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Patagonia's 'Tools for Grassroots Activists' Also Offers Lessons for Business, Marketing Leaders

Earlier this month, Patagonia released a new book aiming to offer environmental advocates best practices in grassroots activism. While it may seem counterintuitive for a big brand to be talking about grassroots activism, it’s widely known that Patagonia’s history is deeply rooted in environmental activism. The company started off as a small group of surfers and climbers who had reverence for their playground: the great outdoors.

Founder Yvon Chouinard saw how critical community activism was to protecting the environment when attending a Ventura, California city council meeting in the early 1970s that was tackling the preservation of the local surf break. He reveals in the foreword, “While I am often embarrassed to admit to being a businessman — I’ve been known to call them sleazeballs — I realize that many activists could learn some of the skills that business people possess.” Chief among those are marketing skills, emphasized co-editors Nora Gallagher — Patagonia’s environmental editor — and Lisa Myers, Patagonia’s Grants Manager.

Tools for Grassroots Activists aspires to help on-the-ground environmental organizations tell their story more effectively in order to build trust and support for their work. The book is comprised of essays from conference presenters, as well as inspiring case studies of successful environmental advocacy campaigns that have helped to protect state and national parks, restore salmon and steelhead populations, reduce air pollution from coal plants and prevent disruption of surf break.

Trailblazing on Environmental Engagement

The company made the strategic decision in 1985 to give 1 percent of its revenue to grassroots environmental organizations through its Environmental Grants and Support Program, donating more than $70 million to 3,500 groups to date. This is unusual, given that corporations typically give to large professional environmental organizations; Patagonia reports that the large national organizations (those with budgets over $5 million) make up only two percent of all environmental groups but receive more than 50 percent of all environmental grants and donations.

However, the grant program didn’t satiate Patagonia’s desire to support the grassroots environmental movement. The company wanted deeper engagement and realized that building strong partnerships was the key to staying true to its brand. Counteracting the stereotype that corporations and grassroots environmental groups can only have antagonistic relationships, Patagonia started its annual Tools for Grassroots Activists Conference in 1994 exclusively for its grant recipients. Patagonia brought in big names in the environmental space such as Jane Goodall, Annie Leonard and Bill McKibben to do hands-on workshops with attendees around topics such as campaign planning, lobbying, communications strategy, grassroots organizing, fundraising and social media. Check out this video to see the conference in action.

What Brands Can Learn from Patagonia’s Example

Upon the book’s release, Gallagher and Myers shared with Sustainable Brands their thoughts on its key takeaways for businesses and what they can learn from Patagonia’s approach to environmental and community engagement. They shared that the Tools Conference was the inspiration for the book, and an obvious extension of the company’s mission statement to “use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

With 14 conferences under its belt, “Patagonia has trained an entire generation of activists and this book captures the best of their wisdom,” Myers said. “When we think about how to inspire and connect people to our brand, it’s the same thing that environmental activists do, except that free-flowing rivers, clean air, endangered species and so on, are their ‘products.’”

Gallagher believes the book has value for any business that wants to learn how to better advocate for environmental activism — especially as consumers continue to become savvier and more discerning about brand sustainability.

“There is a synergy between business and environmental health. If the environment deteriorates, so does the health of your business,” she said. “If your brand comes across as authentic, you are already in a better position. Consumers are really tired of ‘slash and burn’ companies. Businesses have to look at the resources they are using. It keeps businesses honest and just makes good business sense.”

For those brands skeptical of the return on investment in environmental and community engagement efforts, the co-editors recommend reading Chapter 10, “Utilizing the Economics of Conservation,” in which Ben Alexander, Associate Director of Headwaters Economics, shows how hard data can help make the financial argument for preservation efforts. A case study for how an organization worked effectively with businesses to bring about positive environment change can be found in Chapter 9, “Working with Business,” where John Sterling, Executive Director of the Conservation Alliance, lays out guidance to environmental groups on how to reach out to business.

“The same point can be applied to business,” Myers said. “Develop authentic relationships. You have to start small. Employees and the founder of a company might already have issues they care about — find local groups that are working on those issues. Invite them to come and talk. Decide what your unique business can bring to the table — it may be a product donation, employee volunteer opportunity, or using your social media channels to raise awareness. Get creative.”

Myers also suggested that brands involve their employees in decision-making about what environmental issues and organizations they support, as in Patagonia’s model. Not only does this empower employees, it helps to attract and retain employees who share the company’s values.

“Most people who work here are already aligned with our environmental mission and are eager to bring their passion,” she said. “We get some of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met.”


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