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Why don’t more local businesses have the courage to emulate Patagonia?

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By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Today’s word is “altruism” and the question accompanying it is this: What motivates people to do the right thing on behalf of a better public good?

Or, relatedly, ponder this: When facing difficult choices that demand we become inconvenienced, discomforted or earn less, will we always choose pursuing rational self-interest even if it threatens our common long-term prospects for survival?

Everyone knows that the outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, which holds strong human and heartfelt connections to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, wears its environmental ethic on its sleeve. 

Over the years it has staked out positions that marketing mavens on Madison Avenue would argue jeopardized Patagonia’s bottom line. During one holiday season a few years’ back, Patagonia paid for a full-page ad in The New York Times and encouraged the public to not buy new Patagonia products.

Ironically, customers, moved by the message, responded by purchasing more Patagonia apparel, deepening brand loyalty to a company that actually had the cojones to say that more consumptive materialism is destroying the finite natural wonders of planet Earth.

Now, in a bizarre year when Patagonia believes it’s important for Americans to bring clear-eyed 2020 vision to challenges facing the globe and representative democracy as we’ve known it, a new message has literally been added to the tags of some of Patagonia’s products.  

Behind the familiar Patagonia mountain logo on the backs of shirts and other wearables is a message: “Vote the A**holes out.” Because this is a family-friendly publication, I’ll leave it to you to fill in the blanks.

Patagonia isn’t telling consumers who exactly they should support in the upcoming election, but the company is saying that, as part of our civic duty, we citizens ought to educate ourselves on who is telling the truth on facts surrounding climate change and who isn’t. Those who are intentionally distorting scientific evidence about the impact of fossil fuel burning on our common atmosphere ought to be held to account, it says.

Those who dismiss human-caused “climate change as a hoax invented by the Chinese” call Patagonia’s position a radical move, but is it?

Company founder Yvon Chouinard, who spends a lot of time in his adopted home of Jackson Hole, says any business that deliberately denies scientific facts and stakes out positions that threaten the well-being of customers is immoral. 

Further, he would add that any company or politician that knowingly engages in the harmful plundering of nature, to advance short-term economic gain at the cost of longer-term ecological health, ought to be called out. On this front, Chouinard has said the media which does not apply scrutiny to environmental destruction is complicit. 

His opinion is shared by Auden Schendler, climate activist, father, outdoor recreationist, former journalist and who serves today as Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Ski Company in Colorado. Schendler also sits on the board of the nonprofit group Protect Our Winters, which recently launched a new campaign featuring world-class climber Jimmy Chin.

Schendler says Americans need to realize that while climate change represents an existential threat to all that people value about the ecological richness of a region like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, there’s more at stake: “… the future of representative Democracy that is based on established scientific fact informing important public decisions,” he told me.

I asked Schendler why Protect Our Winters doesn’t place more emphasis on the deleterious impacts of climate change on forests (beetle kills and wildfires), water (less available in summer owed to rising temperatures and dryer warming seasons), and threats to wildlife that make Greater Yellowstone the most iconic for large mammals in the Lower 48?

His response: Before humans will act to protect the survival of other species, they must first acknowledge that something like climate change is going to harm them in the pocketbook, or threaten the security of their kids’ world, or, on a very base and superficial level, make it more difficult to enjoy their favorite passions such as skiing, flyfishing, or breathing clean air in the mountains.

Schendler says that companies taking the lead deserve being rewarded by consumers who value corporate altruism—i.e. looking out for the best interest of society and not seeking only to please bean counters in corporate board rooms. Doing harm to nature, he and Chouinard say, is not a shrewd business move.

 A few years ago, Chouinard and noted Madison Valley angler, conservationist and former Michigan cop Craig Mathews founded One Percent for the Planet. Companies that partake in the program earmark one percent of their profits for conservation.

Analysis has shown that companies taking risks and advancing social causes often win greater loyalty from customers. They also attract the best kind of conscientious employees who are proud to work for such firms. 

As you move around Greater Yellowstone, think about the companies and politicians that aren’t afraid to stand behind science-based decision-making.

To those who don’t, Chouinard and Schendler would say they don’t deserve your loyalty. Full disclosure from Todd Wilkinson: Patagonia supports Mountain Journal, a nonprofit news entity he founded devoted to watchdog journalism and defending science.

Wilkinson is also a correspondent for National Geographic. He’s wrote the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399.

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