What’s Your Version of a Patagonia Moment?

(Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)


When I first heard the news that Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard would be, effectively, giving away his family’s $3 billion business to fight the effects of climate change, I knew it was a game-changer, but not for the reasons you might think. 

Yes, the details of Patagonia’s move are big and bold: The company’s restructuring is expected to direct around $100 million a year of profits toward a cause that has long been a passion for Chouinard and his family. “We are going to give away the maximum amount of money to people who are actively working on saving this planet,” he told The New York Times.

Clearly, it’s a commitment most business owners could only dream of matching.

What really grabbed my attention, though, was that at its core Patagonia was demonstrating in one monumental action exactly what our company’s new research was directing purpose-driven companies to do: that is, to move beyond the pledge and make it real.

Of course, plenty of businesses already do a tremendous amount of good in the world. And as CEO of a company that puts purpose at its center — for ourselves and our clients — I believe that businesses have a responsibility to do good. But without Patagonia’s billion-dollar budget, how can it ever feel like enough?

That’s where our research comes in. The pressure is on companies to step out on issues more boldly and with more transparency, but the good news is that consumers also appreciate a practical approach. In fact, we see several important aspects of the Patagonia move that tie directly to what consumers want and can apply to businesses of all sizes.

Since 2018, WE Communications and research company YouGov have partnered on an annual consumer survey in markets around the world. With our Brands in Motion 2022 report, we’ve now asked more than 100,000 people to date about their priorities, and about what motivates and inspires them.

One trend we’ve seen, and which is accelerating, is that just as people are losing trust in the institutions of government and media, they are turning more to consumer brands to address big intractable problems. That shift means companies are under more pressure than ever to step up their game and take clear, urgent action on issues people care about.

Here are three things Patagonia proves are doable and that consumers tell us they want to see more of:

1. Show your work

When asked the most convincing action that a CEO could take to show they would carry through with a values-led commitment, the No. 1 answer from respondents was: “Provide transparency on progress toward the commitment to employees and customers.” In other words, in a world of selfies and TikTok videos, people want companies to be just as willing to turn the cameras on themselves, even if it shows setbacks and challenges.

We saw a great example of this at the recent Climate Week events in New York, where a number of companies announced new programs to combat climate change. One was Microsoft, which introduced a new resource it calls Global Renewables Watch, a “living atlas” that pulls satellite imagery into a database of utility-scale solar and wind installations that communities can use to make their own smarter energy-transition decisions. Making data accessible and transparent allows more companies to show their work.

2. Prioritize the practical (but don’t forget long-term goals):

Nearly all survey respondents told us they want companies to have high-reaching goals, such as gender equity, environmental sustainability, etc. But, especially this year, people prefer that companies place a greater emphasis on practical values-led goals, including cost-of-living help and health care, both mental and physical. Survey takers say companies should strive for an ideal balance of 59% practical goals to 41% ambitious ones.

Examples of this are emerging quickly in southwest Florida, where companies are playing a vital role in the relief effort after Hurricane Ian. Ride-share provider Lyft, for instance, has activated its LyftUp Disaster Response program to offer free and discounted rides to people affected by the destruction.

3. Focus on one cause

The good news is that brands don’t have to speak out or act on every hot topic that hits the headlines — and probably shouldn’t. In our latest two annual surveys, about 70% of respondents said they prefer that companies focus their multiyear investments on a single cause, rather than support a different issue every year. People most want companies to take ownership of the issues related to their organizations’ core operations — that is, the places where they have direct influence and control — such as how they run their organizations and direct their resources.

Patagonia’s long commitment to environmental causes laid the foundation for its latest move. We all may have been surprised by the scale of what the Chouinard family is doing, but no one is surprised that the goal is to combat climate change.

The lessons are clear and boil down to this: To be true purpose-driven leaders, we must take real, immediate action on the causes we care about. And to make it matter to an increasingly skeptical public, we must invite all our stakeholders — our customers, our employees, our partners — to watch and scrutinize and (we hope) get on board.

October 20, 2022