I first heard of Patagonia 3 years ago, when I came across their store near Town Hall in Sydney. Intrigued, I went in to casually browse the collection and came out frustrated, complaining to my friends about the $400 (AUD) price tag on a bomber jacket I liked. No way I could afford that on my student budget.
Little did I know that Patagonia is known for selling high-performance gear that leaves the tiniest footprint possible. Stuck amidst the fast fashion cycle with Zara and H&M, the idea that a brand would sell clothes that are built to last for years was new to me.
Over the years, as my interest in social enterprises and sustainability grew, I heard more and more about Patagonia and its business and environmental philosophies, especially their policy of committing 1% of total sales to grassroots environmental groups. I decided to delve deeper and understand more about the brand and its founder, Yvon Chouinard and picked up his memoir Let My People Go Surfing a few months back.
Chouinard, known for his love for the outdoors and climbing, started a climbing equipment company called Chouinard Equipment in 1964, which slowly transformed into Patagonia selling outdoor clothing and gear. In the book, Chouinard mentions he never wanted to be a businessman, he didn’t care that much about making money; he simply needed to make a little cash so he could go climbing…and well, he thought, “why not make climbing gear to do it?”
Patagonia is famous for telling its customers never to buy another jacket or offering free repairs on their product. It considers themselves an “activist company” and rightly so, because of their constant efforts in conservation and sustainability which is weaved into every aspect of their business, from product design to finance. Setting a pioneering model in brand transparency, Patagonia has been influential in raising awareness and advocating for environmental issues.
The book goes into detail explaining each aspect of the business, from the production and distribution to marketing and environment philosophy. While each of them is inspirational, I got hooked to their Human Resource Philosophy.
Now I’m not a big fan of HR, but I’ve constantly wondered how organizations find people who believe in their mission statement and live by their values. I’ve never been involved in hiring, but to me, it seems like the most challenging aspect of running a purposeful business, and I think Patagonia does it exceptionally well.
Patagonia has a unique management philosophy and approach to the hiring process and employee benefits. These revolutionary systems benefit not only their customers but also enhances the employee experience. So whats makes them stand out?
Customers become employees
Patagonia aims to employ as many true Patagonia customers as possible. This is so they have a direct relationship with the product of their work. The goal is not to think like a customer, rather, as a customer, to get upset when a product does not meet their expectations, and to be proud when it does.
“We seek core Patagonia customers, people who like to spend as much time as possible in the mountains or the wild. We seek out dirtbags who feel more at home in a base camp, than they do in an office.”
Patagonia relies on their networks of friends and business associates to find the best person for the job. And they try to hire from within as much as possible. They keep the job open until they find the best person for it and I think it makes sense because they can easily afford to hire slowly. I’m sure they also get a high number of applicants.
Chouinard says in the book “We don’t want stars seeking special treatment, we look for the best person for the job, even if it means keeping a position open for a long time”.
They value diversity of all kinds. Patagonia aims to hire people who fit the company culture and aligns with its mission statement, while representing cultural and ethical diversity.
Mission Statement: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis
Patagonia is a global corporation and said to have booked roughly $1 billion in revenue last year, so I’m sure the regular employee benefits are top-notch. Other than having free yoga classes, organic food cafeteria, and paid paternity/maternity leaves, Patagonia offers more unmatchable benefits.
No doubt the staff turnover rate is only 4 percent (the retail and consumer product sector average is more than triple that at 13 percent).
Let My People Go Surfing
Patagonia has a let my people go surfing flex time policy. This policy allows employees to work flexible hours as long as the work gets done. Everyone can make their own work time. Chouinard mentions that rarely has an employee abused their benefits.
“Remember, work has to be fun. We value employees who live rich and rounded lives. We run a flexible workplace, and we have ever since we were a blacksmith shop that shut down whenever the waves were six feet, hot and glassy. Our policy has always allowed employees to work flexible hours, as long as the work gets done with no negative impacts on others. A serious surfer doesn’t plan to go surfing next Tuesday at two o’clock. You go surfing when there are waves and the tide and wind are right.”
Have kids? It’s all sorted if you work at Patagonia
Patagonia invests heavily in childcare programs as it eventually helps in enhanced employee engagement, increased productivity and low turnover. They have on-site childcare in their offices and established the Great Pacific Child Development Centre at their HQ. Employees are encouraged to visit their kids at childcare between work hours. Chouinard says children’s laughter is a regular sound in the offices.
At the same time, parents don’t have to worry about picking up their kids from school, for example, and enjoy the luxury of having lunch and playing their kids during work hours.
One thing to note is that the program is not free, but subsidized. And the company is often applauded for promoting women into leadership positions and supporting mothers with unheard-of policies, like paying to send a nanny on a business trip, so that an executive can travel with her child but also be fully productive. Patagonia claims a 100% retention rate for its working mothers for several years.
Patagonia is also known for hiring activists and any employee arrested during peaceful protests will have their bail paid for.
This is just a glimpse in a company that appears on no shortage of bringing revolutionary changes to the way business is done. There’s plenty more to learn about Patagonia, I was in awe of their supply chain and manufacturing processes and how they empower and invest in their suppliers. I highly recommend reading the book, and get a hard copy if you can, it’s got pretty pictures in it.
Oh, and I think it’s time to buy myself a Patagonia jacket now and hopefully, work with them one day 😉
All quotes and info taken from Yvon Chouinard’s book: Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman.