Patagonia’s philanthropy won’t fix – and might hurt – the planet

Giving back is fine. Not taking so much from the planet and its people in the first place is what would really help.

The signage for a Patagonia retail store
The signage for a Patagonia retail store in Atlanta, Georgia. Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia outdoor apparel retailer, announced the company has transferred ownership to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organisation to ensure its profits are used to combat climate change [Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE]

In September, Patagonia’s billionaire founder Yvon Chouinard grabbed headlines after announcing that he was giving away his company to a trust that will use its profits to combat climate change.

Chouinard joins the growing ranks of the megarich “giving back” to causes they care about. Warren Buffet has pledged to give 99 percent of his money to charitable causes before he dies. Bill and Melinda Gates have similarly donated $65.6bn through their foundation, and so have 230 of the world’s most affluent who have joined The Giving Pledge to give away their money before or at their deaths as philanthropy.

The richest 0.1 percent have a combined wealth of more than $50 trillion (PDF). The richest 1 percent have an accumulated wealth worth $222 trillion. That is almost half the world’s total money.

With all of this wealth available over the next few years, the planet’s problems – poverty, preventable diseases, hunger, biodiversity loss, carbon emissions and more – should soon be solved. Right?

Unfortunately, while these billionaires are generously donating large sums of money, they are, in the creation of that wealth in the first place, failing to achieve the core goal of philanthropy – to promote the health, happiness and wellbeing of others. Their approach takes the gold out of the ground from under people and then gives a part of it back to them. Literally.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a nonprofit fighting poverty, disease and inequity around the world. However, Microsoft – where the Gates made their money – has, alongside Apple, Google and Amazon, been accused of using gold in its products mined illegally from Indigenous territory in Brazil’s Amazon forests.

Illegal gold mining in Brazil is known to increase crime, poverty, malaria and other diseases while destroying sources of clean water, subsistence foods, traditional livelihoods and cultural practices for Indigenous communities. These Indigenous groups, which protect key biodiversity hotspots and carbon sinks, could ironically benefit from some of the Gates Foundation’s donations to guard their territories against invasion from the very firms that supply Microsoft with gold.

These hypocrisies are not unique. Jeff Bezos created a $10bn fund to address climate change while Amazon reported emitting 71 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2021 – more than the entire annual emissions of countries like Portugal, Ireland and Singapore.

Indeed, where there is great suffering, there are often great profits.

Chouinard’s open letter states that “instead of extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth, we are using the wealth Patagonia creates to protect the source”. While that may be preferable to buying mega yachts, Patagonia is still “extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth”. The wealth that Chouinard controls.

While I truly believe Chouinard, an environmentalist and activist, has and will continue to funnel this wealth into impactful on-the-ground conservation and climate projects, this in itself may be a problem.

Concerned citizens are misled into thinking that more sales will save the planet. During Patagonia’s 2012 “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign, sales rose 30 percent. Patagonia’s 2016 Black Friday pledge to give all revenue from that day to environmental protection groups led to five times higher sales than the company’s estimates, reaching $10m. The company called it a “fundraiser for the earth”.

Here is the problem: these campaigns all promote increased consumption and thus extraction of value from nature with the misunderstood message that creating more profits will better “protect the source”. Yet three out of five garments produced globally end up in a landfill within a year.

While Patagonia’s new structure ensures the company’s annual net profits of more than $100m will support climate and environmental initiatives, what does this represent in terms of unnecessary production and consumption? Have the true costs to the environment, climate and society been accounted for and will those profits repair the environmental and social damage of the production and consumption?

The generous donations of billions of dollars are only possible through the accumulation of even larger sums of monetary profits. Greater profits are created by taking something, like nature, for free, or by undervaluing something, like human labour. Everything that profit stands for was mined or farmed or grown or crafted, taking the energy of the earth, humans or other living creatures and turning it into products and services.

Philanthropy, even in the trillions, will never fully repair the damage inflicted by the continual pursuit of profits. The impact goes unaccounted for and value gets lost in the transfers between revenues and reparation.

The profitable philanthropist approach to solving the world’s problems separates the goal of promoting the welfare of others from the accumulation of enough money to generously donate. Such philanthropists are happy to donate the money they have already made, but refuse to slow down and lose out on money they have not yet made.

Chouinard’s decision is already inspiring others among the world’s wealthiest to give more, sooner and in a smarter way. Within a day of the Patagonia founder’s announcement, Lululemon’s billionaire boss Chip Wilson pledged $76m for conservation in Canada. Are we to applaud billionaires for figuring out how to efficiently exploit their fellow citizens, our earthly home and our political systems to accumulate more money than they can even spend within their lifetime – because they then give away what they cannot use?

If these billionaires invested less of their energy towards building profitable multinational corporations, massive investment portfolios and savings accounts, they may have less money to donate but might actually create more wellbeing.

Chouinard’s letter ends by reminding us that the Earth’s resources are not infinite, and it is clear we have exceeded its limits. Yet, Patagonia’s profits continue to grow year on year.

Instead of distributing dividends and reinvesting revenues, what about stopping production at the point of profit? Let us bring back the “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign, with a twist. Instead of placing the responsibility on citizens to stop consumption, we need a “Don’t produce this jacket campaign”. Lowering production and consumption lessens the exploitation of the natural world and human labour, and the need for such large-scale philanthropy in the first place.

If these leaders truly want to do business better, promote the welfare of others, shift the mindset of the world’s most affluent and actually address the root causes of the world’s most pressing problems they would limit the growth of their bank accounts and their businesses.

Giving back the gold is great, but leaving it in the ground would really change the system and save our planet.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.