A Kantian Analysis of Patagonia

Many companies in today’s apparel industry are not praised for their commitment to ethical practices or sustainability. The media is constantly criticizing companies for practicing child labor or having bad working conditions in their factories. Companies that focus on ethical practices do not receive as much attention as they deserve. Patagonia is one of these companies. I own Patagonia clothing and am very familiar with their products because of their popularity all over the Bucknell campus and the globe. I have seen men, woman, and children of all ages wearing Patagonia clothing. I never knew that Patagonia was a company that was based on sustainability and I believe that many still do not know what a sustainable company Patagonia is. Patagonia is a company that values social responsibility and sustainability over profit. Their mission is to, “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” (Chouinard, 78) The company’s success has been driven by their purely environmental approach. Today “Patagonia is one of the leading environmentally responsible companies on the planet, with revenue topping $500-million a year.”(Haid) It is clear that Patagonia’s business practices are environmentally friendly, but in this paper I will also answer the broader question of whether Patagonia is a morally virtuous company. I will ethically analyze Patagonia based on Emmanuel Kant’s ethical theories.

Yvon Chouinard founded Patagonia in 1973, but his passion for creating outdoor equipment and gear existed long before Patagonia’s creation. Yvon Chouinard was a passionate rock climber with a need. As an avid mountain climber he began to realize that he needed more functional climbing gear. This motivated him to build his own climbing gear, and soon people began demanding his products. Chouinard built a small shop in his parents’ backyard in Burbank, CA and began selling his gear to the public; soon the demand increased so much he couldn’t keep making his gear by hand. In 1965, he started a partnership with Tom Frost to form Chouinard Equipment (shown in photo below). By 1970, Chouinard Equipment had become the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the U.S.. (Chouinard, 31) Soon enough another need surfaced. He came to realize there was also a need for better climbing clothing. Chouinard and his wife, Malinda, began selling clothing as way to support the equipment business and in 1973 Chouinard founded Patagonia. Patagonia is currently privately owned and is based out of Ventura, California. Chouinard’s vision for the company always focused on selling products that had minimal impact on the environment. Due to dire financial issues in 1996, Chouinard considered selling the company, but instead, he chose to go in an even more sustainable direction. Patagonia began using organic cotton and decided to use more sustainable materials to focus on making more durable products. (Patagonia)


These two choices are part of the reason Patagonia is such a successful company today and this was only the beginning of Patagonia’s road towards sustainability and success. Patagonia’s unique business environment and numerous environmental initiatives are the two main contributors to their success. Despite Patagonia’s growth in the market, Chouinard was able to keep his cultural values alive. He wanted his employees to be his friends, who had diverse political, social, and religious beliefs. (Chouinard, 166) Chouinard strived to sustain a flexible workplace. “Employees worked flexible hours, allowing them to go surfing whenever there was a swell, go climbing for an afternoon, or get home early to pick up their children from the school bus.” (Chouinard, 171) The numerous benefits that Patagonia provides to their employee’s keep the culture relaxed and innovative. “The fact that employees are aligned with the company’s mission and find it meaningful is no small asset.” (Lazlo, 59) The employee’s passion for the environment and support of the company’s environmental initiatives keep the company focused on sustainability.

Patagonia’s most recent environmental campaign began just last year and focuses on creating a “Responsible Economy”. Patagonia defines a responsible economy as one that allows healthy communities, creates meaningful work, and takes from the earth only what it can replenish. “Every year, humans use the earth’s resources at a rate nearly one and a half times faster than nature can replace essential “services” such as clean water, clean air, and the stable climate all businesses and societies depend on.” (The Responsible Economy) Starting in 2013, Patagonia has been exploring and trying to find answers to this issue. Since then Patagonia has been promoting the concept that everyone must learn to consume less and use resources far more productively. (The Responsible Economy) They have been making efforts towards achieving this through their many initiatives. Their initiatives are focused on three major areas: involving the consumer in their sustainable practices, making the best products they can, and overall support for the environment. (Patagonia)

