October 31, 2006


Protecting Nature through Business - Patagonia Japan

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.50 (October 2006)
Toward a Sustainable Japan--Corporations at Work Article Series No.52

Yvon Chouinard, a mountaineer and eventually the founder of Patagonia, started selling hand-made pitons (metal spikes to drive into cracks in rock for support in climbing mountains) in 1957, at the age of 18. Not long afterwards, he and a friend established a mountain gear company in California. Chouinard's pitons acquired a good reputation because of their high quality, achieved through continuous improvement.

In those days, however, pitons were repeatedly driven into and removed from cracks in the rocks, and this damaged fragile rock faces little by little because the same cracks had to endure pitons being repeatedly hammered in. As rock climbing became more popular, Chouinard came to realize that conventional pitons would severely damage these precious natural features. In 1972, he decided to stop producing pitons, which at the time made up 70 to 80 percent of his company's sales.

He then developed and started marketing new mountaineering equipment which replaced conventional pitons. He called on climbers to protect natural rock surfaces in a "clean climbing" campaign. The new gear was not only harmless to rocks but also lighter and more functional, so that Chouinard's company was able to successfully replace its mainstay item and phase out old pitons within a few years.

"When we found that our product had been harming nature, we chose to stop manufacturing that product regardless of the difficulties involved." The commitment Chouinard made at that time as a result of this important experience still permeates Patagonia's corporate philosophy.

Patagonia started off as the clothing department of Chouinard's climbing hardware company in 1973. Its business now ranges from developing fabric materials to manufacturing and selling mainly outdoor clothing and sportswear for mountain climbing, surfing and other outdoor sports. Established in 1988, Patagonia Japan now has about 160 employees and markets Patagonia products in Japan. It has three sales channels, including 12 Patagonia retail shops, more than 200 stores that carry Patagonia products, and an online catalogue.

Patagonia recognizes that unspoiled nature is the foundation of its business, so its mission statement declares, "Build the best product, do no unnecessary harm and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis." Patagonia Japan implements the commitment expressed in this mission statement as faithfully as the head office in the United States.

To carry out the first part of the mission, "Build the best product, do no unnecessary harm," Patagonia strives to develop environment-friendly fabrics and establish recycling schemes, and has adopted the goal of producing all items from 100 percent recycled or recyclable fabrics in order to achieve sustainable circulation in the product life cycle.

Aware that its products were causing pollution of natural areas, in 1991 Patagonia conducted life cycle assessments of its products made from four main materials: cotton, wool, polyester and nylon. The results showed that all these materials were posing some environmental impacts, of which cotton had the most damaging effects. At that time, the cotton Patagonia used was being grown with large amounts of agricultural chemicals. In accordance with the assessment results, Patagonia began to phase out this kind of cotton and use organically-grown cotton instead; it completed this switch-over for all its cotton products by 1996. As for wool items, Patagonia has been using organic-certified wool for some of its products since 2004. This year (2006), it also started making woolen underwear with wool from sheep that eat only natural grass and drink spring water, in pastures where the number of sheep per acre is limited.

Patagonia's thermal-efficient, double-faced Synchilla (R) fleece has been a best seller since its first appearance on the market in 1985, and in 1993 the company began to mix in its PCR (R) (Post-Consumer Recycled) fiber made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. The proportion of PCR fiber in Synchilla was 50 percent at that time, but has now grown to 90 percent. Patagonia is actively researching how to increase the number of items that use recycled materials.

One of Patagonia's noteworthy achievements in 2006 was the launch of new CapileneR items at Patagonia stores around the world. The new Capilene uses more than 50 percent polyester fiber recycled from PET bottles or used Patagonia brand garments.

Capilene was first developed 20 years ago as quick-drying polyester fiber. In September 2005, Patagonia launched its Common Threads Recycling Program in Japan and the United States in order to collect used Capilene and reuse it to create new fibers. This program was developed jointly with a Japanese textile maker, Teijin Fibers, Ltd.

For new Capilene products, Patagonia uses natural ingredients to impart resistance to bacteria and odors instead of silver, which is a commonly used to deodorize fabric. Patagonia is also trying to replace chemicals with natural ingredients for dying and shrink-proofing other products as well.

In this way, Patagonia has continued its efforts to increase the number of products it makes with environment-conscious materials. Also, as a way of helping consumers find eco-friendly products, Patagonia labels these products with an "e-logo" mark (a white "e" on a green circle) in its catalog, starting with the 2006 fall/winter issue.

Activities aimed at realizing the second part of the Patagonia mission, "Use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis," are divided into financial support and non-financial support. Regarding financial support, Patagonia has voluntarily donated what it considers an "earth tax", equal to at least one percent of sales or at least ten percent of pre-tax profits, whichever is greater, for environmental protection and restoration. Donations awarded in the year from May 2005 to April 2006 amounted to US$2,218,795; the money was donated through various channels such as a grants program for grass-roots environmental organizations, to support year-round environmental campaigns conducted by the company, and as support for the Conservation Alliance, an environmental protection fund co-founded by outdoor businesses including Patagonia.

Like Patagonia US, Patagonia Japan supports environmental organizations in Japan through its grants program and the Conservation Alliance Japan, a network co-founded by Japanese outdoor-related companies including Patagonia Japan. Patagonia Japan has funded 24 environmental groups so far through the Conservation Alliance Japan.

A unique program of non-financial support is the Patagonia Employee Internship Program. Through this program, employees can take a leave of absence from their jobs at Patagonia for up to two months to work full-time for the environmental groups of their choice. Patagonia continues to pay their salaries and benefits during this time. In the case of Patagonia Japan, one employee from its Osaka store went to the Shiribetsu River in Hokkaido, northern Japan, to help save the endangered Itou salmon from extinction. Another employee from its Sapporo store in Hokkaido worked for an environmental organization dedicated to protecting the Teshio river system in Hokkaido. Another three employees joined in environmental activities at a national park in the Patagonia region of South America. This year again, a female employee went to the Patagonia region for three weeks at the end of October.

Employees who perform this internship play an important role by sharing their experiences and the beauty of nature with the public through the media and events at Patagonia retail stores.

Patagonia Japan places importance on holding lecture series and other events at its retail stores: all stores hold such events about once a month. The store in Shibuya, Tokyo, held an organic food market for two days in April 2006, in partnership with groups involved in producing and selling organic and chemical-free vegetables. This event was very popular, as organic foods are usually difficult to obtain despite the growing interest of the public. In October 2006, this event was held again in response to the success in April.

Like Patagonia US, Patagonia Japan promotes environmental activities in the course of all its business activities. For example, the company disseminates environment-related information through its brochures and web sites, and provides environment-related know-how relating to its products and activities to anyone who asks for it. Based on the themes adopted and information provided by Patagonia headquarters in the US, Patagonia Japan will continue to collaborate with relevant Japanese organizations, providing contact information, etc., in order to help Japanese customers understand and participate in environmental activities.

(Staff writer Eriko Saijo)