A Truly Sustainable Company Doesn’t Exist (Yet): Frameworks for Building a Climate-Positive Future

When we think of role model companies, pinnacles to look towards in the search for a more sustainable business, Patagonia frequently tops the list. As a company with a B Impact Score of 151 (80 qualifies you as a certified B Corp), who co-founded 1% for the planet, and pays bail for employees who engage in civil demonstrations, it seems like a North Star for sustainable business practice. Where would it leave us, then, if the founder himself believed that Patagonia is not a truly sustainable business? And, in fact, that no such thing exists?

In the last 38 years, Patagonia has given away more than $79 million in cash and in-kind donations, mostly to grassroots conservation activists. Since 1996, they’ve pledged to give one percent of sales, in good years and in bad, to environmental causes. They’ve even gone as far in the effort of doing good as to publish an advertisement requesting viewers not to purchase their jackets (see the image below).

Picture of a Patagonia advertisement in the New York Times that reads, "Don't Buy This Jacket."
Patagonia advertisement from the Friday, November 25, 2011 edition of the New York Times.

When I purchased my first Patagonia down sweater in high school, I had no idea about the level of advocacy happening within the company. And, when I tore the sleeve and took it to the Georgetown store to have it replaced, I was unaware of their commitment to repairs.

In the decade that has passed, I’ve become aware of, and increasingly impressed by, their commitment to their trade. And while Patagonia’s trade might outwardly be business, internally, their bottom line is equated to “the amount of good that the business has accomplished over the year” (Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, pg. 151).

Ultimately, however, the reluctant businessman and founder of Patagonia Yvon Chouinard believes, “Doing the least amount of harm in making our products is commendable, but doing less harm doesn’t mean the same as doing good.” (pg. 213)

As we strive to find and create climate work, it’s a bit disheartening to hear the leader of a celebrated sustainability champion recognize that even a “good” company’s success comes at the expense of the planet. Given that this man, who once referred to himself as an “existential dirtbag,” continues to pursue this business, we can assume he still has hope. We know, at the very least, that he’s not in it for the money.

Read more: Ready to Make Climate Change Your Career? Here’s How.

In their viral announcement in September 2022, Chouinard wrote a letter detailing the fact that he and his family had transferred full ownership of Patagonia to the Patagonia Purpose Trust & Holdfast Collective. In his letter announcing the transfer, he wrote of the planet, “It’s clear we’ve exceeded its limits. But it’s also resilient. We can save our planet if we commit to it.”

If Yvon Chouinard can have hope, then you and I can too. Taking inspiration from his wisdom after fifty years of building Patagonia, we’ve put together four guidelines we can follow in order to make our jobs and companies as sustainable as possible.

1. Find your (and/or your company’s) land mines

One of the hardest things for a business to do is to investigate the environmental effects of its most successful product and, if it’s bad, to change it or pull it off the shelves. Imagine that you’re the owner of a company that makes land mines. You’re employing people, and you’re one of the best employers around, giving people jobs and benefits, but you’ve never thought about what land mines actually do. And then one day you go to Bosnia or Cambodia or Mozambique, and you see all these maimed innocent people, and you say, “Wow! This is what land mines do?” You can either get out of the land mine business (or tobacco or fast food) or continue, knowing what your products really do.

– Let My People Go Surfing, pg. 190

This is probably the most uncomfortable, yet impactful, action we can collectively take. It’s also the most obvious—how do we make our work more sustainable? By first finding what’s unsustainable about it.

2. Redefine growth

We have to get away from thinking that all growth is good. There’s a big difference between growing fatter and growing stronger.

– Let My People Go Surfing, pg. 231

Getting stronger is guaranteed to hurt. Intense exercise causes trauma to our muscle fibers, which in turn forces satellite cells to multiply and form new muscle strands. This is growth. It starts by tearing something—often a good something—apart, and building it anew. Once we’ve found our land mines, we have two choices. We can sit there and allow them to go off, or we can do the difficult work of eliminating them. We call this process growth.

3. Recognize your company’s capacity for good

I’ve been a businessman for almost sixty years. It’s as difficult for me to say those words as it is for someone to admit being an alcoholic or a lawyer. I’ve never respected the profession. It’s business that has to take the majority of the blame for being the enemy of nature, for destroying native cultures, for taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and for poisoning the earth with the effluent from its factories.

Yet business can produce food, cure disease, control population, employ people, and generally enrich our lives. And it can do these good things and make a profit without losing its soul.

– Let My People Go Surfing, pg. 231

Economist Milton Friedman once titled an essay, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.” He’s not the only person to have held this opinion. But, as Kenneth Boulding once said, “Anyone who thinks you can have infinite growth on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.”

Businesses have many stakeholders, and shareholders are just one portion of them. Beyond their capacity to grow profits, businesses have incredible altruistic and philanthropic potential. They have the capacity to sustain humanity and fulfill our needs, but the incentives are currently in the wrong place.

Read more: Yes, You Can Take Climate Action Without Leaving Your Regular Job. Here’s How.

The incentive for pharmaceutical companies isn’t to cure humanity’s ailments, it’s to make money. The incentive for lawyers isn’t to defend and protect humanity, it’s to make money. The incentive for a farmer isn’t to feed humanity, it’s to make money. The incentive for a hospital isn’t to prevent health problems, it’s to make money.

Collectively, we have to move away from Friedman’s ideology and into Boulding and Chouinard’s. Infinite growth on a finite planet is simply not possible, but businesses do not need to be made obsolete. We have to change their incentives from profit to goodness. From simple revenues to the complex calculations of individuals fed, diseases cured, people employed, and lives enriched.

4. Acknowledge and capitalize on your impact

If you want to change government, you have to aim at changing corporations, and if you want to change corporations, you first have to change the consumers…if the demand for sustainably grown products were to become great enough, the markets would change, corporations would have to respond, and then governments would follow.

– Let My People Go Surfing, pp. 227-28

A lot of people will argue that individual actions don’t have statistical significance. But what they don’t account for is the way shifts in individual behavior can influence other individuals and compound into an impactful shift in consumer demand.

Someone, somewhere, is at the helm of a corporation and could easily make choices that would benefit society. But they won’t make those choices until they’re rewarded for them.

At the moment, society rewards growth (whether growing fatter or growing stronger). We admire consumption. Until we say, collectively, “No, we no longer want to massively over consume”, we’re done for. Individually, we have the power to reject growth for the sake of growth, and demand that companies value their capacity to do good over their profits.

Paving a path for sustainable business

Patagonia has made some certifiably eccentric choices when it comes to their policies, and they’ve paid off. They’ve become as sustainable of a company as one could hope to find, paving the road for others to follow.

And while there’s a long way to go in shaping the global economy into one that recognizes the planet’s limitations, we aren’t starting from zero. Employees in companies as big as Amazon have lobbied for their employers to create sustainability strategies.

Some of them have faced serious pushback, and even lost their jobs because of it, but it was worth doing. They’ve made an impact, and there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same.

Kirsten Konopnicki