, a New York City store got involved in the push for a clean energy standard in the state, and Canadian grantees are working to stop fossil fuel infrastructure.
Given the big focus placed on climate change in the announcement of Patagonia’s latest $10 million pledge, I wouldn’t be surprised to see giving on this topic increase in coming years. If there’s one thing we’ve seen from Patagonia’s corporate activism—its goes where the fight is.