If Patagonia really wants to advocate for the environment, the brand should back candidates who will vote for a Green New Deal
Recently, Patagonia announced its support for two Democratic candidates running for Senate seats in November — Jon Tester in Montana and Jacky Rosen in Nevada. Despite a long history of activism, making political endorsements is a first for Patagonia, and Outside speculated that backing national political candidates could be a first for any company, period.
Patagonia has donated significant sums to conservation causes over the years, but in the weeks following the victory of then president-elect Donald Trump, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard was ready to take the environmentally minded brand into full-blown agitation. That November, Patagonia donated all of its Black Friday sales, some $10 million in all, to conservation causes. In the years since, Chouinard has called other outdoor gear companies “weenies” for refusing to respond with requisite urgency to the environmental attacks unfolding under Trump’s leadership. In 2017, Patagonia sued the Trump administration for rolling back federal protections on over 2 million acres of public land in the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.
Patagonia’s latest ads state a vote for Tester or Rosen is a “a vote for public lands,” and both Montana and Nevada, like most western states, have a great deal of federal public land in their boundaries. But it’s not hard to figure out why Patagonia chose to focus on those two candidates specifically. Both are running in purple states that Democrats need to win if they want to retake control of Congress in the midterms. If Democrats can win a majority in the Senate, it would pose a serious challenge to Trump’s agenda of slashing environmental and public lands protections. In that narrow scope, Patagonia’s endorsements make sense.
But we also have to ask: if Democrats go on to control all three branches of government in 2020, what will their environmental agenda look like? The last time that happened, it was 2008. In President Obama’s nomination victory speech, he famously said, “If we are willing to work for it…I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment…when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
Apparently America wasn’t ready to work for it. Obama passed the Clean Power Plan and increased fuel efficiency standards, both of which Trump is working to roll back. Earlier this month, ten years after Obama’s speech, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a dire report that warned the world has 12 years to avoid being locked into catastrophic climate change, and in those 12 years we need to transform the global economy away from fossil fuels at a rate with “no documented historic precedent.”
Neither Tester nor Rosen, Patagonia’s chosen candidates, are proposing large-scale government programs to make such shifts in the economy. Rosen as a 97 percent approval rating from the League of Conservation Voters, and has penned legislation to train military veterans to join the solar industry. But she has also voted with Trump 42 percent of the time since he took office. By that metric, Rosen is one of the 10 most conservative members of the House. Tester took out full-page ads in Montana newspapers welcoming Trump to the state when he visited in June. And when Ryan Zinke was being confirmed as Secretary of the Interior in 2017, Tester voted to support the nomination. He also backed Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Both Tester and Rosen are centrist Democrats that would likely govern to the right of Obama if their ilk retakes control of the government in 2020 — tinkering at the edges while the world burns.
There are a number of candidates running in the 2018 midterms who want to respond to climate change on the scale that the IPCC report suggests is required. The Green New Deal, as their proposal is being called, is part of the platform of progressive of working-class candidates like Senate hopeful Kevin de León in California and House candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Randy Bryce in Wisconsin, and Diane Mitsch Bush in Colorado.
Though proposals vary, the basic idea is to revive a version of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA), which employed millions of people in the 1930s and 40s. WPA workers built public works infrastructure across the country. The CCC, in its nine-year existence, was able to plant 3 billion trees and construct thousands of miles of trails on public lands.
A modern-day Green New Deal could be coupled with a federal jobs guarantee to hire millions of people at least $15 per hour to install solar panels, build wind farms, and retrofit homes and businesses for energy efficiency. And like the original New Deal, the program would require substantial tax hikes on wealthy individuals and large corporations. In 1938, the highest federal income tax bracket was set at 79 percent. Today, it’s under 40 percent on paper, and most of the richest Americans pay far less taxes (if they pay any at all).
Data suggest that supporting a Green New Deal may be a winning strategy for Democrats. According to a poll analysis from the think tank Data for Progress, 55 percent of Americans support a “green job guarantee,” and only 18 percent are opposed to such a program. The numbers are higher among independent and Democratic voters.
For well over three decades, Patagonia has been striving to lead by example and show that it’s possible to be a profitable company while also being responsible to employees and the environment. The tactic has worked. The company now has over $200 million in annual revenue and Chouinard is a billionaire, making him a member of, not just the one percent, but the 0.00000175 percent. At the same time, Patagonia’s products are necessarily expensive and as such they’ve reinforced the notion that environmentalism is something that’s reserved for the wealthy.
When Patagonia poured $1.7 million into its campaign to promote Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County, Utah, where I live, my neighbors who are monument opponents saw it as proof that the Bears Ears effort was being driven by outdoor companies that only want to preserve elite playgrounds for their well-to-do customers. It was to be expected, perhaps, but what surprised me was how many local supporters of Bears Ears agreed. Patagonia’s virtual reality videos and banner ads on the New York Times homepage often felt more like advertisements for the brand than environmental activism. Even though the company donated to local conservation groups, its high-profile presence may have diluted the grassroots, Indigenous-led effort to designate the monument, which was initiated by five Native American tribes with cultural ties to the Bears Ears landscape. There seemed to be a massive disconnect between the perception of the brand as Patagucci and monument supporters on the ground. The Navajo Nation, for example, abuts the monument boundary. It has a 42 percent unemployment rate, and needless to say it is not home to any Patagonia outlet stores.
If Patagonia wants to throw its weight behind conservation-minded politicians, I’m all for it. But heading into 2020, it should back candidates who are going take the necessary steps to slash carbon emissions. By supporting those who are pushing a Green New Deal, Patagonia would show they are not are not only going to defend playgrounds for rich recreationists but are also fighting to put unemployed and low-income people to work building the renewable energy infrastructure needed to stave off the worst effects of global warming.
In coordination with the endorsements last week, Chouinard made a folksy video encouraging people to vote.
To help Patagonia kickstart its next campaign, I wrote a new script it is welcome to use. Yvon is standing beside a river in Wyoming, a fishing pole in his hand and waders on his legs. He looks into the camera with his characteristic curmudgeonly stare begins to grumble out his lines:
“Since I founded Patagonia in 1973, we’ve been taxing ourselves. We’ve given millions of dollars to small grassroots environmental organizations to fight big-money interests looking to exploit our public lands. We’ve shown other businesses that it’s possible to be responsible and successful at the same time. And we’ve helped countless customers connect with wild places by providing the best gear possible.
“But I can no longer rely on only taxing myself and my company. Starting today, we will be begin backing Congressional candidates who pledge to tax billionaires like me and large businesses like Patagonia in order to fund a Green New Deal. With the revenue raised, we can create hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs for unemployed workers in order to jumpstart the economy, respond to income inequality, and quickly transition our energy systems away from fossil fuels to fight climate change while there is still time.
“I’m pledging to donate to candidates who pledge to tax me. Because lord knows most of the weenie billionaires and CEOs out there are not going to tax themselves.”
Zak Podmore writes from San Juan County, Utah.