Patagonia has been working to involve the consumer in two major ways: The Common Threads initiative and their Worn Wear blog. The Common Threads initiative is in partner with Patagonia and urges consumers to “Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, Reimagine.” Patagonia’s ultimate aim is to close the loop on the lifecycle of their products with their “Buy Less” campaign (Shown in a photo below). Patagonia_DONTBUYTHISJACKET1Patagonia encourages customers to buy less and to not buy Patagonia products that they do not need. Patagonia also offers to repair products for free if it appears that Patagonia is responsible for the need. If repairing the product is not possible, you can donate the product to Patagonia and they will make it into something new. (Patagonia) Not many other clothing companies encourage customers to NOT buy their products. This is quite a unique strategy, but the customers have continued to buy Patagonia products. The customers even actively contribute to the Worn Wear blog to praise Patagonia and their products. This website is a place were customers can celebrate and share their stories about products they own and love. “According to Patagonia’s own market research, about 20 percent of its customers say they choose Patagonia equipment because of its reputation and commitment to social and environmental responsibility.” (Lazlo, 58) Their customers pay a premium for Patagonia’s high quality products, but this is because they value the company’s initiatives and want to praise them for their social responsibility.

Part of Patagonia’s mission focuses on producing the best products they can. They continue to focus on using environmentally friendly fibers, which began in 1996 with organic cotton, and they have worked with their suppliers as they develop and implement a more ‘green’ supply chain. Patagonia prides itself on using the best suppliers and treating their factory workers fairly, and they want to share this with the public. This motivated Patagonia to create The Footprint Chronicles, aimed to redefine corporate transparency. The firms website enables users to track the environmental impact of their Patagonia product throughout the supply chain from design through delivery. There is an interactive map on their website that allows customers to see where their mills, factories, and farms are and gives information about each individual one. The company felt that “the customer had a right to know if people who made Patagonia clothes were paid legally, treated fairly, and worked in decent conditions.” (Chouinard and Stanley, 54) Patagonia’s customers value this information and this is one of the reasons that Patagonia has been so successful.

Patagonia has decided to share their success because they realize that no matter how diligent they are in trying to cause less harm to the environment with their business, they still cause some waste and pollution. Management feels that because of this Patagonia has a responsibility to pay for their sins. (Chouinard, 228) In 1996, Patagonia pledged to give 1% of their sales to environmental organizations. The company thinks of this as a self-imposed “earth tax” for living on the planet, using up resources, and being a part of the problem. (Chouinard) “They give at the grassroots level to innovative groups mobilizing their communities to take action. They fund activists who take radical steps to protect the habitat, oceans and waterways, or wilderness and biodiversity because they want to support people working on the frontlines of the environmental crisis. Since the program began in 1996, they have given over $61 million in grants and in-kind donations to more than 1,000 organizations.” (Environmental Grants and Support)

These are only a few examples of how Patagonia gives back to the environment and practices sustainability. I believe that most people would agree that Patagonia is a morally virtuous company. Kant would also agree with this statement. Emmanuel Kant was a philosopher whose teachings were central to deontological moral theories. Deontology is an ethical theory that judges the morality of an action based a person’s universal duties or rights. Deontology guides and asses our choices based on what we “ought to do”. (Alexander) Kant believed that the fundamental principle of ethics is the ‘categorical imperative.’ Kant spoke of “the” categorical imperative, but he formulated it in many ways. He had three main formulations of the categorical imperative and Patagonia follows each of these formulations through their sustainable actions.

The first formulation of the categorical imperative states that one must, “act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Bowie, 4) This functions as a test to see if the principles upon which an action is based are morally permissible. A business manager who accepts this formulation would ask for any given decision, should the principle on which this decision is based be willed universally without contradiction? If it can, the decision would be morally permissible. (Bowie) Would the global business world benefit from universalizing Patagonia’s business philosophies and actions? Absolutely. I believe that the business world would be improved if all companies emulated Patagonia. If all companies focused on creating a responsible economy people would learn to consume less and use resources far more productively. If all companies urged their consumers to “Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, Reimagine” the company’s waste would be significantly reduced. All companies should feel that their consumers have a right to know that they are using the best suppliers and treating their factory workers fairly. And if all companies believed that they had a responsibility to give a percentage of their sales to the environment for using up resources, and being a part of the problem, there would be a lot more money to use towards fixing the problem. If all of Patagonia’s principles were made universal, there would be a chance we could solve the issue of sustainability. Even if a company does not care so much about saving the environment, Patagonia’s success is reason enough for making their principles universal.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative says, “always treat the humanity in a person as an end and never as a means merely.” (Bowie, 7) More simply this means that one human being cannot use another simply to satisfy his or her own interests. This requires that people in a business relationship not be used and that business practices should be arranged so that they contribute to the development of human rational and moral capacities. (Bowie) Kant would agree that the way Patagonia treats their employees is aligned with his second formulation. Patagonia’s business environment fosters creativity and urges their employees to follow their passion. They have the freedom to develop their rational and moral capacities. If they believe that going surfing at 3:00 in the afternoon will do this, Patagonia encourages it. They value employees who live rich and well-rounded lives. As long as the work gets done, Patagonia encourages their employees to work flexible hours. Patagonia supports all of the people in their business relationship. Their customers are encouraged to act sustainable and Patagonia is open with them about their practices. They encourage both their employees and their customers to be autonomous and rational human beings.

