Opinion: Drop the company or drop the activism

Solvej Lee/The Occidental

From turning trash into fleece to not-so-passive aggressive messages against evil politicians in the tags of garments, Patagonia has been taking action to fight climate change and all the nasty perpetrators of it since their foundation in 1973. Founder Yvon Chouinard and the rest of his team at Patagonia have actively advocated for “saving our home planet,” including graphic messages on t-shirts, sustainably sourced materials and donating 1 percent of sales profits to help the “preservation and restoration of the natural environment.” This is why Patagonia has always been a brand that I support and trust almost unconditionally.


Coming from a high school identical to Occidental College in its student activism, I came to believe at a young age that billionaires and large-scale corporations are the bane of Earth’s existence. As young people, our work towards a more sustainable future is valuable, but it is difficult to get anywhere when the owners of most of the world’s wealth are too stubborn to share. While I plan to continue to do everything I can to fight against the climate crisis, it is discouraging when people with the most means do not have the same intention.

When I heard the news of Chouinard’s donation, I finally felt the relief and empowerment that I had once convinced myself was impossible. I thought back to engaging with my pro-cryptocurrency peers in conversations about the morality of wealth and billionaires — they argued that billionaires earned their wealth, whereas I was raised by my family and teachers to understand that it is impossible to gain that much power and money in such an impoverished world without exploiting human laborComing from these debates didn’t necessarily make me feel defeated, but hopeless. Even when I won the argument, my victory came from the confirmation that the top 1 percent would rather create a static collection of wealth and assets than provide for the people, animals and environments that make the earth so unique and lively. The only feeling worse than the hopelessness surrounding the most powerful people in the world was the lack of faith I consequently had in my own abilities. If those who held the most wealth didn’t care about the environment, what difference would it make if I was turning toward sustainability?

Billionaires such as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates joined the Giving Pledge Campaign, an agreement to offer 50 percent of their net worth after they die “to address some of society’s most pressing problems.” This may seem generous to some, but to me it appears as an empty promise or performative philanthropy. It is easy to make a promise to donate your money when you are no longer here to possess it. If these billionaires are well aware that they will have that money when they die, why not donate now? If these problems are so “pressing,” why wait?

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), we are experiencing a “code red for humanity.” Our planet and its peoples are suffering more than ever, but the wealthiest of the world are hoarding their assets until they aren’t around to have them anymore. Even though billionaires have the means to contribute to saving our planet, they won’t budge until they are no longer affected. The Giving Pledge is not a sufficient solution for the state of urgency that the world is in right now.

Yvon Chouinard, however, is doing the right thing. For him, advocating for the planet comes before proving to the world that he cares. Rather than making promises for his future profits, he has started now. Chouinard carries a unique role, in my perspective, of billionaires because he holds himself to his words. In contrast, other billionaire philanthropists seem to require validation or the assuaging of guilt to pursue selfish monetary habits. Chouinard’s promise to allocate the trust and wealth of Patagonia to a non-profit organization against climate change is a move few billionaires would dare to make.

Chouinard’s action changed the game for me. For the first time in a while, particularly during my time here at Occidental (a bubble of hybrid landscapes — from trees to architecture — amid a larger plume of smog and noise pollution named Los Angeles), I felt like my actions could matter. Someone has been hearing our calls, someone with influence.

Coming from a particularly frugal family, sustainability in the form of expensive — yet ethical — clothing was rarely an option. One of the few times that it was, however, was when it came to Patagonia. My parents urged me to not only invest in athletic and winter wear that would last a lifetime, but to support big brands that take extremely active initiatives to fulfill their mission statements. Just as it is easy for millionaires and billionaires to assert that they will support the environment “eventually,” it’s easy for popular brands to appeal to their activist-fueled audience with claims of a brighter, more sustainable future. There are very few times I hear or read statements promising a positive future that are actually followed by well-intentioned and well-thought out plans to make lasting change.

So, my message to my readers is not that you have to sell all of your stuff and give all the money to climate non-profits like Yvon Chouinard did. But, if we want our home planet to live at least as long as we do, we need to stop supporting brands like Zara and Urban Outfitters and send our money to people who are going to use it wisely. If you think about it, it is far more sustainable to your bank account to invest your hard-earned college job money into clothes that will last a lifetime, rather than clothes that may last a year.

Chouinard demonstrates to us that we do not need to live in abundance. Due to the influence from billionaires who refuse to share, our society strives to lead decadent lives. But there are sacrifices we are able to make, like abandoning micro-trends and consuming less clothing in excess. Buy things that are meant to last. Be intentional about your purchases. Patagonia isn’t the only company doing the right thing. Support brands like Girlfriend Collective and Allbirds. As a generation dedicated to human rights and the preservation of the planet, there is more we can do than make empty promises, just like the fast fashion brands. If we want to build a society of trust and positive change, our words need to match our actions. Otherwise, we are just as bad as the big name corporations who are polluting this world.

Contact Grace Meadows at meadows@oxy.edu