To Buy, Or Not to Buy

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    “BRB, gonna cover myself head to foot in Patagonia,” twitted an enthusiastic netizen last week upon hearing the uplifting news that the iconic brand’s equally iconic founder, Yvon Chouinard, has embraced his inner dirtbag and renounced his riches in favour of Nature. “I might only wear Patagonia now. Like forever,” chimes in another fan. There are plenty of vows, like this one, online: “Everyone gets Patagonia for birthdays and Christmas from now on.”

    I must say, I find the shopping spree that the announcement has unleashed rather ironic. It’s not exactly the image the company has been trying to project, at least since 2011. For Black Friday that year, Patagonia ran a full-page ad in the New York Times with a single message, “Don’t buy this jacket.” An explanation, alongside the detailed environmental costs of the jacket, followed underneath. “Don’t buy what you don’t need. Think twice before you buy anything.” Of course, it didn’t dissuade eager customers from buying the jacket, or the rest of the brand’s trendy wares, in 2011 either. Indeed, sales went up and have kept increasing ever since. Reverse psychology rules!

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    By the way, I’d love a sneak peek of the global retailer’s recent sales numbers[1]. I bet they are going through the roof right now. Not that I’m suggesting the decision to donate a fortune to an NGO, or the clever way it was communicated, was merely a PR campaign, of course. Besides, any excess future profits should only prove that the old concept of ‘Doing well by doing good’ is still very much alive and kicking, right?

    Although, it would be fair to say that, at this point, it is not entirely clear what good the Holdfast Collective will do with the expected USD 100 million in annual Patagonia profits that they are to receive as the proud owner of 98 % of the company. The newly established NGO is still somewhat of a mystery. According to The NonProfit Times, “the Holdfast Collective is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization that will advocate for causes and political candidates and make grants and investments that fight environmental crises, protect nature and biodiversity and support thriving communities.” I’ll have to take their word for it. Try as I may to double-check my sources as a diligent journalist, further information on the NGO proves to be scarce. Google it, and you’ll end up on strange and completely unrelated pages. For now, it is anybody’s guess exactly what kind of philanthropic and lobbying efforts the influx of money will boost.

    In general, though, I like the spirit of it. “Instead of ‘going public,’ you could say we’re ‘going purpose’,” writes Chouinard. “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.” We can certainly establish intentionality, the basis of any future positive impact, on a grand scale.

    There is also a bonus for us up here in the Nordics. By reinventing the business model of enterprise foundations, Patagonia has given us the chance to utter the highly satisfying phrase “We told you so.” [2] Yes, we’ve known forever that the model works. That is, provided the governance structure is sound.

    Still, the question remains. Should we rush to the closest outlet and procure a new Patagonia sweatshirt or two in support of whatever worthy cause the company’s new owner might decide to fund? Or maybe think twice before buying anything?

    [1] As a privately held company, Patagonia does not publish any financial data.

    [2] You can find foundations that own business companies all over the world, but the concentration is highest in the Nordics. The model is particularly important in Denmark, where foundation-owned companies account for the bulk of the country’s stock market capitalization and R&D.

    Image courtesy of Charles DeLoye on Unsplash
    Julia Axelsson, CAIA
    Julia Axelsson, CAIA
    Julia has accumulated experience in asset management for more than 20 years in Stockholm and Beijing, in portfolio management, asset allocation, fund selection and risk management. In December 2020, she completed a program in Sustainability Studies at the University of Linköping. Julia speaks Mandarin, Bulgarian, Hindi, Russian, Swedish, Urdu and English. She holds a Master in Indology from Sofia University and has completed studies in Economics at both Stockholm University and Stockholm School of Economics.
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