Patagonia and the business of fighting Trump policies

Kim Bhasin and Polly Mosendz
Bloomberg News

Shoppers visiting Patagonia Inc.’s website to seek out a fleece jacket or mountain-biking jersey on Wednesday were greeted with an ominous announcement.

On Wednesday, Patagonia sued in Washington federal court seeking a judicial order to block Trump’s decision.

“The President Stole Your Land,” the text read on a black page. That land is in Utah, made up of millions of acres of wilderness in a pair of national monuments. It was protected land that U.S. President Donald Trump decided to substantially reduce on Dec. 4.

Most companies have shied away from politics since Trump took office in January. Not Patagonia. It’s spearheading what its top executive calls “a radical revolution,” putting their money where their mouth is. By bringing this suit, Patagonia is showing that its environmentally friendly branding isn’t just talk and, in turn, appeasing customers whose views align with the company.

Executives vowed to take Trump to court if he didn’t back down over the public lands issue. He didn’t, so on Wednesday, Patagonia sued in Washington federal court seeking a judicial order to block Trump’s decision. The lawsuit claims Trump exceeded his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Similar cases have been brought by environmental groups and Native American tribes, but Patagonia is the first retailer to get embroiled in such litigation, though companies such as REI and North Face have expressed solidarity with the green-friendly movement.


Over the past 11 months, Patagonia has waged a war against Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Utah officials over the protection of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. In February, it and other outdoor companies clashed with Utah Governor Gary Herbert over his stance on public lands, leading to the relocation of a major trade show out of Salt Lake City. Patagonia ran its first television commercial in its 45-year history in August, featuring its 79-year-old founder Yvon Chouinard condemning those who would exploit the Utah land for natural resources.

Patagonia’s Chief Executive Officer is Rose Marcario, who was chosen to run the company in 2014 after a career in private equity. Yes, Patagonia regards itself as an activist company, but it’s still a for-profit retailer that needs to make money selling its clothing and outdoor gear.

“Any time that we do something good for the environment, we make more money,” the executive told students at the University of California, Berkeley, in April.

Headquartered in Ventura, California, Patagonia employs more than 2,200 people and has offices in six countries. Though it doesn’t reveal exact sales numbers, Marcario said in March that the retailer is “approaching $1 billion” in annual revenue. North America is its biggest market, accounting for about 75 percent of its total sales.

Patagonia is structured as a benefit corporation, a designation that gives it the freedom to pursue its environmental mission. According to the lawsuit, it has donated more than $89 million to environmental groups and “has invested substantial company resources to amplify their message, using its own marketing platforms and employee time to advocate for their shared conservation goals.”

Ancient granaries, part of the House on Fire ruins in the South Fork of Mule Canyon in the Bears Ears National Monument  on May 12, 2017 outside Blanding, Utah.

Bear Ears is particularly important to Patagonia as the company sends employees there for product testing, marketing, professional training, and “spiritual and aesthetic enjoyment.” The company’s executives “have redirected their time and attention from other corporate goals and priorities to the effect to preserve the Bear Ears National Monument.” Given how intertwined Patagonia has become with Bear Ears, the complaint argued the company would “suffer direct and immediate injury from the revocation of the designation of the landmarks, structures, and objects of the Bear Ears National Monument.” The company also sponsors athletes who rock climb in the area, the complaint added.

Such arguments are directed at the legal issue of standing, a requirement that a plaintiff be sufficiently affected by the matter at issue in order to have a right to sue.

The complaint isn’t Patagonia’s first foray into mainstream environmental activism: its Black Friday sales, about $10 million, were donated to environmental causes. A post on its website about the donation generated over 70 comments, the vast majority from adoring customers praising the company for its work. “This is why I am a very loyal customer,” wrote one person. “This move has sealed me as a forever Patagonia customer,” another said.

Customers had a similar reaction after the Bears Ears lawsuit was filed. “Patagonia has given me more reason to love them,” one user said on Twitter. “Thank you Patagonia for making our country a priority to your company,” wrote another. “I’ll forever remember and continue to be a loyal customer!”

As for the battle against Trump, Zinke, and their environmental policies, Chouinard held nothing back when he denounced the administration this week. “This government is evil,” he told CNN, “and I’m not going to sit back and let evil win.” His company exchanged barbs with Zinke, who criticized Patagonia for making clothes in China. Patagonia hit back, accusing him of prioritizing special interest groups. Zinke’s press secretary responded by calling Patagonia “fake news.”

Meanwhile, Marcario wrote an op-ed for Time magazine explaining why Patagonia decided to sue.

“We won’t let President Trump tear down our heritage and sell it to the highest bidder,” wrote Marcario.“We’re proud to keep fighting with everything we’ve got.”