Can capitalism boost conservation?

  • Paul Larmer

    Paul Larmer

Last February, the CEO of Patagonia -- perhaps the world's most conservation-minded outdoor gear and clothing company -- spoke to eager young business students and outdoor-industry professionals at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Casey Sheahan's message was simple: Companies can do right by the environment and society while still turning a profit.

Sheahan's talk was thick with examples of Patagonia's investment in conservation, from its solar panel-covered parking lot to its support for efforts to restore the desiccated Colorado River Delta. But the friction between commerce and conservation surfaced when he showed a slide of an ad the company ran in The New York Times last November on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. Below a picture of Patagonia's cool new R2 jacket, the headline blared, "Don't Buy This Jacket." The text explained:

"Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time -- and leave a world inhabitable for our kids -- we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else."

Sheahan joked that if he'd run the same ad during the Super Bowl, it might have blown Patagonia's entire pre-tax profit. But, he added, "It didn't hurt us a bit. Sales were up on Black Friday 19 percent; sales for Cyber Monday were up 28 percent. … It was reverse psychology -- an interesting experiment."

To the cynic, this kind of "experiment" simply reinforces the notion that companies' altruistic leanings go only as far as the bottom line. But, as former HCN editor Greg Hanscom's cover story reveals, the picture is more complicated when it comes to the growing outdoor industry, which, over the past decade, has emerged as a conservation player in the West. Through the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and its sister organization, the Conservation Alliance, companies regularly funnel grants to conservation groups and send delegations to Washington, D.C., to lobby for protection of the land used by their customers.

Yet, as Hanscom notes, the industry's contribution to conservation causes remains minuscule. The roughly 200-member Conservation Alliance doled out a little over $1 million in grants last year -- welcome money, but pocket change compared to what extractive industries spend to gain access to public lands. A new OIA report calculated that consumers spend some $646 billion annually on outdoor recreation, generating more than 6 million jobs and $80 billion in state and federal taxes. Surely an industry this robust could do more to support conservation.

That kind of change will take bold leadership from more companies like Patagonia and people like Peter Metcalf, the outspoken founder of Black Diamond. If Metcalf -- who is profiled in this story -- can inspire other CEOs and boards of directors, then the outdoor industry could indeed become the force for nature it claims to be.

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