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Patagonia Reconnects With its Roots

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Social and environmental responsibility is in the DNA of Patagonia, permeating every facet of its brand image and operations. Low-impact dyes and organic cotton are chosen over cheaper, or more environmentally harmful, raw materials for its products. Its 171,000-square-foot Reno (Nev.) Service Center expansion has been engineered to reduce its environmental footprint as much as possible.

Through Patagonia's involvement with the "1% for the Planet" initiative, the company has donated 1% of all sales to organizations dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment (totaling more than $25 million since the company started in 1985). When a customer is through with a fleece or T-shirt, he or she can return it to Patagonia to be recycled.

This unwavering commitment to the environment has certainly struck a chord with consumers. Chalking up $270 million in revenue for 2006, Patagonia makes high-quality clothing that is sometimes referred to as the 'Gucci of the outdoors.' The company's environmental work is fundamental to its mission, not only because the leadership believes it's the right thing to do, but it happens to thrill its customers to boot.

Additionally, Patagonia strives to create the same sort of excitement in its employees. For one thing, the company leadership emphasizes the high level of trust and freedom employees are given. Considering the company's founder and owner, Yvon Chouinard, wrote a book titled Let My People Go Surfing, it's not surprising that Patagonia's leadership lets workers make a schedule that works for them and their interests, so if that means taking a half-day when the surf's up, or coming in later to allow for a morning hike, it's all part of ensuring the happy workforce feels as connected to the outdoors as to the products they sell.

A more formal way Patagonia encourages employees to live the values of the company is its Environmental Internship Program. Employees are invited to work for any environmental nonprofit company of their choice for up to two months, while still receiving their full pay and benefits. This can take the form of an environmental sabbatical in which workers immerse themselves in the nonprofit work for the entire two months, or just for a couple of days a week as a supplement to their work at the company.

"We still consider that they are working for Patagonia," said Lu Setnicka, director of training for Patagonia. "But they are having the opportunity to bring a particular skill set to an organization that could really benefit from it, in some ways more than it would from a grant check. It also gives the employees the opportunity to dive deeper into an issue, partnering with a group that they are interested in."

Select employees are invited to attend the Tools for Grassroots Activists conference the company sponsors every 18 months, bringing together about 100 activists from around the world to discuss their work and advance their causes.

And Patagonia is much more than a catchy name to the company. A few years ago, former CEO Kristine McDivett Tompkins moved to South America and founded Conservacion Patagonica, an organization headquartered on a 173,000-acre ranch in the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina, dedicated to preserving the ecosystem and biodiversity of the area. Patagonia (the company) has partnered with Tompkins' group to send six employees to the ranch a few times each year, flying them in to spend three weeks on service projects, pulling fences, removing exotic vegetation and learning about the area.

"As one of my colleagues said, 'You feel like [naturalist] John Muir out there with nobody else around,'" said Tim Rhone, who took part in the project last year when he was the manager at Patagonia's Upper West Side store in New York. "When you think of the 'brand' for a company like Nike or even Patagonia, it's usually just a vague sense or idea