Cause No Unnecessary Harm – On Social Responsibility From Patagonia to Walmart

“If you have a business you are impacting something negatively.”

Patagonia puts it right out there in the mission statement: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Cara Chacon has the title of Director of Social & Environmental Responsibility with the company, but she makes it clear that everyone is expected to advance the organization’s adherence to their social ethic.

“It’s not just marketing, not just production, not just the environmental department,” she insists. In questions as seemly mundane as where to obtain zippers and pulls, environmentalism, sustainability and social responsibility come into play. “If I’m not completely satisfied with a factory’s record, I have complete veto power.”

Chacon points out that decisions made by the company can have impacts that might not be considered from a purely strategic standpoint.

“If we put in a last-minute order with a factory, we might be putting the whole factory into overtime,” she says. “So workers end up losing their day of rest, they end up working over 60 hours a week, and supervisors get stressed. There might be verbal abuse.”

Patagonia puts quality control managers in factories around the world to monitor for health and safety issues; and human rights violations. While the company sets high standards for itself, there is clear understanding that no manufacturer is without cause for blame.

“If you have a business you are impacting something negatively,” she freely admits.” Yvon Chouinard, mountain climber turned somewhat-reluctant company founder, believes that a company must do the best they can, then do penance for the rest, by giving back to the community.

Consumers can track the environmental footprint of the Patagonia products they purchase, at the Footprint Chronicles. Chacon promises that in October of 2011 the site will be revamped and Patagonia will become the “most transparent brand there has ever been regarding their supply chain.”

“We don’t just want to show you all the great stuff,” she says. Such transparency has apparently found favor with consumers, who have driven sales to $333 million in 2011, slated to grow to $360 million in 2011. “It’s slow, sustainable growth, and that’s what we like.”

Small change by the standards of Walmart, but not so small that the lessons of corporate responsibility have been lost on the mammoth retailer. Walmart recently invited Chouinard to speak to their corporate team on environmentalism and social responsibility.

“Right on the front row was the woman who buys half of the apparel in the world,” Chacon points out. “Yvon walked away from that conference saying it was the biggest moment of his business career. This was a big moment for all of us.”

Chacon spoke to an audience of business students at McCombs School of Business as part of an ethics speakers series organized by Julie R. Irwin, professor of marketing and ethics.

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