GG’s Melanie Geller offers lessons on corporate communications from Patagonia’s recent messaging surrounding its ownership change.
Several weeks ago, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard publicly announced his decision to place the ownership of the $3 billion company to a trust and a nonprofit, which would use Patagonia’s $100 million annual profits to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land.
While many companies use corporate communications to mask the disconnect between alleged environmentally conscious values and underlying environmentally harmful practices (a topic my colleague Anna Kizito recently wrote about), Patagonia’s messaging and ownership change revealed a critical, but often overlooked, aspect of effective corporate communications: aligning actions and words.
Patagonia’s bold business choice was covered in the New York Times, CNBC, BBC, and countless other outlets, most of which praised the company’s decision as a “monumental donation” that reflects “the company’s ethos of sustainability.” In other words, Chouinard’s decision was largely seen as a reminder that unlike the vast majority of companies who talk the talk, Patagonia walks the walk too.
Patagonia’s messaging surrounding its ownership change was both strategic and effective, and we can learn a lot from its corporate communications strategy.
While so many other clothing companies face allegations of “greenwashing,” Patagonia’s announcement faced less skepticism and garnered more praise because the company has, since its inception, positioned itself as an environmentally conscious company, not just with its statements but with its actions.
In 2007, Patagonia began tracing the social and environmental impact of its products. Since then, Patagonia has invested in sustainable startups, supported grassroots environmental organizations, and sued the Trump administration over its public lands policy. In other words, Patagonia’s business practices have continuously reflected a commitment to the environment, so when Chouinard announced in 2018 that “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet” and recently that “Earth is now our only shareholder,” his words don’t ring hollow.
Chouinard’s letter is written clearly and directly, explaining his decision to sell the company, the alternative options he considered, and what this change would mean for Patagonia’s future; following the letter, Patagonia provides answers to expected questions, and in one answer, Patagonia explicitly clarifies that it will still operate as a for-profit clothing company.
Transparency has been a large part of Patagonia’s corporate communications strategy. Its famous “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad, which ran in The New York Times on Black Friday in 2011, was followed by a brief blog on their website that plainly acknowledged the environmental impact of Patagonia clothing, conceding that “each piece of Patagonia clothing… emits several times its weight in greenhouse gases, generates at least another half garment’s worth of scrap, and draws copious amounts of freshwater now growing scarce everywhere on the planet.”
In other words, Patagonia’s messaging is effective because it’s honest and direct, neither claiming to be perfect nor hiding the harms of its business.
No decision is perfect or likely to please everyone and given the historical tendency of corporations to prioritize profits over the public, companies should expect that any decision is likely to face some skepticism and criticism. Some media outlets, like Bloomberg and Business Insider, have subsequently questioned the intentions underlying Patagonia’s ownership change, pointing out that the transfer allowed the company to avoid $700 million in federal capital gains taxes.
While some companies ignore criticism, Patagonia’s spokeswoman Corley Kenna addressed this criticism directly, saying “there was never an ask from the Chouinard family that we avoid taxes,” and reminding skeptics that Patagonia has consistently advocated for higher corporate tax rates. Ultimately, Kenna’s statement is unlikely to convince many critics or skeptics, but it is better to directly address criticism than to ignore it and hope it goes away, especially when your company’s previous actions lend credit to your claims.
Corporate communications should reflect and amplify a company’s values and actions, not contradict or undermine them, as is too often the case. When composing corporate communications, companies should follow Patagonia’s example by aligning words with actions, prioritizing transparency over fabrication, and confronting rather than deflecting criticism.