How Patagonia built a most Sustainable Fashion Brand

This story is about earth beauty and why engaging in sustainable fashion makes for beautiful brands. It’s not a romance story, we are talking serious brand strategy business!

We have 2020, pre COVID 19, online and multichannel have long become your daily bread and butter, and building sustainable fashion brands is the next big brand strategy priority.

Sustainable Fashion and Branding

If I say “Greenpeace”, what crosses your mind? Strong pictures of activists occupying nuclear power plants or protesting whale fishing?

Sustainable Fashion Brand

Greenpeace activists protet against tuna fishing operations (Photo: Greenpeace)

How come we don’t recall the true meaning of the term, peace for our habitat? Because Greenpeace’s brand building worked and your inner search engine has been manipulated by strong branding.

Here’s another one: What crosses your mind when you hear ‘sustainable fashion brands’? A blur of earthy fashion pieces, odd brand stories and stores with environmentalists wearing sandals?

Wake up! Long before Greta Thunberg, the market for sustainable fashion filled large trade show halls and is serious business. And there are some great sustainable fashion brands and many best practices to serve as inspiration for your own business case.

Yes, some of those sustainable fashion brands may be good-looking but poorly managed. And yes, some of those brands are merely greenwashing to ride the hype. But with sustainability as their asset, all of them may be very likely at the forefront of consumers’ future mindsets.

Patagonia most sustainable fashion brand

Who says stores for sustainable fashion brands have to look home-spun! Patagonia Berlin (Photo: Brand Pilots)

If you hear ‘sustainable fashion’ and your brain engine still returns ugly environmental imagery, it’s time you work on your internal search engine optimisation. Let met me help by sharing the story of a beautiful brand: Patagonia Works.

Patagonia Works Truly Works

Patagonia is one of the oldest socially engaged companies and on a global level probably the most successful one. Exact sales figures are not public, but we estimate it at close to USD 1bn, given the brand’s global distribution. Above all, it is the most beautiful brand. Yes, beautiful.

Sustainable fashion brand

Patagonia’s headquarter and store in Ventura, California (Photo: Brand Pilots)

Patagonia Works was founded by Yvon Chouinard in California almost 50 years ago. Yvon was a dedicated climber and cared about the environment early on. His first environmental footprints were product innovations like reusable pitons (metal spikes) and other hardware.

Patagonia already began to support individuals in local environmental projects in the early 1970s. Not to mention their early and deep engagement in sustainable fashion. Over the years, Patagonia’s total sustainable engagement exceeded USD 100 million in cash plus the equivalent in management hours.

Patagonia is by far not the only environmentally conscious company; the outdoor industry widely practices a ‘give back to nature’ culture. But Patagonia’s founder went a step further by turning company into a B Corporation in 2012.

What to some may sound like an NGO or social enterprise is in fact a serious sustainable fashion brand business concept. B Corporations thrive on a mission to grow because they want to grow in impact on their cause. And they want to be publicly measured by this growing impact.

Sustainable fashion brand

The mission statement couldn’t be clearer  (Image: Patagonia)

To achieve this goal, B Corporations follow very transparent reporting practices with sophisticated annual audits. And as insiders report, that can be more stressful than filing regular financial reports. But above all, it makes the company focus on what truly matters: the contribution to society.

Is Patagonia Successful?

Yes, it is indeed very successful in sustainable fashion. How do I know, when no sales or profit figures are published? We are talking about Patagonia and their mission – and that is exactly what they want to achieve. They don’t want to be measured in sales, they want to be measured by their level of engagement in earth saving projects. And measured by that, Patagonia is very successful as a company, and as a brand.

Sustainable fashion brand

A selection of Patagonia’s annual achievements 2018 (Source: Annual benefit report)

But do they still measure sales and profits? For sure. Not only because CEO Rose Marcario comes from a solid career in private equity and finance, but also because Patagonia can only contribute to the health of the planet if the business can finance its mission.

As long as financially smart people in the back office make sure that spending never exceeds income, the benefit corporation can be very successful.

What Is so Beautiful About Patagonia?

Much has been published on Patagonia’s story and sustainable fashion. But to really grasp the concept and challenges of social entrepreneurship, I highly recommend reading Yvon’s intriguing and straight-forward book The Responsible Company. A brand strategy ‘must read’ in 2020, like the company’s latest annual benefit report.

More than anything else, these two texts shed light on how a company can align both, commercial thinking and engagement for the planet, without becoming a hopeless romantic.

In case you can’t make time just now to read up on the beauty of Patagonia, let’s dive into my five personal highlights:


You may have seen this Patagonia ad before. The beauty is that it achieved the exact opposite in sales, but will still have helped the planet significantly.

Black Friday ad from 2011 (Source: New York Times)

As the campaign came out at the height of the US retail run, it caught the attention of many who read the very critical message and reflected on the coming spending hype. Branding professionals call this type of messaging a ‘paradox intervention’. By communicating the unexpected or unwanted, you create interest in the opposite. A case of beautiful benchmark branding.

