I began this series of posts on authenticity by quoting Yvon Chouinard. So it seems only fitting that I complete the circle and end with his company, Patagonia. It’s certainly among the most authentic of any organization that seeks to operate sustainably and contribute to society. What’s my evidence? Consider the following.
As I wrote in an earlier post, when a company lets in the sunlight—revealing its good and especially its bad impacts on society and the environment—it takes a critical step towards authenticity. Patagonia has launched one of the more audacious attempts to make itself transparent.
Take, for example, its “Footprint Chronicles” Web site. It’s built around a map of the world that offers an unflinching look at the good and the bad of manufacturing and transporting Patagonia’s wares. Click on the “Wool 2 Crew” shirt, for example, and you learn that the wool travels more than 16,000 miles from ranch to store. Patagonia’s cold-eyed verdict on its own performance: “This is not sustainable.”
*Patagonia’s authenticity also comes through in its hiring. The most important decision that any company can make is whom it lets in the door, and if you visit Patagonia’s headquarters in Ventura, California, you’ll find far more river rats and rock climbers than MBAs. If Patagonia were to reverse that ratio it would quickly become a poser. “We can hardly continue to make the best outdoor clothing if we become primarily an ‘indoor’ culture,” writes Chouinard in his book, Let My People Go Surfing . “So we seek out ‘dritbags’ who feel more at home in a base camp than they do in the office.”
*There’s another mark of authenticity: the story that Patagonia tells through its actions echoes the story it tells through its words. Chouinard considers Patagonia’s real bottom line to be the “amount of good” the business accomplishes over the course of a year, which sounds like a shiny piece of marketing copy. Apparently, it’s a bedrock value.
Many years ago, Chouinard phased out his piton business when he realized the iron spikes severely disfigured the rocks he so loved. When a startup kills off the mainstay of its business because it degrades the environment, we can probably conclude that the outfit means it when it says it seeks to do good.
Put aside the transparency, the hiring, and the values, and I’m still persuaded that Patagonia is basically the real deal, if only because Chouinard is so dismissive of all this hustle to be authentic. He argues that the fashion industry—and, I’d add, the advertising industry—has so exalted authenticity, it’s now just another one of those “meaningless words.” To my ear at least, that sounds pretty damn real.
I’ve had this soapbox for long enough. Now it’s your turn. What are your thoughts and suggestions for good companies that are trying to “make it real”? We’d love to hear from you.