Why Patagonia is campaigning to put energy in the hands of communities
A view from Alex Weller

Why Patagonia is campaigning to put energy in the hands of communities

Identifying things that are systemically broken and driving people to protect them through storytelling sits at the heart of the outdoor brand's strategy.

At Patagonia, identifying things that are systemically broken and driving people to protect them, through storytelling, has always been one of our strengths as an activist company from destructive hydropower construction to species-threatening open net fish farms.

In the summer of 2018, we launched the Blue Heart campaign, which was focused on raising awareness of the "tsunami" of over 3,400 dam construction projects threatening the Blue Heart of Europe – a richly diverse territory and home to the last wild rivers on the continent. This was a culmination of years of work with NGOs across the Balkans and throughout Europe.

As we reviewed the campaign, Patagonia’s then European environmental director, Mihela Hladin Wolfe, and I began to ask ourselves how we could shift forward the conversations we were having with our communities. We saw an opportunity to present the other side of the coin – getting civil society, above and beyond our usual audience of outdoors enthusiasts and environmental activists, engaged in meaningful solutions to save our home planet.

Back in the Netherlands, where Patagonia’s European headquarters is based, we were speaking to people doing just that: working together and finding solutions to the unique problems their communities faced. Marjan Minnesma is known internationally as the woman who held power to account – with 900 citizens and her organization Urgenda, she successfully won the first ever climate case, globally, against the Dutch Government.

You only have to spend a short time with Marjan to see how she is both visionary and absolutely grounded in finding solutions to the environmental crisis, such as organising the first collective buying initiative for solar panels and introducing to the Netherlands the first electric car produced in series.

Living in a water mill in Flanders, Belgium, Dirk Vansintjan has been at the forefront of the community energy movement for over 20 years. In 1991 he co-founded Ecopower, a cooperative that now has over 60,000 members and today he is president of REScoop, the European federation of citizen-energy cooperatives, representing a growing network of over 1,900 groups and 1.25 million citizens.

When lobbying local leaders about the benefits of renewable energy communities, he takes a pragmatic stance: “I don’t often talk about climate change anymore because there are people who don’t believe in it or who think it’s not a priority. But I talk about the money that is now leaving our local economy to buy coal, oil, gas or uranium. In Belgium, that’s about 2,000 euros per person, per year.”

We saw from these conversations the opportunity to celebrate a clean, citizen-led alternative to the passive consumption of extractive energy. Renewable community energy offers just that: a group of people come together to make their own electricity. They decide how that energy is produced, such as solar or wind, and they use it to power their local homes, schools and businesses. Then the benefits – such as increased local jobs and financial gains - are shared between everyone and profits are spent on things that the community needs.

Some may consider community energy to be revolutionary, but it is a simple, practical solution to the multiple challenges that societies face, from economic and social to environmental. It puts power, money and decision-making back at the local level and into the hands of regular people. Today, one million European citizens are involved in the growing community energy movement. By 2050, it could be more than 260 million citizens generating up to 45% of Europe’s electricity.

Much of the campaign build up was spent in establishing and growing relationships with groups in the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden. The current community energy landscape varies widely, country to country, and our aim for this campaign was to galvanise people into action – so it was vital to provide simple, tailored information that would facilitate the growth of this movement throughout Europe.

In the Netherlands, for example, supporting a renewable energy community can take five minutes and be as easy as changing your electricity provider. Contrast that with the UK where unfair and outdated regulations restrict people from selling energy to their communities.

Despite incredibly inspiring work, such as that done by community energy pioneer Agamemnon Otero MBE and his groups Energy Garden, Repowering and Brixton Energy, the UK stands at a tipping point and will need legislative change – such as the Local Electricity Bill for this movement to flourish.

We the Power sets up the urgent need to redefine a broken system the predominant model of fossil fuel production, owned by big, extractive energy companies – but its strength lies in the spirit of hope it brings.

At a time when many people, all around Europe, are grappling with energy poverty and the heartbreaking dilemma of "heat or eat", this is a tangible solution and a movement we can all take part in.

Whether you want to join an energy community, invest in one, start your own, or lobby your MP, there is an entry point for everyone. And more than that, energy is something we are all consuming constantly – more so even than food or clothes yet how many of us ever question where that electricity comes from.

This marks a step change in campaigning for us. There will always be a need for Patagonia to tell stories about what is broken – in fact, just this year we launched Vjosa Forever, a short follow-up film to Blue Heart, to highlight the urgent need to protect Europe’s last big, wild river. But in shining a light on climate crisis solutions, and inviting everyone to take part, it feels as though we are being truer than ever to our mission statement: We’re in business to save our home planet.

There were many things we didn’t realise at the inception of this campaign, back in 2018. We couldn’t have anticipated the challenges of shooting our multiple-location documentary in the middle of a pandemic, or reimagining our film distribution strategy in a digital-first world.

We didn’t know that we would be launching We the Power at a time when the dominant emotion would be "Languishing". But in those initial conversations and sharing experiences with pioneers of this movement, we knew that the power to spark hope would be vital to this campaign. And, as we stand here, three years later, that spark feels more urgent than ever.

Alex Weller is marketing director, Europe at Patagonia