Repair Services

In brand retail we often see variations on in-store sewing machines, mostly serving the purpose of customising and individualising products on the spot. Patagonia has sewing machines too, but theirs serve to extend the lifespan of your old product with free repairs.

Patagonia’s beautiful Sales-Avoiding-Brand-Building-Counter (photo brand pilots)

The beauty of the free repair service is that it’s not only for Patagonia products, but for all brands, as long as the repair is not too technically complex.

Store Opening

If I ask about best practice for product launches, around 80% of us might think of Apple’s early iPhone launches. How about this one instead?

It is not an iPhone, it is Patagonia’s opening of a thrift shop (Photo: Patagonia)

Can you believe that this was the opening of a pop-up store for sustainable fashion brand? All it was selling was used Patagonia clothing. Patagonia truly living its mission to the fullest.

Community Management

Would you offer your most valuable space in store, right past the entrance at the centre, to political campaigners?

If you think what a waste and lost sales, you don’t yet have a feel for outstanding branding (Photo: Brand Pilots)


If you are tired of listening to retailers greenwashing their operation by focusing on how much energy consumption they reduced with the latest generation of new stores, here is a different example of a Berlin store and its changing rooms:

Upcycling in its true and most honest meaning (Photo: Brand Pilots)

These doors won’t need a PR campaign to convey that the CO2 footprint of this store must be outstanding.

Window Design

Last but not least, my Patagonia favourite: no glitz and glam, no fancy lighting, just beautiful paper cut art. That’s the beauty of sustainable and socially responsible windows.

Beautiful! (Photo: Brand Pilots)

Creating beautiful Images

Reading about brand best practices is like discovering the beauty of nature. No written article replaces the personal experience of nature. So I stop here and encourage you to look for the true beauty of sustainable fashion branding yourself. Research, read, visit and, above all, experience it to grasp how beauty sustainable fashion and social responsibility not just for your branding.

Patagonia’s business case is beautiful, because it provides a textbook example of how growing a business can very well go along with saving the planet. Leading by example attracts consumers and creates sales. As a consumer I trust that the item I buy will contribute directly to a worthy cause. That’s why ‘don’t buy this jacket’ makes me do the opposite. With Patagonia, sustainability finally receives a new entry in consumer brains’ search results.

Patagonia Works on all counts: product, brand, and mission (Photo: Brand Pilots)

Your brand is not Patagonia, but a little Patagonia works for all of us – as business, as brand and as valuable contributors to society. Sustainable fashion at its best. In my eyes, that’s the future of branding: contributing to improving the world by evolving the business while doing good for the planet. And you can do it too.

On that note, if you care about sustainable fashion, don’t share this post!

Featured image credit: Tyler Stableford

Postscript Greenpeace:

A good friend of mine has a background in Greenpeace fundraising. He says, it is not campaign pictures that get Greenpeace the most donations, but the picture of the ice bear on a melting ice float. What does that tell us? Don’t give consumers the number of bottles you’ve recycled for your next collection, share pictures of the beaches you cleared.

Postscript Patagonia:

Following the success of its first Black Friday ‘don’t buy’ campaign, Patagonia did another Black Friday 2017, by promising it would donate the day’s total sales to environmental groups. In the evening the brand had grossed USD 10 million instead of the expected 2 million. Consumers love to shop with a good conscience, even if the shopping mode is a discount rally.


About the Author

While Guido funds Greenpeace campaigns with a regular contribution, he admits to still not owning a Patagonia jacket. But that may change soon as he loves the new Patagonia flagship store in Berlin. If you want join him in studying Patagonia or other brand stores, connect with him on LinkedIn.

6 thoughts on “How Patagonia built a most Sustainable Fashion Brand

  1. Phil says:

    Is it possible to get the URL for the annual benefit corporation report fiscal year 2018? It’s highly appreciated! Kind regards, Phil ✌️

  2. Guido Schild says:

    Phil, I would love to, but I’m not sure it has been published yet. I assume you (like me) checked google.
    From my recollection Patagonia never was in a hurry to publish. If in urgent need, try their online contacts, they may have it already. Cheers. Guido

  3. Phil says:

    Hey Guido, Thank`s for quick response ! Yeah the problem is , I have the pdf already on my desktop but can´t find the original source online. Forgot to safe the URL. I need it for my Thesis. Just asked Patagonia, but they were sorry , couldn´t help me with this. It´s very strange the reports 2013,2015,2016,2017 you can download from their page. But 2018 is lost. Thank you anyway !

  4. Really love the content of this article. Eye opening notes on making a sustainable fashion brand.
    Though I read only one fashion brand is mentioned here, there might be other brands who is also doing many good work on making fashion items more sustainable. Thank you.

  5. Guido Schild says:

    Prasanter, thanks. Yes, there are a lot more ethical and ecological brands, probably in each country a few these days. Many with an own unique story that deserves to be told. Sorry I don’t have any list, but I’m confident Mr Google can help you far better. All the best for your thesis

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