Patagonia: An Exemplar of Deontology

Our world moves exponentially faster today than it ever has before. Utilizing incredible advancements in technology, we have been able to revolutionize the ways we live, communicate, and conduct business. Corporations, many of which began as very small operations, now control billions of dollars and employ thousands of workers all across the globe. Unfortunately, our consumption-based culture has created an artificial “environment” that exists within the greater ecosystem of our planet. For it to thrive, we rely the natural world to supply these corporations with raw materials, which are later converted into consumable products often at the lowest possible cost. Sadly, these gifts are discarded back into the environment as waste, resulting in the unprecedented levels of pollution we experience today. Our current technological capabilities have facilitated this process, and have become one of the greatest threats to the health of our planet. However, one might ask, is it possible that these immensely powerful corporations could utilize their resources to help establish a respect for the natural world from which we have grown so distant? In the following paper I will prove that Patagonia is a corporation that does not only compete at the highest level in its industry, but remains committed to environmentally responsible business practices. Using the Kantian approach to ethics known as deontology, I will evaluate Patagonia’s business activities and demonstrate how a focus on sustainability can simultaneously benefit both the natural world and a company’s bottom line.

Today’s technology is absolutely incredible. With a few taps of a finger on a pocket-sized device, one is essentially granted access to any information they desire. The ability to instantaneously search, browse, and purchase products from anywhere in the world has certainly had a profound effect on business, and more specifically, the apparel industry. To a traditional businessman, this consumer trend might just be another opportunity for his company to increase its margins through the many methods of consumer engagement enabled by technology. From an environmentalist’s perspective, it could be an opportunity to monitor an ecosystem, measure emissions, and help decrease pollution. The question Yvon Chouinard asked is, can’t an organization do both? Over the last half-century, the founder of Patagonia discovered a way to utilize modern technology not only to profit, but to find the most environmentally responsible ways to conduct business. By creating a transparent, honest company with a simple mission, he was able to succeed in both the corporate and environmental spheres. At Patagonia, the same technology that has distanced us from the natural world has been used to unite us once again.

In the mid-1960s Yvon Chouinard was honorably discharged from the army and returned to his home in Ventura, California. Immediately, he resumed his lifelong passion for climbing by taking on one of the most challenging vertical climbs in the world. After the trip, he rented a shed in which he redesigned and crafted his own tools. Inspired by the French aviator, Antoine de Saint Exupèry, who claimed that “perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away,” Chouinard found a passion for simplistic design that enhanced each product’s reliability and functionality (Chouinard, 25). To keep up with the demand generated by his very modest first catalogue, he hired a few friends and started Chouinard Equipment. The most important facet of this young organization was the way in which the founders “would return from every trip to the mountains with new ideas for improving existing tools” (Company History). Allowing their experiences to influence their design decisions would become one of the most vital aspects of Chouinard Equipment, and eventually Patagonia. By 1970, the company was the largest climbing hardware supplier in the country. At this point, however, they discovered that their climbing pitons were harming the environment by causing substantial cracks in rock faces that were once completely untouched. Upon learning this information, Chouinard and his partner, Tom Frost, immediately began to phase the products out. The team found an aluminum replacement for the archaic pitons and successfully shifted the entire industry to the more sustainable alternative. “This was to be the first big environmental step [they] would take over the years. It was a huge business risk – pitons were then still the mainstay of the business – but it had to be done” (Company History). Even in its earliest stages, Patagonia’s unwavering commitment to environmental responsibility was a core component of its mission.

Chouinard at work
Chouinard at work

To supplement their wildly successful climbing hardware, Chouinard Equipment released the Patagonia clothing line. This revolutionary creation utilized tough fabrics borrowed from rugby, soccer, and football equipment. Soon, climbers across the nation hung up their wool and cotton products in favor of Patagonia’s innovative polypropylene or polyester gear. Field-tested and later refined by Chouinard and his employees, the lighter, stronger, and warmer clothing line changed the face of climbing forever. As the company continued to grow, however, so did its awareness of environmental devastation. At a local conference one year, a young biology student gave a presentation proving that wildlife still existed in the presumably barren Ventura River. Though his restoration plan was defeated, the student was given office space and a mailbox at Patagonia, in addition to a small monetary investment into the project. Ultimately, in Patagonia’s own words, the student “taught us three important lessons: that a grassroots effort could make a difference; that a degraded habitat could, with effort, be restored; and that the natural world wasn’t just in the far away silent places” (Chouinard & Stanley, 55). After this point, employees began to realize that “nature still lived outside wilderness, lived where we lived, […] and we could help give it a space to thrive. We had a responsibility to do so” (Chouinard & Stanley, 55). Such a powerful message would one day come to define a large part of the company’s mission and result in one of the most respected corporate sustainability efforts of our generation.

