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Leadership in the humble halls of Patagonia

By Steve Baird

In 2011, I was working for Qantas, which opened up the ability to travel (i.e. standby rates!). Intrigued by ‘social enterprises’ and how business could be a force for good, I took myself on a global study tour with Andrew Young, visiting head offices of brands on the leading edge such as TOMS Shoes and Patagonia.

Of everything we discovered on our professional road trip, what really stuck with me was our time at Patagonia’s headquarters in Ventura, California. Andy and I were supposed to be meeting with a long-term Patagonia employee (he had a fun nickname which I can’t quite remember, but let’s call him ‘The Bear’) to take us on a tour. Alas the surf was up, so he politely declined the chance to take us around. In fairness to ‘The Bear’, the surf was pretty amazing that day.

The person who showed us the ropes ended up being surfboard shaper Fletcher Chouinard – who also happened to be the son of founder Yvon Chouinard. Patagonia’s commitment to environmental care was obvious when he showed us how they did not build any unnecessary space, used recycled materials, and kept things very practical and simple. It was not flashy.

The moment that always stayed with me was in the staff kitchen. An older man shuffled into the lunchtime spot with no airs or graces, nodded a polite hello, then proceeded to get his lunch. He was simply dressed, pulled out his lunch from home in Tupperware and used one of the mugs to make himself a coffee. No single use plastic, and no fancy take out. This was, of course, Yvon Chouinard, billionaire founder of Patagonia. His lunch, his dress, his demeanour – none of it was what you would expect from a billionaire.

But everything we discovered about the Patagonia brand that day was true to the sign we read out the front:

Patagonia’s announcement last week that 100% of profits are going to ‘the earth’ was a continuation of what has always been for Patagonia.

So many global businesses are now trying to answer the question of how to ‘cause no unnecessary harm’ to the environment.

Patagonia was ahead of its time, leading the way. The earth has a noble champion in Yvon Chouinard and the company he owned until this month.

We have another crisis right before our eyes: the scourge of modern-day slavery.

Earlier this month, the International Labour Organization (ILO), Walk Free, and International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced the release of a new global slavery estimate: that 50 million people were victims of modern slavery in 2021.

This represents a significant increase: 10 million more people were in modern slavery in 2021 compared to the 2016 global estimate. That means:

  • 1 in 150 people is currently living in slavery today.
  • 28 million people are exploited by all kinds of forced labour, including sexual exploitation (an increase of 2.7 million since the 2016 estimates).
  • Women and children reman disproportionately vulnerable. Women and girls comprise over half -54%- of those in modern slavery.
  • 1 in 4 victims of modern slavery is a child.

Some key external factors highlighted as contributors of this increase are the COVID-19 pandemic, armed conflict, and climate change.

Over the past 25 years, IJM has seen slavery decrease by up to 86% in places where we’ve worked with law enforcement to help victims access justice, and ensure perpetrators are convicted and deterred. We know how to protect vulnerable people from slavery. By acting urgently and in partnership, we will be on track to put our model into action on a bigger scale than ever before.

The question I have for Australian corporations is: who will be the next Patagonia in taking an early leadership position when so much is at stake? The vulnerable need a noble champion.

Submitting a Modern Slavery Statement is not enough. More than compliance, we need leadership. We need organisations investing in the eradication of modern-day slavery the way the Chouinards have invested in tackling climate change.

If this could be your company, I’d love to hear from you. Let’s chat—surf depending, of course.

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