A clear piece of work I needed to look at after the Green Sky Thinking process was a review of my ethical policy and in fact, how I structure myself as a company. My whole approach shows great intentions but it needs tightening up. We also discussed how I can affiliate myself to a 'cause' that complements my brand and my passions.
Just in case you're getting the wrong impression, I'm not really a surfing, rock-climbing active outdoors kinda person. I met quite a lot of those types when living in Ecuador. I was normally the one lying on the beach reading a book or in the mountains finding exquisite handicrafts in obscure Andean highland villages. I like a good long walk, yoga, and reading books on a beach, train, bus and occasionally a cheesy aerobics class or a worthy bike ride. But all that surf kit, compass, 'extreme sports' are not really up my mountain path.
The book was about a guy who loved to surf and climb mountains. He then started making kit and eventually it became a huge brand. The guy, Yvon Chouinard, wrote the book about how his company grew from being just him (with rather slower delivery times during climbing season) to a huge multinational. I read it in a matter of days, it was so engrossing. When I finished I felt like wholesale copying every idea he'd had. Not the fashion or the product set, but the philosophy, the approach, the mission. Rather like the work with Green Sky Thinking, it voiced still-not-quite-formed beliefs I already had. However, you shouldn't someone else's philosophy wholesale. It's such a core piece that I thought, no, I've got to work out my own way, but this book is a key one; one that will have a strong influence on me.
It became clear to me that I wanted to be very clear about making my business a social enterprise. I want it to have a goal that is about the people I work with and the quality of that relationship, be they employees or suppliers. In addition, if I partner with anyone that is the key non-negotiable, that we share the same ethos, or else it's always going to be hard to build something. Chouinard speaks very interestingly of different corporate models - or 'normal' corporate structures. In most, they exist as a company so that they are worth something that can be sold on. In that case, the company is the product. Or they are listed on the stock exchange, which is similar. In that case, the company stock is the real product. That's what everyone cares about. I've worked in those types of companies. At the end of the day the product suffers, the people suffer, the customers suffer and all sorts of decisions that don't make sense to most people are made in order to keep Wall Street or 'the investors' happy. I'm not a rampant anti-capitalist but the market doesn't always make great products, and great companies to work for, and a great customer experience.
A core piece of the Patagonia cake is the 1 % philosophy. They give 1% of turnover, whether they make a profit or not, to environmental projects. So, instead of giving 2% of my profits to a 'cause', I've decided to give 1% of my turnover. That means not having to wait to make a profit and you give something every year, whether you make a profit or not. I haven't decided where I will focus my attention but it's likely to be about crafting and keeping skills alive, whether in the UK or abroad.
Another part of Patagonia's story is the development of fabrics that have less impact on the environment. They've been using organic cotton for over ten years and have been making fleece out of recycled bottles for as long as well. This years before the current 'ethical fashion' debate. They've worked with their suppliers to develop better fabrics that work well from a quality and an environmental perspective. The technical, environmental and ethical perspective is key to their message and branding and communicating this makes up a big part of their catalogue (45%) rather than just selling selling selling. I'm going to make a catalogue this year and I will take the plunge and follow suit. I think I'm always banging on about the tweed, the sheep etc but I am confident that communicating this fundamental. So, look out for essays on a) caring for your coat to make it last b) the sheep c) the tweeds d) the makers and such like. I want people to hand this to their friends. I'm a little uncomfortable about the paper. I know. I'll see what my local printers can do. They use recycled paper and vegetable inks.
On a customer level, I really liked they way Patagonia design for a specialist sports enthusiast. This is a small part of their customer base but a very useful person to have in mind. They are going to want the best, safest, most sophisticated (in a 'functional' way) type of outdoor wear. For myself, I design for someone who really thinks about what they wear and really cherish the makers and the heritage that they are wearing on their backs as well as looking elegant. Some of my customers just love the coats and when they put them on, it feels good and that's it; the ethical and organic story isn't really of great interest but that's ok. I think even if these things aren't explicit, by some kind of Celtic magic, it does give a different quality to the garment.
The book made me think about the structure of my business and I have started reading about Social Enterprises. These are businesses that have another objective other than just making money. It's interesting. So, you found the company and make sure you have a salary and that the company makes money, but there is another social (or environmental or creative) objective that needs to be satisfied. It's early days and I need to read more on this. As a sole trader it's more straightforward but a structure needs to take shape soon. In addition to this I'm keen to find a way of defining the relationship with important suppliers such as my tailor for example so that he's invested in some way. It's a harder thing to do when you aren't in profit yet but hopefully over the next year or two I'll find a way that's innovative and responsible.
I was inspired therefore to have a look at the Patagonia website and ended up buying something. I needed it, and it wasn't cheap (who am I to preach) but I was keen also to see what the consumer experience was after all this enthusiastic reading. Interestingly, I felt I wanted to feel some of this Patagonia community that the book portrayed. Sadly, I am now a little disillusioned. I didn't get any kind of order confirmation or 'welcome' email when I completed my transaction. I emailed the next day and asked why and got quite a friendly email from 'Kevin'. Shortly afterwards I received an email from the European office, which was simply a pdf attachment of my invoice, from France. Clearly their direct sales for Europe is run out of France. I can't help feeling the service would have met my expectations if I'd been in the US. I feel a bit mean saying that but, you know.. So, my product arrived in a rather too large box with a very functional dispatch note and that was it. I didn't really feel overwhelmed by the experience. The product's ok.