Patagonia’s continued growth did not distract the company from its original purpose. Instead, it allowed the company’s executives to focus on perfecting and cementing a fully sustainable supply chain. Though this was no easy task, the young company considered itself responsible for the environmental footprint left by all its business activities. After an accident in which Patagonia employees were nearly poisoned due to the materials used in certain clothing items, the company set out to improve its manufacturing process and “commissioned a study to asses the environmental impacts of the four fibers most commonly used in [its] clothes: cotton, polyester, nylon, and wool” (Chouinard & Stanley, 62). The results of this investigation revealed that harvesting such materials resulted in substantial amounts of chemical waste. Clearly, this business model was not sustainable. Regardless the financial toll it would surely take on the company, Patagonia executives decided to take their “cotton sportswear 100 percent organic” within one year (Chouinard & Stanley, 63). This was an ambitious undertaking for any company, but driven by their commitment to environmental health, they succeeded.

Over the years, Patagonia has continued to create new ways to enrich our planet. In 2001, for instance, Yvon Chouinard and his friend Craig Mathews “started an organization called 1% for the Planet, an alliance of businesses pledging to donate at least 1% of sales toward active efforts to protect and restore our natural environment” (Chouinard, 250). If a company agrees to support this cause, they are able to use the 1% logo as a means to communicate their environmental commitment to customers. Similarly, in 2005, Patagonia created the Footprint Chronicles. In its first season, this “mildly interactive mini-website […] traced five Patagonia products geographically from design, to fiber, to weaving or knitting, to dyeing, to sewing, to delivery at the Reno warehouse” (Chouinard & Stanley, 67). The experiment also collected the “carbon emissions, energy use, and waste, as well as the distance travelled from origin to warehouse” (Chouinard & Stanley, 67). This traditionally misleading information was rarely, if ever, presented in such a “transparent and compelling” manner by any other company, allowing Patagonia to further differentiate itself from its competitors (Chouinard & Stanley, 67). A final notable achievement is the company’s certification as a Benefit Corporation, or B-Corp. To qualify for this distinction, Patagonia legally proved its commitment to maintaining a sustainable business model and high level of social responsibility. By signing the Declaration of Interdependence, B-Corps like Patagonia have pledged to be the change they seek in the world, conduct business as if people and place matter, aspire to do no harm and benefit all through their products, and understand that they are responsible for each other and for future generations (B-Corps Declaration). In addition to other initiatives like the Worn Wear campaign, which celebrates the longevity of their products so consumers can help conserve resources, and their Vote the Environment crowd-sourced art collection, these movements have disrupted the industry and positioned Patagonia as the champion of sustainable equipment and apparel.

After exploring Patagonia’s remarkable dedication to their original mission, it is clear that they serve as a perfect example of how a deontological approach to ethics can result in a successful business. Deontology is rooted in the belief that a decision is morally “right” is based on “abstract universal principles or values such as honesty, promise keeping, fairness, loyalty, rights, justice, compassion, and respect for persons and property” (Trevino and Nelson, 91). As opposed to consequentialists, who “hold that choices—acts and/or intentions—are to be morally assessed solely by the states of affairs they bring about”, deontological theories claim that “certain moral principles are binding, regardless of the consequences” (Alexander & Moore; Trevino & Nelson, 91). Emmanuel Kant, one of the leading theorists on this branch of ethics, “described these duties as categorical and referred to the fundamental principle of ethics as the categorical imperative” (Bowie, 4). Often called the “universal of universals,” the categorical imperative is “the principle that serves as a guide to the discovery of all subordinate moral principles” (Nardin & Mapel, 138). Most commonly, this concept was formulated in three parts, which I will use in my explanation of Patagonia’s ethical behavior.

Kant’s first guiding principle of deontology is to “act on maxims which you can will to be universal laws of nature” (Bowie, 4). By this, he simply means that before an action is taken, one should consider the state of a world in which everyone acted in such a manner. Scholars such as Hegel and Bradley have criticized Kant’s theory, claiming that his arguments might not apply if one removes the condition to which they originally consider. For instance, “if there is a practice of private property, then a maxim that permitted stealing would be self-contradictory. However, there is nothing self-contradictory about a world without he practice of private property” (Bowie, 5). Though this might hold true in such an example, a different interpretation of Kant’s theory states that making an exception of one’s self is immoral if his action cannot be universalized (Bowie, 6). This second argument very closely sums up Patagonia’s ethical approach to business, which has remained intact since its formation. Such beliefs are infused in the company’s mission and reflected in their consistent environmental initiatives. As a B-Corp, they very strongly believe that corporations have a responsibility to act in the best interest of the planet and that considering one’s self an exception from that duty is wrong. If all corporations acted on that maxim, we would find ourselves living on a much healthier planet.

