Earth is now “the largest shareholder” of outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia, per the company’s homepage. Fall gear is 50 percent off in advance of the change, which will of course outlast the season. Rather than going public like competitor North Face, Patagonia rebranded as “going purpose.” In an unprecedented stroke of generosity, or otherwise a creative retirement plan, the billionaire Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard donated the entire company to the fight against climate change and for the conservation of the world’s last wild frontiers.
The timing is ideal. Some parts of Patagonia (the place) are melting, and the founder of Patagonia (the company) is an octogenarian. But while some consumers are celebrating the achievement and finding solace in the idea that their shopping will save the world, the number-crunchers have started asking questions. Is this display of class suicide what it seems?
Even after they donate 98 percent of Patagonia shares to Holdfast Collective, Chouinard and his family maintain control of the company. The move allows Chouinard to skirt the federal and estate taxes he would have owed had he sold the company or transferred it to his children. Surrendering a company to a non-profit never looked so lucrative.
Patagonia already has a successful history of marketing itself as an ecologically conscious, anti-brand brand. Its infamous 2011 “Don’t Buy This Jacket” Black Friday campaign resulted in a 30 percent increase in sales. All its down is responsibly sourced, 98 percent of its materials are recycled, and all its energy needs in the U.S. are met with renewables. Meanwhile, the company has a history of human trafficking abuses, and today pays only 39 percent of its garment workers a living wage. If Patagonia’s is a new, more benevolent form of benevolent capitalism, it looks awfully similar to the capitalism that came before it.
Will Patagonia save us? Probably not. Will it shift the United States away from consumerism? Also unlikely. Even before there were philanthropic billionaires, Earth was always the largest shareholder. The planet always casts the final vote.
Chanelle Adams is a researcher, translator, and writer based in Switzerland.