The world’s climate agreement in Paris in late 2015 means there are fewer excuses not to take sustainability seriously, but for one company, green has been embedded into the business for so long that potential employees seek it out for this purpose.
Outdoor clothing specialist Patagonia originally began when its founder and his friends, all keen climbers, couldn’t get the gear they needed, so started making it themselves. While it proved to be a winning formula – Patagonia now operates in over 30 countries – the green work culture that permeates Patagonia’s offices is no mistake.
“We believe all manufacturing creates a footprint on the planet that is openly harmful. That informs everything else we do,” Patagonia’s vice-president of public engagement, Rick Ridgeway, says.
The company’s mission to cause no unnecessary harm and to use business to implement environmental solutions in various ways.
“Our philanthropy [where 1 per cent of sales] is given as a `earth tax’ is seen as a tax on ourselves for the privilege of doing business … The wealth the company creates goes back to the environment,” Ridgeway says.
That wealth is starting to add up. In 2014, Patagonia gave grants to 750 environmental organisations around the world, part of the $76 million of support provided in cash or kind since its beginnings in 1973.
Although it’s easy to start with a strong sustainability culture, it’s harder to stick with it. Patagonia succeeds by hiring outdoors people, even for indoors jobs, and as a result of anti-consumption campaigns such as 2011’s Don’t Buy This Jacket, it’s able to pick and choose staff.
“When somebody is looking for a job, if those things are important to them, they’ll come to Patagonia before they go to everyone else. We get up to 1000 applications for every job opening,” Ridgeway says.
For companies wanting to follow in Patagonia’s green footsteps, Ridgeway says that as a minimum, leadership has to be on board.
“The most common road map is to create a sustainability department, which typically has very little power in the organisation. If they are going to advance, they’ll have leadership at C-suite level, which begins to empower that department,” he says.
Eventually, the sustainability department’s goals will become embedded into each of the company’s operating practices. Speeding this process up mostly relies on motivated leadership.
“They can create a compensation and reward system to embed those goals into performance reviews … that will do it faster,” Ridgeway says.
Getting the ball rolling at all is best done with pragmatism rather than passion.
“The best argument anyone can make to their management is business value. In my experience [that] is increasingly significant … Many actions reducing the environmental footprint of a company can save money. Reductions in packaging are one example, as are water and energy use,” Ridgeway says.
He also believes pointing out the company’s commitment to sustainability at the recruitment stage provides a strategic advantage.
“Smart executives know that without sustainability commitment, they have no hope of attracting the best and brightest,” he says.
“The Generation Ys coming out of business school today are challenging companies and asking, `What are you doing to help the planet I’ve inherited from you?’ ”
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