The second component of this theory is to “always treat the humanity in a person as an end, and never as a means merely” (Bowie, 4).   To further explain this point, Kant claims that a human’s free will marks him as having value beyond price (Bowie, 7). With regard to economic transactions, he names coercion and deception the “most fundamental forms of wrongdoing to others—the roots of all evil” (Bowie, 8). Kant does not reject the idea of business relationships, as long as both parties benefit from an exchange. He does, however, indicate that businesses “should be arranged so that they contribute to the development of human rational and moral capacities,” rather than inhibiting them (Bowie, 8). At Patagonia, employees enjoy a great deal of freedom to explore the outdoors through their “Let My People Go Surfing Flextime policy” and receive a “generous but strategic” array of benefits (Chouinard, 171-172). Their offices are in the open, and group work is much preferred to “quiet thinking space” (Chouinard, 178). These managerial decisions are designed to mimic animal behavior in the wild, meaning those who “live in groups or flocks constantly learn from one another” (Chouinard, 178). The highest respect for others is embedded in Patagonia’s corporate culture and is a large part of their identity.

The final element of Kant’s categorical imperative is to act “as if you were a member of an ideal kingdom of ends in which you were both subject and sovereign at the same time” (Bowie, 4). More simply, Kant is suggesting that the rules governing any organization must be endorsed by all members within that entity. Furthermore, each person should be treated with dignity and respect or, in other words, as an end. As we have already seen, Patagonia embodies these principles down to its core. The unique familial culture they share “runs on trust rather than on authoritarian rule” (Chouinard, 179). For example, the CEO reserves the best parking spots for eco-friendly vehicles and buys his own lunch each day; even enjoying a free meal “would send a message to the employees that it’s ok to take from the company” (Chouinard, 179).

Though Kant never explicitly related his ethical work to the world of business, it is clear that his theories are very relevant to Patagonia’s story. After exploring the revolutionary management techniques and corporate culture within the company, the links to Kantian ethics are undeniable. Over the last 50 years, Patagonia has demonstrated that a business can do “good things and make a profit without losing its soul” (Chouinard, 3). Despite the significant changes our world has undergone since its creation, the company’s original purpose and mission have remained remarkably intact. In the words of Yvon Chouinard, “in every long lasting business, the methods of conducting business may constantly change, but the values, the culture, and the philosophies remain constant” (Chouinard, 84). Through his management of Patagonia, Chouinard has proven that a trade-off between profits and sustainability does not have to exist in any corporation. In more Kantian terms, “perhaps we should view profits as a consequence of good business practices rather than as the goal of business” (Bowie, 13). Together, I believe sustainable businesses like Patagonia can help other corporations shift their focus away from the bottom line and climb toward a greener future.



Works Cited

  1. Alexander, Larry and Moore, Michael, “Deontological Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Accessed 29 Mar. 2015.
  1. Bowie, Norman E.  A Kantian Approach to Business Ethics, in A Companion to Business Ethics (ed R. E. Frederick), Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999. Malden, Massachusetts, USA.
  1. B Corporation Declaration of Interdependence. Online.
  1. Chouinard, Yvon. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. New York: Penguin Press, 2005. Print.
  1. Chouinard, Yvon; Stanley, Vincent. The Responsible Company : What We’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 Years. New York: Patagonia, 2013. Ebook Library. Web. Accessed 29 Mar. 2015.
  1. Nardin, Terry, & Mapel, David, R. Traditions of International Ethics, Volume 17 of Cambridge Studies in International Relations. Cambridge University Press, 1992. Ebook. Accessed 26 Mar. 2015.
  1. “Company History.”
  1. The Footprint Chronicles Video. Youtube.
  1. Trevino, L. K., & Nelson, K. A. (2007). Managing business ethics: Straight talk about how to do it right. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  1. Image: EarnYourTurns and Patagonia Archives.
  2. Featured Image: Fast Company.

One thought on “Patagonia: An Exemplar of Deontology”

  1. Was Patagonia ever publically-traded?

    What will happen when Choinard steps down or passes away? WHat would you want to see in the organization to build on his legacy?


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