A successful Montana fly-fishing shop owner is proving that building environmental stewardship for fish and rivers into his business model is more than just the right thing to do.
For 12 years, Craig Mathews of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, Mont., has donated 1 to 2.4 percent of his company’s gross income to the Madison River Foundation, Yellowstone Park Foundation and other environmental efforts that have a hook in his passions and livelihood.
Did this pledge create a snag in the bottom line for Blue Ribbon Flies?
“We doubled our business in five years, and part of the credit goes to consumer response to our conservation commitment,” Mathews said.
Did the commitment become a burden this year as consumer spending dried up in the recession?
“Some of our competitors are reporting business falling off 40 to 50 percent in this economy, but we’re still hanging in there at about the same level, and it’s no small part out of our association with 1% For the Planet.”
Mathews, 61, is referring to a program he co-founded in 2001 with Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, a California-based outdoor clothing and gear company. They hope other companies will join to formalize commitments to the natural resources that spawn life into outdoors-related business.
“Every day people tell my employees they could buy this fly, rod or reel anywhere, but they’re buying it here because they know 1 percent will go to conservation,” Mathews said.
Other companies appear to be slowly catching on.
As of July, 1% For the Planet had grown to a 39-country membership of 1,242 companies that donate 1 percent of their gross sales to their choice of 1,798 program-approved environmental organizations. Revenues since inception top $42 million.
The membership ranges from industry leaders such as Patagonia and New Belgium Brewers to mom-and-pop shops and individual professionals, such as fishing guides, photographers and architects.
“The diversity of our membership is something that makes us very proud,” said Terry Kellogg, the CEO for 1% FTP based in Vermont. “1% works no matter how big or small or where you are geographically.
“Since the beginning, we could expect to see roughly 10 percent of our members drop out for one reason or another each year. We know it’s going to be higher this year. But our new sign-ups have always exceeded that and the program keeps growing.
“Our biggest members without exception had their best years on record last year. I believe companies that stand for something and put real commitment behind their values mean something to their customers beyond just being a place to make transactions.”
Mathews’s philosophy is straight forward: “If you’re making money off the outdoors you should be giving back.”
In the late ’90s, Matthews wrote an essay in his fly shop catalog about the need for the private sector to embrace environmental responsibility, partly to goad and embarrass Yellowstone-area businesses that were balking.
Then he noticed that legendary climber and equipment maker Yvon Chouinard was writing the same message of self-imposed environmental stewardship in his Patagonia catalog.
Chounaird was calling his voluntary contributions an “earth tax.”
In 2001, the men founded a non-profit organization to promote and facilitate business contributions to conservation. Mathews suggested the name.
“Some companies have no problem just giving the money to the program and letting 1% dole it out,” Mathews said. But most members satisfy the 1% pledge by contributing directly to their favorite projects from the growing list of groups that meet 1% FTP criteria, he said.
Membership does not preclude a company from contributing additional funds to unapproved groups.
“Before 1% was founded, we had targeted donations to a wide range of groups, including some that were controversial, such as Planned Parenthood and Earth First,” said Bill Klyn, Patagonia’s spokesman in California.
“But even back then, our grants never went to the general funds of those groups. They were focused on specific, hands-on projects that enhanced the resources, such as oceans, freshwater, fisheries, forests.”
“1% never sees a dime of the money we contribute,” Mathews said. “Like many other businesses, we look first at our local communities and region. Our store employees check things out and make the recommendations.”
Working locally provides the flexibility to get things done in creative ways, Mathews said.
“For instance, our fishing customers might wonder why we supported the Greater Yellowstone boreal toad recovery project. Simple. The research showed the toads would benefit by working with ranchers to fence livestock off certain riparian areas. That would lead to better water quality in our streams, and that’s a benefit to fish.”
1% FTP is still trying to recruit its first publically traded company, Mathews said.
“We recognize it can be a hard sell, trying to tell shareholders that you’d like to give away 1 percent of their dividends,” he said.
However, some large companies have allowed subsidiaries to participate.
“It may be too big of a commitment for a large company like Sony, but they might allow some of the brands they own to join,” said Kate Mitchell, 1% FTP staffer in Vermont.
Paul Fish of the Spokane-based Mountain Gear retail store and Internet catalog sales company is among many company owners who have not enrolled in 1% FTP even though they’re significantly involved in regional and national conservation efforts.
“I think it’s a great organization, but I guess I just haven’t thought about it that much,” said Fish. Coincidentally, he was answering the reporter’s call on a mobile phone while traveling in Colorado to a meeting for the Access Fund, an approved 1% FTP beneficiary.
“We support conservation regularly,” he said. “I guess we just haven’t formalized it.”
Eastern Washington University’s EPIC Adventures qualifies as a 1% FTP member and proudly sports its logo by way of donating a portion of its revenue from student adventure trips to 1% FTP-approved conservation groups.
“We were the first university outdoor program to do it,” said John Sair, assistant director for EWU outdoor programs, noting that EPIC Adventures brings in only a fraction of the revenues generated by companies such as Mountain Gear.
“But it’s important to show support for groups like American Whitewater and the Access Fund, which are vital to what we can offer our students. Our river and climbing trips regularly take advantage of resources and access points available through the efforts of these groups.”
Mountain Equipment Co-Op of Canada is a 1% FTP member. However, its U.S. counterpart is not.
“We definitely recognize the value in the program and applaud all efforts toward the environment and conservation,” said Bethany Nielson, spokeswoman at Recreational Equipment Inc. corporate headquarters in Seattle. “We choose to focus our corporate giving in a different way.
“Our board of directors in recent years has approved about 3 percent of operating profit to corporate giving primarily to non-profit partners that promote outdoor recreation and conservation efforts.”
In 2008, REI granted $3.7 million to more than 390 community partners, Nielson said.
Mathews said 1% FTP is gaining strength as a brand name, giving member businesses a distinction that helps them boost their bottom lines.
“It’s a huge advertising tool that we didn’t see in the beginning, nor did we intend our commitment for that reason,” he said.
“Like many businesses, we work on 40-45 percent markup. Typically a business spends 2 or 3 percent for advertising. When you put 1% in that context, it’s a small price to pay in terms of marketing.”
Chouinard and Mathews are making their case to colleges. “I’ll be talking to the University of Iowa business school this fall about the role of environmental stewardship,” Mathews said.
“As we look back, especially in this past year, it’s paid off far better than doling out 4 percent for glitzy magazine ads that don’t do you squat.”
On the Net: www.onepercentfortheplanet.org/
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