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Green Capitalism Won’t Save Us

Patagonia is a leading advocate for capitalism’s capacity for good.

Patagonia is a leading advocate for capitalism’s capacity for good.

Patagonia’s current brand campaign is a simple message:

We’re in business to save our home planet.  And we sell clothes to do that.

This is, of course, bullshit.  Patagonia is in business to generate revenue, turn a profit and grow.  They are a private company competing in a system that is efficiently wiping out the natural world, as cited in today’s UN report by the IPBES on nature and the unprecedented extinction in faces.  

Today, over one million species of plants and animals risk extinction.  These aren’t just the apex mammals like polar bears and bengal tigers. Whole ecosystems are in critical danger of collapse, including the ones that sustain our own species.  The report didn’t just examine the state of the natural world, it identified contributing factors as well as mitigating ones we can address to halt this gruesome outcome.  From the report:

Also identified as a key element of more sustainable future policies is the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.

As many have said before today’s assessment, this shit is on capitalism.  Capitalism is like a fire.  In its natural necessity to grow, it consumes itself, requiring more and more resources to sustain the singular goal of the fire.  As wood turns to ash and the fire diminishes, it must consume more fuel.  There is no sustainable fire and any economic system like it will not be sustainable either. 

Capitalism, even Patagonia’s vision of it, will not get us out of this mess and the company is engaging in a dishonest campaign by implying it can.

It sounds good, making clothes to save the planet.  It sounds like when you were a kid and you had bake sales to raise money for your school or carwashes for your baseball team.  Engage in commerce with the end goal of financing a non-commercial project. But this is backwards. Patagonia is a for-profit company that does the non-commercial projects so the business can profit.

When Rose Marcario joined Patagonia in 2008 after fifteen years in private equity, finally relieving founder Yvon Chouinard of his forty year post as CEO in 2014, she sold him on growth.  Chouinard was famously skeptical of growth for the sake of growing and deliberately limited Patagonia’s ascension to around 5% annually for decades.  Since Marcario took over, revenue has quadrupled.  The company grew 14% year over year and they peeled market share away from competition.  Marcario did this, she said, in the name of environmental activism.  

In recent years they’ve rebranded as “The Activist Company”.  They run ambassador activism training, publish political advertisements, encourage you not to buy their products, fix them instead, sued the Trump administration over public lands and gave away their $10 million windfall from Trump’s 2017 tax break to environmental causes.  

But this is marketing, not activism.  Patagonia makes money when they do these things.  

Even the $10 million giveaway was savvy marketing.  Charitable donations are tax deductible.  A $10 million marketing campaign would ordinarily cost Patagonia $10 million.  By making the campaign the donation itself, it saved some $2.2 million in taxes.

These are businesspeople making business decisions and creating the appearance of saving the planet through branding is invariably better for the business than the planet.  The shrewdness of green capitalism marketing comes into sharper clarity when someone like Shell does it.  

So why am I picking on feel-good, do-good, look-good Patagonia?

Patagonia deserves some credit.  Over the years they’ve dramatically improved their supply chain, innovated sustainable products from wetsuits to beer and have consulted with other companies including Wal-Mart to clean up their own supply chains.  Today, they even have their own political action platform.  

But their primary responsibility through all this is revenue and growth.  They are capitalists with an enormous vested interest in the security of their system; the system the UN today told us is destroying the natural world.  In convincing us of capitalism’s viability in the face of climate change, Patagonia is doing the work of those who cannot: Banks, energy companies, agribusiness, and so forth.

Marcario last month said capitalism needs reforming.  This is climate denial.  In light of today’s extinction report and the IPCC’s climate report last year, denying the degree of what must be done to stop climate change and untenable resource extraction is no better than denying climate change exists at all. We see this posturing from business leaders and politicians constantly.  These likable figures are no better than Donald Trump or Rex Tillerson. Capitalism needs to be destroyed.

Green capitalism is still capitalism, a fire that must grow, burning all available resources to do so.  It’s fine to support best-practice companies like Patagonia but we cannot believe they are up to the task, or even interested in, “saving the world”.  We need to be clear about their intentions as for-profit businesses and continue to fight for adequate changes to our political, economic and environmental futures without them.  

Ted Ryan