We Can’t Save the Planet and Be Capitalist
The founder of Patagonia thinks saving the planet is hopeless. So what keeps him going, and how does capitalism fit into the solution?
In an interview with Fast Company last month, Yvon Chouinard — founder of Patagonia — talked about sustainability in businesses today. His point, it’s all hopeless.
Everything man does creates more harm than good. We have to accept that fact and not delude ourselves into thinking something is sustainable. Then you can try to achieve a situation where you’re causing the least amount of harm possible. That’s the spin we put on it. It’s a never-ending summit. You’re just climbing forever. You’ll never get to the top, but it’s the journey.
He tells a bleak story of attempts to save our planet through sustainable practices, and how that quest is plagued by capitalism. But, there is still a happy(ish) ending to be salvaged from the waste. A better way to run a business, and a solution that includes us all.
Sustainability, according to the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (The Brundtland Commission), is about considering how to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainability presumes that resources are finite and should be treated as such.
But when sustainability collides with capitalism, nothing meaningful changes.
Lets’s imagine a magical company. It makes magical products that don’t hurt the environment. Every socially conscious household, naturally, buys them up — and has Amazon deliver it all to their house. Those consumers feel better about their carbon footprint. But nothing has changed.
The people buying those magical products never learned restraint. They still travel unnecessarily, eat beef every day, and run water for white noise because it helps them sleep at night. The magical company still pollutes at a considerable rate to make their magical products. Those companies shipping the products still waste gas delivering all those non-problematic goods. And the people buying still wasted the resources of today — without considering the future.
But capitalism rewards those consumers’ behavior because profitability undermines the narrative.
The Crisis of the Past
In 1979– surprisingly, 4 decades ago — President Jimmy Carter gave his “Crisis of Confidence” speech to a tumultuous nation. He boldly proclaimed the nation was at a turning point, with two distinct paths to choose from.
One path pleaded for modestness to reign as the new virtue of the nation. He believed that practicing restraint was the absolute way forward. Anything less, he warned, was “a certain route to failure.”
Unfortunately, the President’s calls fell upon unwilling ears. US energy consumption steadily increased since giving his speech, hitting the highest point yet in 2018. The present-day reveals the accuracy of his warnings. Overconsumption has lead us to a global climate crisis.
So why has it taken over 40 years for a new generation of radical youth to recognize how crucial it is that we change our ways?
The flaw is in the reasonings of capitalism.
Our parents were told the importance of less beef, fewer flights, less plastic waste — just as we are told today. But to change their habits for the sake of saving the environment would be to change the very way they saw the world. It would mean reprogramming almost every aspect of their lives.
We have been encouraged to recognize tremendous growth as a major sign of a healthy economy. But like stars that shine brightest before burning themselves out, rapid expansion isn’t as wholesome as it sounds.
Carelessly pursuing growth, companies have sought large annual profits at the expense of their workers’ communities.
“It’s all growth, growth, growth — and that’s what’s destroying the planet.” Yvon Chouinard
The problem is the expectation of innovative products to be the solution to saving the planet — when it was consumption which got us into the mess.
Capitalism’s answer to Climate Change is to buy more when we know the answer is less.
President Carter’s vision for our nation was interrupted by an unwillingness to confront capitalist ideals head-on. Halted by the belief that the markets would no longer rise if we embraced buyer restraint. And abandoned by the unwilling many, hesitant to give up personal comforts while convenient products updated in abundance.
Rather than linger in hopelessness, we can take action. We can use Yvon’s words as motivation to storm that “never-ending summit” of sustainability.
Like the past generations were called upon to sacrifice for the well being of the future — taking no unnecessary trips, mass use of carpools and public transportation, stopping use of cars for one day a week, rationing gas, or setting thermostats to save energy — we have received the same call of frugality.
In addition to being mindful of our actions, we should be mindful of the ways we revise capitalism. Making sure we encourage the curbing our expectation of more. To make meaningful change, we must diminish the desire for more profits — simply because investors expect more profit.
Learning from the 1%
Instead of chasing growth for growth’s sake, Patagonia shows us that corporations of today can be morally good, and still perform well in the long run. In return for acting within the interests of the workers, the business, and the environment — the market will reward their genuine action. Yvon believes this what the consumer expects of their companies, anyway.
The Patagonia founder has put his theory to the test, creating the 1% for the Planet — a pledge from a collective of businesses to donate 1% of profits to environmental groups — founded in 2002. Through philanthropic actions and devotion to protecting our planet’s natural resources, Patagonia has become a billion-dollar global brand. And Patagonia’s not alone.
The Henokiens cooperative is a guiding light to longevity in the world of business. An international collective of family-owned and operated businesses — mostly European and Japanese — operating for a minimum of 200 years.
Their restraint and sustainable practices juxtapose the capitalist philosophy of maximizing growth at every chance. Yet, they have thrived for centuries.
A marriage between free enterprise and sustainable practices is not impossible. It is an artful balancing act — that, yes, is a constant process. Capitalism needs to be changed for meaningful results, but businesses can still do good for the world today.
Our spectacular love affair with capitalism is coming to an end. I suspect whatever system we actualize, will accompany a cultural shift. From prioritizing the bottom line to uplifting the planet, constantly striving for sustainability.
First, we need to change our perceptions of success. A change to expect less, and conserve more.
We have a chance to be better. To learn from the mistakes of the past and capitalize on our unique vantage point of an unforeseen technological boom. We are a nation founded on challenging the status quo. No matter the challenge, a nation united can overcome.
As Chouinard says, “the solution to depression is action.”
We have the power to choose to act sustainably every day. Whether following the urgings of Jimmy Carter and conserving whenever possible or spreading the word about the benefits of pursuing sustainability. And with each new generation, a new hope of more leaders ready to answer the call to action.