by Gael O’Brien

In tackling huge agendas, it helps to remember that we climb a mountain one step at a time, using equipment that supports us, with each step building on the last until we reach the summit.

How does this apply, for example, to dwindling global natural resources  and the impact on the environment of how companies do business?

In the particular, the metaphor speaks to how Patagonia and its founder Yvon Chouinard  have undertaken the commitment to environmental and social responsibility over the past few decades. Big picture, the mountain climbing metaphor also offers a way any company might create a consistent and meaningful approach to corporate social responsibility (CSR).

In a new book, Chouinard and co-author and nephew Vincent Stanley raise the question, “How is a company responsible?” Their answer includes earning a profit for shareholders and owing obligations to four key stakeholders (employees, customers, communities and nature). A responsible business, the book explains, is a conscious business, very aware of how it achieves its profit, impacts stakeholders, and creates engagement through meaningful work.

Conscious of a responsibility to share what has been learned in Patagonia’s journey, the authors provide checklists of 263 recommendations in the appendix to The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 Years and as a download from Patagonia’s website.

The checklists are organized under the five responsibilities Chouinard and Stanley discuss in the book – responsibility to business health and responsibility to the four key stakeholders. To avoid overload, they advise a company start by going through the lists to check off what they’ve already done or are doing. Next, they suggest companies do what is in their control to do, starting “where you get the least resistance and most cooperation” and going on from there. With each step, the authors point out, you redefine what is possible.

Very conscious that in order to end somewhere, one has to make a start, the book tackles how to begin going greener in the face of opposition – what CEOs might face if Boards, stockholders, or other executives aren’t concerned about climate change, and the roadblocks others in a company would be up against if the CEO isn’t interested.

The methodology is entrepreneurial – gather information (in this case, what is the worst thing the company does), analyze it (costs in profit and reputation), share/discuss information broadly, determine what you can afford to do, take that step, analyze impact and determine what can be done next, and keep building on it. Engagement and trust are built through the process. The authors frequently reference Daniel Goleman’s creed – “know your impacts, favor improvement, share what you learn.”

Chouinard and Stanley don’t offer Patagonia as the model of a responsible company. They point out: “We don’t do everything a responsible company can do, nor does anyone else we know. But we can illustrate how any group of people going about their business can come to realize their environmental and social responsibilities, then begin to act on them; how their realization is progressive: actions build on one another.”

The authors tell stories about when Patagonia wasn’t aware of the harm it was doing — directly or indirectly through suppliers or offshore factories — in the making of its products, how it gained awareness, and then acted on what it learned to take responsibility for its impact. The stories provide insight into Patagonia’s culture and the importance of meaning in one’s work and the role of continuous improvement.

“Regardless of our talent or education; our preference for working with words, numbers, or our hands; our ability to cut a pattern, lay out an ad, or negotiate with a supplier,”  say Chouinard and Stanley, “we have meaningful work at Patagonia because our company does its best to be responsible to nature and to people.”

What is one way engagement is built at Patagonia? “To take one step toward responsibility, learn something, take another step, and let self-examination build on itself has engaged everyone at Patagonia…Lively, gratified workers make good business possible – make it thrive.”

For Patagonia, this is a story about conscious business and conscious leadership, it is a tale about doing significant good through environmental and social responsibility and doing well financially;  since 2008 Patagonia has tripled its profit and doubled its revenues. In a recent interview Chouinard said Patagonia is “my resource to do something good. It’s a way to demonstrate that corporations can lead examined lives.”

How far other corporations are willing to take self examination will point the way to how far up the mountain to create consistent and meaningful CSR their steps take them.

Gael O’Brien is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics.