Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company, has always been a leader among companies that claim to be the most responsible corporate citizen. It hasn’t hurt that it’s tough imagining the ecocidal antichrist wearing a fleece vest and technical climbing pants as it pillages the earth. Patagonia also has the enduring myths about its founder, Yvon Chuinard, to ride on; how can we not believe the good intentions a man who supposedly once lived? lived off of canned cat foodHe did it so he could read Thoreau, climb all day in Yosemite with gear he made?
Patagonia has added to the mythos of environmental protection by outdoing its self. The company announced that it would soon donate not just a small percentage of its earnings, but almost all of its earnings to the planet. The entirety of the company’s stock will be transferred to trusts and nonprofits devoted to “fighting the environmental crisis and defending nature.” Corporate dividends will keep the business going while otherwise being directed toward environmental initiatives. “Compassionate capitalism” at work.
On both sides, there are neoliberal talking heads waxing effusiveAbout this new ceiling on market-based goodwill. To be sure, it’s an impressive relinquishment of private wealth for the supposed greater good. Patagonia is undoubtedly a top-notch company that does this type of thing. We do ourselves and our predicament no favors pretending that a capitalist company giving away its profits is going to solve an existential issue that was caused and continues to be worsened by the profit motive.
The basics bear repeating: There is no form of capitalism — “compassionate” or otherwise, profit relinquishing or otherwise — that isn’t structurally incentivized to exploit and exhaust the capacities of both workers and the planet, and all while leaving a mess for someone else to clean up. It doesn’t matter if the product is SmartWool or smart phones: Capitalism is at heart an economy of “unpaid costs,”Karl William Kapp is an economist. Corporate profits — whether used to plant lilies or gild them — can only come from taking more than is given, and without replenishment or repair.
But isn’t Patagonia an exception? Isn’t it committed, as we read in painstaking detail on its website, to minimizing its expropriation of nature through all manner of recycled and “sustainably sourced materials”? In degree, maybe not. In kind, certainly not. Even the most ethically-minded for-profit businesses participate in an economy that encourages the race to the exploitative bottom, either directly or indirectly. Patagonia must be competitive regardless of how it uses its profits. As capitalism demands, that means continuing to drain land and labor.
It’s also important to remember that Patagonia isn’t exactly small. The company operates more than 70 stores and has offices in seven countries. It also used to have contracts with 100 factories at one point. one of the most polluting industrieson the planet. It bends over backwards in order to excuse itself, as an example, in a 30-paragraph statement explaining how it’s trying — really trying! — to minimize the impact of microplastics pollution, changes nothing. It’s all talk after a point. Whatever Patagonia’s efforts are toward sustainability, they pale in comparison to the impact it makes on land and labor due to its size.
It should not be surprising that, despite implicit mea culpaThe company attempts to minimize the impact of its recent divestment. Seemingly everywhere on its website, it mitigates the sense of its corporate largess by using the classic leveling device of capitalist greenwashing: the carbon footprint — a concept invented by oil giant BP This was done nearly 20 years ago in order to distract attention from the corporations’ disproportionately large ecological responsibilities. But the carbon footprint device also allows Patagonia to frame its ecological responsibilities in relation to individual consumers as though those responsibilities existed on the same plane — as though the solution required of the company was merely reducing rather than changing its structural relationship to what was being reduced. Yet the sentimental “all in this together” manipulation runs thick: “If we have any hope of a thriving planet — much less a business,” they write, “it is going to take all of us doing what we can.”
Then there’s the company’s use of the classic and equally manipulative Malthusian rhetoric of planetary limits: “Despite its immensity,” the company’s hands wring, “the Earth’s resources are not infinite, and it’s clear we’ve exceeded its limits.” The implication, both here and with the carbon footprint concept, is once again that we’re all equally culpable. But limits like this are political constructs. Those who invoke them in such a way hide their inequitable contributions to reaching them. There is no real “we” here, in other words. Profit-driven corporations can unleash tremendous creative-destructive potential, but then again, there are the rest of us. It doesn’t matter if billionaires or millionaires have consumed too much, it is almost always because corporations exceeded any limit.
But the company’s most frustrating greenwashing is maybe its most subtle. In a statement on the recent decision, Patagonia writes that “instead of extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth for investors, we’ll use the wealth Patagonia creates to protect the source of all wealth.” Notice the sneaky substitution: The company is no longer “extracting value from nature” but simply “using the wealth Patagonia creates.” It’s a classic mystification concealing the fact that you can’t have one (corporate wealth) without the other (extracting value from nature). Profits generated by capitalism will be used to protect the planet. It will always be a matter robbery to pay Paul.
It’s quite literal. Because human beings are, of course, the other form of nature that capitalism — Patagonia included —Exploitation for Value In yet another long statement on its website, this one recounting its decades-long attempts to ensure more ethical labor practices, we learn about the company’s relationship with the Fair Labor Association, NAFTA’s role in tanking the American textile industry, and other matters. But by paragraph 16 in this substantial read, things still haven’t progressed very far: “The next big task,” the company writes after all of that, “will be to secure a living wage for all workers making Patagonia goods.”
A living wage. The next big challenge. In paragraph 16. As if this shouldn’t have been in the first sentence.
There is nothing about a living wage for Patagonia’s workers, of course, in the company’s recent bleeding-heart statement about its decision to give away its profits. We have read a lot about the planet, but not as much about people. While critics may insist that one implies the other, it is important to remember that the products that the company sells in its stores are in part an ideology. Patagonia is a technology company in many ways. It sells clothing which mediates our relationship to nature. It allows us to view it as something benign, conquered, that exists for human consumption, and not something with which human survival depends inextricably. This privileged, bourgeois conception of nature — nature as something “out there” to explore and enjoy, separate from human well-being — is bought for the price of a Patagonia sweater; it’s a class-inflected framework that insulates more privileged people — both literally and figuratively — from experiencing nature as involving and implicating human suffering.
But compare this, for instance, with how Patagonia’s garment workers in the Global South might experience nature. If they’re being deprived of a living wage, they are markedly more vulnerable to floods and fires, heat waves and droughts, all worsened by climate change. Nature for them isn’t so much pretty vistas to enjoy and consume as something that could further immiserate or kill them. Low wages are as much a threat to climate change as the pollution caused by plastic plants that make performance socks. And yet those wages probably won’t be going up much any time soon. After all, they’re a precondition of the fat dividends that will supposedly now be going to such great, green things. Greenwashing, as always built on the backsof the poor.
Patagonia hopes that the recent news will be a big boost to sales. It is hoping that the ideology of nature it sells, underwritten by capitalism’s own incentives to hide its conditions of production, will prevail, and that the only thing its customers will think about when buying a new base layer is the wilderness they’ll possibly be saving, not the workers who will continue to be exploited just so the sham ethics of green capitalism can have another day in the sun.
We must resist this. How? You don’t have to refuse to shop at Patagonia. This kind of consumer politics does nothing. Instead, we must remember in our movements, in our policy, and in the voting booth that it is capitalism’s mandate of endless accumulation that is killing our ecosystem, not what is or isn’t done with the resulting profits.