The third formulation of the categorical imperative loosely says “you should act as if you were a member of an ideal kingdom of ends in which you are both subject and sovereign at the same time.” (Bowie, 10) An organization is a community of individual persons (a kingdom of ends) and since these persons are moral creatures, the business should be governed by morality. The third formulation requires organizations to treat people with dignity and respect. The rules that govern an organization must be rules that can be endorsed by everyone in the organization. This suggests that if a business acts according to the first two formulations, they are a moral community. I have discussed above the many ways that Patagonia’s practices follow the first two formulations. From this I am able to conclude that Kant would argue Patagonia is truly a moral community. Patagonia treats their employees, customers and the environment with dignity and respect. They act in an ethical way and other companies should strive to emulate their practices.

It is evident that Patagonia’s actions are morally motivated. Chouinard’s unique management style and innovative ideas have allowed Patagonia to thrive and grow. You may wonder what the future holds for Patagonia, they are a company this is always ahead of their industry competitors, and they show no signs of slowing down. They plan to remain dedicated to advancing environmental awareness among businesses. They plan to partner with companies to spread their sustainable practices. They have already partnered with some ‘unlikely’ companies like Wal-Mart in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Chouinard continues to see himself and Patagonia as an innovator and will strive to find new ways to help the environment. Patagonia is a company that values social responsibility and sustainability over profit and if their values remain unchanged, I believe their success will as well.



1. Alexander, Larry. “Deontological Ethics.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 21 Nov. 2007. Web. 26 Nov. 2014. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/&gt;.

2. Bowie, Norman E. Business Ethics: A Kantian Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982. Print.

3. Bowie, Norman E. “A Kantian Approach to Business Ethics.” (n.d.): n. pag. Print.

4. “Company History.” Patagonia Company. Web. 04 Nov. 2014.


5. Chouinard, Yvon. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

6. “Environmental Grants and Support – Grassroots Environmental Groups, Activist Funding.” Patagonia Company. Web. 14 Nov. 2014. <http://www.patagonia.com/us/patagonia.go?assetid=2927&gt;.

7. Haid, Phillip. “How Patagonia Went from Turmoil to Wildly Successful by Making Counter-intuitive Moves.” Financial Post Business, 5 May 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <http://business.financialpost.com/2014/05/05/how-patagonia-went-from-turmoil-to-wildly-successful-by-making-counter-intuitive-moves/&gt;.

8. Laszlo, Christopher. The Sustainable Company How to Create Lasting Value through Social and Environmental Performance. Washington, DC: Island, 2003. Print.

9. “Patagonia: A Sustainable Outlook on Business.” Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative, University of New Mexico. Web. 5 Nov. 2014. <http://danielsethics.mgt.unm.edu/pdf/patagonia.pdf&gt;.

10. The Responsible Economy: “Essays From Fall 2013”. Patagonia, 2013. Print.

11. Photo 1: Chouinard Equipment Company, Ventura, California, 1969.

12. Photo 2

13. Video

14. Featured Image


3 responses to “A Kantian Analysis of Patagonia

  1. How much of a factor is being privately-held in Patagonia’s effectiveness at being mission-driven? Is there an argument for them to go public, or to stay private?


  2. Of course producing anything takes resources and energy. It is interesting to me that Choinard calls them “sins.” I mean, that’s a loaded term.

    The whole sustainability project, to me, is to figure out how to have prosperity (broadly defined) today and tomorrow, for me, and for my children and their children….

    So, we will use resources.

    The problems are around how to use resources in ways that will no erode capacity.

    Maybe Patagonia could spend 1% of its income on more directed searches to the problems of sustainability. I mean, a group fighting to protect endangered species is a good cause, but Patagonia didn’t cause the species depletion like it causes pollution.


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