Part 1: The Patagonia Effect: changing the tides on climate conscience?

Patagonia hit the headlines last month with the dramatic announcement that the company was ‘going purpose’ and transferring ownership to a trust. Now all profits will be going towards the fight to save the planet rather than the previous 1%. It was heralded as a watershed moment and a throwing down of the gauntlet to other brands – now nearly a month later we’re asking is it really a turning of the tides or just a drop in the ocean?

Over the last few years ‘sustainability’ has become the word on everyone’s lips and every brand has been thinking more about their ‘purpose’ (with Mark Ritson suggesting it’s gone too far). Rather than sustainability simply being a separate add on, most corporations appreciate it has to be fully integrated into the business model.

With increasing pressure from certain governments and international regulatory officials, businesses are left either to react to each legislative change or pre-empt it with more proactive measures. Financial, management and creative consultancies have all created ‘sustainability’ branches, from PwC to McKinsey, BCG to M&C Saatchi, in order to help guide this transition. Consumers too are asking greater questions about where products & services are made, and how responsible the brands behind them are. Recent research we’ve done revealed many consumers feel overwhelmed in the face of the climate crisis. Unsure of their individual impact they delegate responsibility to brands and expect them to take action.

Of course, brands like Patagonia are at the cutting edge of subscribing to this consumer expectation. However, in recent months some bold moves from unlikely players suggests that we’ll be seeing an increasing emphasis on sustainable agendas across the brand space. This summer’s partnership between Love Island and eBay in many ways felt like a real step change. This is a show with historical links to brands such as Missguided and I Saw it First, as well as being known for producing fast fashion influencers off the back of the programme. By championing ‘preloved’, Love Island demonstrated a corporate recognition that consumer attitudes are changing, and that there is a need to adapt. PR play or not, it is a move indicative of shifting behaviour in the brand and sponsorship space-time will tell how far this could stretch.

While Patagonia may have thrown down the gauntlet, few brands will bend down to pick it up. Some brands we work with, like Ecover and Dove, have had sustainability and ethics at their core for decades, but for most, ethics and sustainability are something they’re only recently coming to terms with. Not all brands can, or need to, be sustainable leaders though. The important thing is that leadership stances are taken, like Clive Sinclair and his C5 (sustainable electric transport), and if they make sense (at the time) the world follows.

For most people and brands, sustainability and ethics are complex issues and to follow them wholeheartedly takes time and costs money. It’s only when radical leadership makes sense in the moment and is affordable for many that mass movements take place. Everyone is getting into E-Scooters now, nearly 40 years after brave Sir Clive so it may well be a few years yet before businesses pick up Patagonia’s gauntlet. Look out for Part II of this blog series where we discover which brands are choosing to rise to the challenge now, by adapting their business models to lead change for the better.

By: Caroline Camm and Victoria Tann

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