The ongoing shift toward a "business casual" world has done some peculiar things to America's corporate uniforms. Suits continue to retreat, while chinos proliferate. But when the power crowd stops wearing pricey power ties, how can you tell who's who?
Well, for the past decade or so, one increasingly common clue was the co-branded Patagonia vest, complete with your company's logo. Tech bros, finance bros, and hosts of less bro-y business-bros have come to covet the sleeveless fleece.
But as Alison Southwick explains to her Motley Fool Answers co-host -- the un-bro-like Bro, Robert Brokamp -- in this What's Up, Alison? segment, the most-favored vest supplier recently decided to get a whole lot pickier about which companies will be allowed to emblazon their logos on its gear. Henceforth, Patagonia will only accept new corporate co-branded orders from what it considers "mission-driven companies that prioritize the planet."
This makes some sense. If you're going to call yourself "The Activist Company," you'd probably be happier if your brand was associated more with fellow-traveling B-Corps than with nicknames like Patagucci and Patabronia. On the other hand, it's turning away sales, which leads naturally to an important question for investors: How do purpose-driven companies compare with their purely bottom-line focused peers when it comes to performance?
To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool's free podcasts, check out our podcast center. A full transcript follows the video.
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This video was recorded on April 23, 2019.
Robert Brokamp: So, Alison, what's up?
Alison Southwick: Bro, picture, if you will, a millennial man-about-town. He's wearing a buttoned-up shirt, a pair of chinos, casual loafers, and socks. And the final piece to finish off his outfit is a fleece Patagonia vest with his employer's -- probably a financial firm -- logo embroidered on it.
So there's nothing new about the buttoned-up shirt and chinos, but the vest -- the Patagonia vest -- is the thing. It's such a ubiquitous piece of clothing for men in business and finance that the Instagram account #midtownuniform was created -- it has over 100,000 followers -- to make fun of the herds of Brads and Chads roaming the sidewalks hunting for Starbucks and sweet stocks. It's a pretty funny account.
But it's not just a uniform for millennial men on the go. Men of any age, in business and finance, wear these vests embroidered with their corporate logo. It probably says JPMorgan or some other little-known hedge fund. But why a vest and why is it everywhere? Have you heard about the vest?
Brokamp: I've heard about the vest and I know about the vest. I don't know ...
Southwick: Where it came from?
Brokamp: ... the why for the vest because I personally don't wear such a thing.
Southwick: Well, as with with most bad things we can blame 2008 and millennials. Apparently the Midtown uniform came into fashion during 2008 when people who worked on Wall Street were suddenly not getting awesome bonuses. Instead, like any other industry that can't pay more money, they tried to satisfy employees in another easy, cheap way by letting them dress down a little bit. So the traditional sports coats and wool slacks became vests and chinos.
And thus the cult of the Patagonia vest was born, but gasp! Oh no! Bad news for bros everywhere. This last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that, Patagonia Triggers a Market Panic Over New Rules on Its Power Vests.
Southwick: You're making a face at me.
Brokamp: I'm not!
Southwick: You didn't? OK. What happened is Patagonia, a company that is known for its environmental responsibility, announced that it won't let companies custom brand their vests -- basically embroider their logos on [the vests] and buy tons of them for their employees -- unless the firm is mission driven and prioritizes the planet.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Patagonia's new rule surfaced when financial communications firm Vested placed an order for vests with the name of a private equity firm, which was a "vested" client. The request was denied, which caught Vested by surprise and then they complained about it on Twitter. So yes, a company named Vested was denied vests.
One certified Patagonia seller said the decision was not meant to leave any bros out in the cold. However, being a mission-driven organization that's nice to the environment means that oil companies, mine operators, and other outfits deemed ecologically damaging are going to have to find another way to stay warm in iffy spring weather.
Obviously the B2B business for Patagonia is probably not huge, but does a purpose-driven decision impact your business? I thought I would look back on a not-so-recent [decision]. This one has had enough time to play out. Let's look back at the purpose-led decision that received a ton of criticism in 2014 when CVS (CVS -0.07%) decided to stop selling tobacco products. Do you know how it all shook out?
Brokamp: I don't know.
Southwick: Well, guess what? I'm going to tell you.
Brokamp: I can't wait.
Southwick: At the time, tobacco products accounted for $2 billion in sales at CVS. It's out of $139 billion, but it's still a decent chunk of change. So they banned tobacco and what happened?
Well, a lot for the greater good. Ad Age reported that 40% more influencers saw it as a leader in helping to improve overall health after they made the ban. The company was listed as one of the most innovative and admired in various publications. More than 500,000 people visited CVS's Smoking Cessation Hub -- which I guess was like a website -- and 26,000 smokers sought advice from its pharmacy on quitting. In addition, cigarette sales dropped by 1% -- or 95 million packs -- in 13 states in the eight months after they took tobacco off the shelves, and that was only in the states where CVS had a large amount of market share.
So what about the "sweet Benjamins" for CVS? What was the impact there?
While prescription sales continued to rise, general merchandise sales tumbled 8% on the same-store basis after the ban. But the stock actually rose from 2014 peaking in mid-2015. It's been on the decline ever since. That's probably Amazon's fault? I mean, if you can't blame 2008 or millennials, then you have to blame Amazon, right?
Brokamp: Yes, I think so.
Southwick: So CVS is kind of a muddy example considering that a lot of factors impact a company's growth. Then, again, the general research on whether being purpose driven and making purpose-driven decisions has a positive or negative impact on your business is sort of muddy.
We know that being purpose driven has a few benefits. If your employees find the purpose motivating, they're going to work harder.
Southwick: And if your customers find that purpose motivating, they're going to shop harder, I guess you could say.
Brokamp: And probably be willing to pay a little bit more.
Southwick: Yeah! And so those are good things, of course. But, there are a ton of factors, not least of all is how their return on invested capital looks. That's apparently a very big deal. Of course, that's going to hit your bottom line and long-term success.
I talked to John Rotonti, here at The Fool. He is heading up a new part of Fool.com to focus on ESG investing, which, of course, stands for environmental, social, and governance. I asked him to send me some research on whether being a purpose-driven company is positive for your bottom line.
He gave me a ton of research, including a 2015 Harvard Business School study of more than 2,300 firms. They found that companies that commit to and invest in strategic sustainability efforts have higher risk-adjusted stock performance sales growth and margins, and that these sustainability activities drive business value.
But there are also studies out there that say being purpose driven really doesn't have that much of an impact on your financials, neither positive nor negative. George Serafeim, a professor at Harvard Business School who covers ESG investing a lot, said, "Even if you do not believe that ESG factors will improve your performance, I don't see any recent evidence that integrating material information about ESG will hurt performance."
So, Patagonia, go ahead and decide which bros are worthy enough to don your vest and, more importantly, keep making great in-vest-ments in the business to create the must-have gear for the most purpose-driven business-y people who business in the future. And that, Bro, is not a conclusive what's up, but that's kind of what's up.
Brokamp: I will say that Vanguard just announced that they are going to launch an ESG fund this year and Vanguard is not known as a company to just jump on a trend willy nilly. I think it's very encouraging for the prospects of ESG investments that they're going to launch a fund.
Southwick: Do you invest that way?
Brokamp: I don't, but both John and Alyce Lomax [who also works at The Fool] are very active in it. We talk a lot about it on Slack and every time I read it I think, "Man, I should do more of that."
Southwick: Be more deliberate in your investing and "invest in the world you want to live in" kind of thing.
Brokamp: That's right.
Southwick: There you go!