Looking for Good Company in the Great Outdoors

Looking for Good Company in the Great Outdoors

Let's get this straight: I am not an economist. I understand that supply and demand curves can cross, though the fact that my pedal-powered jet pack hasn't arrived suggests that supply may lag demand from time to time.

(Monetary policy is murkier: Does any child dream of someday managing interest rates for the common good? More to the point, does any adult?)

That said, I often think about externalities, which are the good things and bad things that happen to people who didn't generate them.

Bat Crazy

If your neighbor puts up a bat house, you may benefit from fewer mosquitos in the area. You didn't invest in the bat house, but good things can happen when your neighbor is a big fan of flying echolocators.

On the other hand, if a different neighbor cuts down every maple tree on her property because she hates helicopter seeds, you may miss the sound of juncos and nuthatches. You didn't pay for the tree removal, but that act takes away your enjoyment of songbirds.

That's a negative externality. Someone else's actions harmed you, but that person pays no penalty for that harm.

Examples abound, from trucks on dirt roads raising clouds of dust that settle on the clothes you're drying outside, to the neighborhood burn pile that keeps you from opening your windows on a pleasant spring day.

Business Unusual

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, recognizes that his clothing business, even with all its emphasis on recycled materials, organic cotton and quality, generates some waste and pollution.

Recognition of negative externalities is one thing; doing something about them is another.

In his book Let My People Go Surfing, Chouinard discusses the innovations, mistakes and discoveries that made Patagonia into the company it is today, a company that drives itself to live more lightly on the Earth at the same time it is clothing more occupants of the planet than ever.

1% for the Planet

He and his team built a company that, since 1985, has donated one percent of its sales--an "earth tax" based on hard sales numbers, not squishier profits--to efforts to protect and restore the natural environment, a way to internalize Patagonia's negative externalities.

(Self taxation is catching on. Forty-eight businesses, from Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, joined 1% for the Planet in February 2018 alone.)

Does that make it the perfect company?

Not at all. Naomi Klein, who wrote the foreword to Surfing, is skeptical that the demands of growth and the realities of the natural world can be reconciled.

But Patagonia's mission statement "to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis" and its actions supporting that statement do make it a company worth studying, and Surfing, the book recommended by Bushwhacker's Rich Pestien when he hired me, is an excellent way to begin that education.

Outside of work, of course.

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Sam Joslin is a big fan of Patagonia Capilene, wearing the innovative, quick-drying base layer from the first frosty days of fall to the last cool-weather bicycle rides of spring. When he's not drinking coffee next door at thirty-thirty, he roams the bicycle half of the Bushwhacker floor, talking up neighborhood bikes like the Specialized Roll, gravel-road specials like the Giant Toughroad and Specialized Diverge, and, to those who inquire, bikes from his "dinosaur days" like a 4-speed Peugeot and a Kennedy ordinary.