Patagonia: driving purpose with the Earth University

‘Why is our company in business?’ and ‘What can our people do to support that purpose?’ If two questions have followed me during my 20-plus-year career as an HR professional, they are these.

The first is relatively easy to answer: Patagonia’s reason for being is to use our business as a tool to save our home planet. Yet, for someone like me, who loves nature and being outdoors, and witnesses the findings of each new IPCC report with increasing alarm, it’s an incredible motivator.

The second question is trickier. As in every organisation, each of our people sees and experiences the world differently. That’s great. It makes work fun and keeps us all creative.

Yet it can complicate efforts to align individual passions and goals with an overall purpose as a company. Obviously, the ideal is to find a sweet spot where these two intersect. Such alignment will never happen by strong-arming people to fall into line.

HR's role in purpose was explored in this year's HR Most Influential Reader's Guide. Check it out here.

It comes down to people not just understanding their company’s purpose, but really imbibing it – and then having the tools to live out that purpose in their own way.

That was the thinking behind our Earth University, a hands-on learning journey, based around four modules: growth, complexity, teamwork and revolution.

Here are some of the top insights I’ve gleaned from our initial efforts at connecting our people with our purpose, in a way that feels radically different than learning and development as usual. 

Don’t be overly prescriptive on outcomes: most people and culture learning and development programmes operate on a logic of outputs and end-points. I knew that wouldn’t work for us.

Instead, I wanted the whole learning experience to be led by a spirit of open inquiry and curiosity. So, instead of going into the exercise thinking what could come out of it, we flipped that model on its head and started with the questions we were really interested in asking.

Be authentic to your unique way of doing things: our goal was to design the best possible programme for us. I don’t pretend the Earth University will work for everyone.

We host the sessions in the open air. We run workshops led by committed activists and environmentalists. We play games. We discuss topics like, ‘How can we be part of a revolution?’ and ‘Is growth everything?’.

So it’s definitely not for everyone. Yet after lots of internal consultation and plenty of thinking about what would contribute most to our specific purpose, this is what we came up with. The result? It feels true to us, which, for a theme as personal and intimate as purpose, I’d say is absolutely make-or-break. 

The learning environment is part of the learning; the Earth University literally takes place in the environment that we’re set on preserving. Imagine learning about teamwork, for instance, and then looking around and seeing trees all around you and imagining the roots linking them all up – well, the overall message just lands differently.

We call the Earth University our ‘adult forest school’. This isn’t about creating a linear process where you start at point A, and then go to B, and then C. We wanted to create a framework where people could ask questions and be free to see where the responses took us. The idea instead is to make the learning as fluid and organic as possible – much like a forest.

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Much of the magic of the Earth University revolves making people feel comfortable about bringing their full selves to the experience. Part of this involves adding a host of different voices to the mix. Not just professional instructors and our own executives (although we use them as well), but also artists, singers, sportspeople, creatives, civil society representatives and others like them.

They all relate to the issues that are core to our purpose, but in ways we in business might not be very familiar with – or even very comfortable with. We have had nursing mothers bring their babies to the course, to be taken care of by others, while they learn. What really helped was telling participants to leave their job titles at the door.

This meant we could all just collectively mesh as people – not as individuals defined by the badges we wear.

Our goal is for everyone in our company to attend at least one Earth University module. But we’re also impatient; we want to get on with spreading the learning as quickly and as widely as we can. The solution we settled on was a role we call Learning Ambassadors, made up of peers who have already taken part.

At Patagonia, we’re still in the foothills of all of this. But one thing I’m totally convinced about from having developed the Earth University is that purpose has to be tackled differently from conventional learning programmes.

Different companies will, and should, adopt different approaches. But the more imaginative, inspiring, and authentic the approach can be, the more likely it will help your organisation do what it exists to do.


Evelyn Doyle is head of people and culture, international at Patagonia