Patagonia gets political

The store best known for colorful fleece also happens to be really interested in getting its customers to vote.

A table at the D.C. Patagonia’s “Vote Our Planet” event. CREDIT: Natasha Geiling
A table at the D.C. Patagonia’s “Vote Our Planet” event. CREDIT: Natasha Geiling

It’s seven o’clock on a Wednesday night in Georgetown, and young professionals are milling around the mezzanine of an airy, open space just off the neighborhood’s busiest street. Gathered around a table stocked with cured meats and cheeses, attendees sip local beer and talk politics.

The scene is a typical one for D.C.— especially in the midst of a heated presidential election —with one important exception: Instead of taking place at any of the city’s event spaces or bars, this event is at a Patagonia store, with attendees surrounded by racks of fleece jackets and outdoor gear.

For more than 40 years, the outdoor clothing and gear company, founded by climber Yvon Chouinard in 1973, has operated around the core mission of creating the best products possible with the least amount of harm — to its consumers, to society, and to the planet. But in the past decade, and especially this year, Patagonia has started to do more than simply sell great, sustainable products. They’ve begun to position themselves as an emissary between environmental politics and their customers, bridging the gap between consumers who enjoy the outdoors and a planet in dire need of help.

CREDIT: Natasha Geiling
CREDIT: Natasha Geiling

“We really do feel that the environment is in a state of crisis and has reached a tipping point,” Lisa Pike Sheehy, Patagonia’s vice president of environmental activism told ThinkProgress. “Without commitments to cut greenhouse gases and move to clean energy sources, we feel that humankind as a whole will destroy our planet’s ability to repair itself.”

This election cycle, Patagonia’s commitment to politics has manifested itself in a $1 million dollar campaign dubbed “Vote Our Planet,” which seeks to mobilize voters to get out and vote for candidates up and down the ballot who prioritize the environment. The campaign’s website emphasizes candidates and campaigns at the local and state level, like closing a nuclear plant in the Hudson Valley, or expanding rooftop solar in Nevada.

“A big push for us is the localization of it,” Sheehy said. “There is a lot of energy being put into the presidential office, but 88 percent of Congress is up for re-election. We want people to look at their Senate races, their House races, their mayoral and gubernatorial and attorney general races.”

That represents a departure from the company’s political campaigns of years past, which have run during presidential and midterm elections since 2004 and largely focused on national politics. This year, with the escapades of Donald Trump occupying much of the national political conservation, Patagonia decided to retool their political activism to focus on issues of local importance to both the planet and people — issues like air pollution, water pollution, and soil degradation.

“We really do feel that the environment is in a state of crisis and has reached a tipping point.”

To that end, the company decided to host two separate political events at each of its stores throughout this election season. The first, which was held on September 27 to mark National Voter Registration Day, was aimed at helping customers get registered to vote, either by registering them in-store or checking their registration status.

The second event was designed to be more local in scope, with each store hosting a special event with a partner environmental organization in their area to help highlight a particular issue of importance to the region. Those partnerships are nothing new for Patagonia —each regional store regularly awards grants to small, local environmental organizations. But by holding public events with these groups, especially in an election year, Patagonia hopes to draw voters’ attention to under-covered issues happening in their town or region.

“The focus is really on empowering the individual and getting them to recognize the power of their vote,” Sheehy said.

Which is how 40 or so people found themselves sitting on a mishmash of folding chairs and wooden benches, corralled into a makeshift amphitheater on the mezzanine level of Patagonia’s Georgetown outpost, for an evening of environmental politics.

For Washington, D.C., the local issue the store chose to focus on was the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a nearly 600-mile proposed pipeline that would carry natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia to power stations in Virginia and North Carolina. The pipeline, which was first proposed by Dominion Power in 2014, has faced staunch opposition from local landowners whose property would be impacted by the construction.

The event at the Patagonia store centered around a screening of Don’t Pipe Down, a short documentary made by students at James Madison University about the fight between landowners and Dominion. But the documentary — and the accompanying question-and-answer session with the film’s director, a landowner, and the president of Wild Virginia, a local conservation organization — was just part of the event. There was a Wild Virginia table manned by a volunteer hoping to recruit attendees to sign up for the organization’s mailing list. Another table served local craft beer brewed by the sustainability-focused Hellbender Brewery in D.C., dolling out silver cups emblazoned with a “Vote Our Planet” slogan in exchange for a (suggested) $5 donation.

“Our commitment to the environment isn’t something that sprung up recently, it’s something that is at the core of who we are,” Megan Duffy, the store’s manager, told ThinkProgress. “It’s not just that we’re a place where we have really cool movies or that we sell really great gear, but it’s also a place where people can get informed, because there aren’t always places to feel informed. And we are a welcoming place to do that.”

CREDIT: Natasha Geiling
CREDIT: Natasha Geiling

Patagonia is far from the only company to enter into environmental politics — companies like Ben & Jerry’s and New Belgium Brewing have also led campaigns aimed at invigorating voters and raising awareness about environmental issues. And while the company remains steadfast in its insistence that its political interests are purely environmental, not partisan, it’s difficult to take a strong pro-environmental stance without aligning itself with more liberal-minded voters. Climate change is one of the most polarizing subjects in American politics, with 95 percent of liberal Democrats believing in man-made climate change, versus 47 percent of conservative Republicans.

That puts a company like Patagonia , one seeking to engage in environmental politics without the party politics, in a difficult situation. And while the “Vote Our Planet” campaign doesn’t endorse particular candidates or parties, affiliates of the organization (employees, for example) have given over $60,000 to political campaigns since 1990. Of that, only $500 went to Republican candidates.

Patagonia has also begun using social media to extend its political outreach; its Twitter feed is laden with articles discussing everything from innovations in renewable energy to policies like fossil fuel subsidies. The company has also been actively tweeting about energy and environmental issues during the presidential debates, fact-checking claims like “clean coal” and drawing connections between a clean energy economy and job creation. And while it’s not unusual for a company to use social media to extend its brand ethos, it is rare for a company to dedicate that space almost entirely to a political cause.

According to Sheehy, Patagonia obviously hopes they don’t lose customers as a result of their political activity. But in the end, they’d rather lose customers than run their company in a way that feels untrue to its basic principles.

“We definitely hear from people that say stick to your knitting. But we feel like this is actually some of our most important knitting, and we have a responsibility to speak up on it,” she said. “There is the risk of losing customers, because some people are not going to agree with us on this. But we really feel a strong sense of responsibility here that the biggest risk would be doing nothing, saying nothing.”

Duffy, working on the store floor, has seen relatively little push-back from customers. Most, she said, are more curious than put-off.

“We really feel a strong sense of responsibility here that the biggest risk would be doing nothing, saying nothing.”

“I think [the reaction] has been overall inquisitive,” she said. “We haven’t seen any sort of aggressive or questioning kind of feedback, which has been lovely.”

As election season draws to a close, however, the company is thinking about how to extend the campaign past November. Once the dust settles and votes are tallied, the company will be taking a look at election outcomes and voter participation rates in an effort to tailor the campaign to post-election issues. But Sheehy hopes that the message to focus on local issues like air and water quality will resonate with voters, and consumers, far beyond November.

Because, ultimately, a healthy planet benefits so much more than just American voters.

“We’re fond of quoting [environmentalist] David Brower, that ‘there is no business on a dead planet,’” she said. “We care about a wide range of issues, but everything rests on having clean air, clean soil, and clean water.”