Patagonia Action Works: ‘Time up’ for CSR departments in the climate activism era

EXCLUSIVE: As outdoor company Patagonia issued the next programme in its 45-year history of activism, the company's director of environmental initiatives has claimed that isolated departments overseeing sustainability have no function as more people demand action on the climate emergency.

Patagonia Action Works: ‘Time up’ for CSR departments in the climate activism era

Hladin Wolfe suggested that siloed departments couldn't bring around the required change for sustainable business. Image: Patagonia 

Patagonia has today (25 September) embarked on the latest initiative on environmental activism that has spanned almost half a century. Patagonia Action Works, a digital community that connects local communities with grassroots organisations looking to save the planet, has launched in the UK and across Europe.

It will attempt to replicate the influence that the programme had in North America, where more than half a million people have taken action to support environmental issues through the platform.

The launch is timely, given the sheer volume of people that have taken part in a global day of climate strikes last Friday (20 September). And while some businesses are declaring climate emergencies, Patagonia believes that influence and engagement is key to sparking long-term change from the heightened awareness on climate change. For this engagement to create noteworthy changes, the company’s director of environmental initiatives, Mihela Hladin Wolfe, believes that there is “no time” for traditional CSR departments anymore.

“Businesses need to be held accountable by others for their role in contributing and mitigating climate change,” Hladin Wolfe told edie. “We totally respect that citizens are holding us more accountable. In terms of response, businesses shouldn’t be looking at short-term solutions, or just a few proof points that show that a business is doing something. You need to influence and engage, and you might need to change to be able to do that.

“There is no time anymore for CSR departments, or for sustainability professionals to sit outside of the boardroom. The management team needs an alignment with sustainability, and I think the times where a company has a CSR department is over. It needs to be heard and understood across a business.”

Action Works

The online Action Works community is the latest chapter in Patagonia’s activism and giving programme, 1% for the Planet. The 1% platform is a global movement created by Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard and conservationist Craig Mathews. The platform’s support of grassroots environmental organisations around the world has totalled more than $100m and has reached thousands of groups. In 2016, the firm raised $10m for environmental grassroots non-profits, after donating 100% of the global sales that it generated from Black Friday.

According to Hladin Wolfe, big businesses should be focusing on influence as a means to accelerate climate action, rather than solely focusing on traditional reductions of resource use and carbon emissions.

Patagonia’s influence drive is focused both internally and externally. The Action Works platform is a clear example of external activism that engages citizens and communities on the actions they can take to protect the environment, including beach and river cleans. However, Hladin Wolfe also claims that Patagonia has an “open-door policy” with the NGOs it supports, meaning that organisations frequently come to Patagonia offices to engage and educate staff.

“We expose our staff to the relevant information so they have access to the reality of what is going on outside of our walls,” Hladin Wolfe said. “Then they can look internally, at each of their departments, to see where the big change can come from.”

Patagonia also joined the likes of Ben & Jerry’s, Lush Cosmetics and personal care firm Seventh Generation in encouraging staff to take part in last Friday’s global day of climate strikes. At the time, Patagonia’s president Rose Marcario said that the company was “inspired by the youth activists who have led a global movement”.

However, Hladin Wolfe noted the importance of placing climate change at the top of the corporate agenda if staff are to be truly motivated and influenced by the strikes and the wider activism movement.

The strikes can, however, be successfully used to motivate staff to look at business targets in a new light, in order to spur a new era of business leadership that looks beyond reductions, engages with supply chains and pushes for carbon-neutral targets well ahead of the 2050 deadline suggested by scientific data.

Patagonia is attempting to lead in this regard. The company’s goal is to be carbon neutral across its entire business, including supply chain by 2025. The supply chain accounts for 97% of Patagonia carbon emissions.

As more staff become educated, and therefore take up sustainable actions and targets themselves, this should allow the business to switch its mindset. Patagonia has been a certified B Corp since 2011, and Hladin Wolfe noted how the initiative pushed the company to make annual improvements as part of a long-term mindset. In fact, research has revealed that businesses within the purpose-driven B Corp movement are growing 28 times faster than the national economic growth of 0.5%.

Hladin Wolfe argued that businesses couldn’t view carbon-neutral or net-zero targets as an endpoint, where corporate responsibility ceases to exist altogether.

“Businesses need to stop hoping that there is an endpoint to this,” she added. “They need to reflect that this is a journey and you just aim to improve every day. If you take this mindset, the discussion changes and it helps the fear go away.

“Short-termism is a fear of failure. the narrative is changing, and a lot is about how we can increase our impact, but instead you should increase your influence across other sectors. Especially those that are high carbon. We can do a lot more than just reduce.”

Matt Mace

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