Doing a Patagonia: What does a bold, socially conscious purpose do for business?


Several decades ago Patagonia landed on its mission statement. And ever since, uncompromising attention to the details of what it means has fuelled the steady growth and wider impact of its endeavours.

So, as a long-time student of how they do things, I was somewhat shocked when I saw a ‘new’ mission revealed in their current environmental report: “We’re in business to save our home planet.

Of course, the intent they articulate is not new. From the first forged climbing gear, care for the environment has driven Patagonia. But the times we live in carry an urgency about the survival of the planet, which no doubt contributed to the feeling they needed a bolder statement.

So should you make like Patagonia and sharpen your purpose?

In the report, founder Yvon Chouinard notes: I really wanted us to face up to the fact that we’re destroying the planet. It could very well end up uninhabitable in 80 years, at least for humankind and wild animals. That’s why we recently changed the company’s mission statement to ‘We’re in business to save our home planet.’”

Which is terrific if you’re Patagonia and have always shoved your purpose into the crannies and crevices of everything you do. It is great when its an integral part of what and how, and in the water supply everyone drinks from, from the chief executive to the frontlines.

However, I generally caution care when approaching such shifts. Few organisations understand the meaning of their statement as well as Patagonia. And without it things can go horribly haywire.

Twiddling with a purpose statement can confuse people. Think: ‘Wait, I thought that other thing was most important?’

Or worse, create cynics. Think: ‘Here we go again. What do we/they care about this week?’

Purpose is the reason you do what you’re doing (and if ‘making money’ is your first thought stop right here and go and read page 88 of Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras). Along with values, it sits as the organisation’s foundation of identity, shaping your promises and the actions and decisions which keep them. So even a moderate change can trigger a potential cascade of consequences.

Problems often begin when the change is approached as a revolution, not an evolution. By nature purpose should endure. It’s different from the headline of a marketing campaign, or a strategic goal — which can and should be subjected to regular scrutiny and change.

Patagonia’s purpose evolution works because it carries the legacy of past statements with it. The previous incarnation included “use business to help solve the world’s environmental crisis”. The new version stands more as a shedding and sharpening than a redo. A continued clarity resulting from doing what they care about.

So before you decide to update your purpose, start by asking if the update will provide people with a better guide for making decisions about what to do and how to do it.

Sadly, in my experience, that’s rarely the case. More usually at play is a ‘let’s shake this up for the hell of it’ mentality born from some combination of new leadership, boredom and public opinion. Cue previously mentioned confusion and cynicism.

By all means, sharpen up your purpose if more clarity is needed and possible. But if you are tinkering for revolution’s sake, don’t. Unless you have a sweeping understanding of what the purpose means to you, a change, galvanising for a company like Patagonia, can have the opposite effect on your organisation.

See you next week.

NOW READ: Struggling with your purpose statement? The words are not the problem

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