Today, Patagonia, along with dozens of other outdoor retailers and websites, will close its stores temporarily to participate in the Global Climate Strike, the youth-led movement to draw attention to a warming world. Some businesses won’t be selling anything for 24 hours, others are making their stores available as gathering places for people to come together for discussions about climate action. The strike is the opening of a week of climate change action precipitated by the UN Climate Summit, popularized, at least in part, by teenaged activist Greta Thurnberg who has sailed to New York from Sweden to participate.
We took the opportunity of the strike to speak with Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario, not about the strike itself, but about how and why Patagonia approaches sustainability in decision-making and product design, and what they consider to be their role in sustainability movements and environmental activism. Our conversation is below.
AJ: Patagonia famously waded into the controversial decision by the White House to strip protections from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments back in 2017, including by joining lawsuits targeting the government’s actions. I’m just wondering how, as a brand, Patagonia decides to take a political stand on an issue. Is it a decision handed down from above by Yvon or your office? Or is it a company-wide decision?
RM: Well, it’s kind of a company decision, but remember, we were such a big part of funding a lot of the NGOs that helped make Bears Ears a national monument and that helped protect Escalante. And so when the Trump administration decided that they were going to slash 3 million acres of public land, it was a no brainer [to get involved]. The question was really about whether should we join lawsuits and whether or not that would be beneficial. Then we had to decide whether we’d join the lawsuits quietly, or if should we talk about it. It was pretty much decided that, at this company, we talk about stuff even if it’s hard or even if it might alienate people. So yeah, we decided to make our involvement front-page news instead of page 40 news.
The response to what happened to Bears Ears seemed proportional to what was going on. We’d never seen a president slash the size of a national monument like this. It was unprecedented and we knew those lands were going to get sold off for oil, gas, and mining exploitation. And it’s just proved to be true. They’re trying to do it now. And the same with the Arctic refuge. So, this is right in our wheelhouse and I think anybody who uses these lands or recreates in these lands and is inspired by them or cares about wildlife and wild places would have taken the same stance.
Is activism baked into the company’s DNA or has that evolved as the company has grown larger over the decades?
I think it started to take off 20-plus years ago when the company really started to grow. Yvon saw the devastation that was happening to wild places in the natural world as he returned back to favorite spots and would see how impacted they’d become. That’s why he and Craig Mathews from Blue Ribbon Flies started One Percent for the Planet. Today it doesn’t seem like such a radical idea, but at the time it was a pretty radical to say, “I realize that since I’m operating a business I’m doing damage to the planet, so I’m going to try and do less harm, obviously, but since I am doing damage to the planet, I’m going to pay one percent off the top of my sales to fund grassroots environmental action and conservation.”
I think our activism has been amplified a lot in the last three or four years just because of what’s going on in the world. There is an all-out assault on the environment, and on public lands and waters, and conservation in general. So we’re doing things that probably Yvon didn’t presume we would be doing 20 years ago, but, we feel it’s proportional to what’s going on in the world.
Is there a worry that political and environmental activism can eventually erode the bottom line?
I don’t feel like the things that we’re wading into have hurt us as a business. And in many ways, I think they’ve helped us. You mentioned your readers have responded that they’d like to see more sustainable gear reporting. Most people want to do something about the climate crisis. Most people want to do something about protecting public lands and leaving a world to their children and their grandchildren that’s healthy and sustainable. And so to me it feels like it’s part of the responsibility of corporations. And, you know, even somebody like Jamie Dimon [CEO of JPMorgan Chase] came out said that the financial shareholders shouldn’t be the only stakeholders, you know, the planet deserves it too. So I think that’s real progress.
You’ve said before that capitalism needs to evolve if humanity is to survive—so how does it evolve?
For decades there’s been the single-minded pursuit of profits at the expense of everything else. It’s put us in a perilous position and it could mean the end of the planet if we continue down that path. Well, now I think we’re seeing [that evolution] work with the B-Corp [benefit corporation] movement, with the recognition from the business round table. Just acknowledging that the planet needs to be a stakeholder too. I mean, part of what’s driving the evolution in capitalism is that more and more businesses are waking up to the facts [of climate change] partly because their employees and their customers are pushing them to. I think is a really healthy dynamic.
Patagonia placed this ad in prominent pubs after the shrinking of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Does Patagonia then make it a point to share knowledge and manufacturing tips, let’s say, with corporations who are new to sustainable production and sourcing?
It’s really been a big part of what we do to share what we learn. It can be a big company like Walmart. Or a little startup that comes to us wanting to know what we’ve learned. I have a lot of friends who are CEOs of big companies and we talk about these issues all the time. And I think what you’re seeing are a lot more companies come out with climate goals and sustainability goals, working toward a carbon-neutral or carbon positive future.
What levers can Patagonia pull when it comes to making meaningful change, whether it’s pollution, climate change, conservation, etc?
There’s a lot of impact you can have by just communicating with your customers, through things like our Worn Wear initiative. We’ve learned after being in business for, you know, 46 years is that one of the best things you could do for the environment is keep your stuff longer. Repair it when it’s broken and not have the footprint of buying a bunch of new stuff all the time. That’s just one thing, communicating that to our customers.
And then there’s always a political aspect. As David Brower said, our politicians are like weathervanes. Our job is to create the wind that makes the vanes blow. When we see an issue that we’re worried about, we act. Like in this last midterm election it was public lands in Montana and Nevada And so we made a decision to support John Tester and Jacky Rosen because they’re public lands defenders. We made that decision very purposefully because we were really worried about more land public land being slashed. Our involvement depends on what the moment needs. I think what we’ve learned in the last few years is that we have a lot of levers to pull.
That’s behind what we’re doing with Patagonia Provisions. It’s from our realization that it’s not enough to do less harm. We have to do more good. Okay. So if we can grow food and fiber in a way that that is chemical-free, that also sequesters more carbon and builds topsoil, well then that becomes a regenerative product instead of a product that just depletes the natural world.
Yvon Chouinard prefers “responsible” to “sustainable.” “There is no such thing as sustainability,” he says. “The best we can do is cause the least amount of harm.”
What would you say to critics who argue, look, if you’re so concerned about the environment, why not just stop making stuff altogether? Or make less of it? Or that Patagonia and other outdoor brands supporting public lands initiatives are just cynical ploys to just get more people outside so they’ll buy more outdoor gear?
I think anybody who knows our brand and our track record know we’re not coming from a cynical place. We’ve always been about living a life outdoors with simplicity. I think it’s more important to show how products can be made responsibly, to show examples of a circular economy, and to innovate with materials to create new, recycled, and reclaimed and regenerative supply chains, than it would be to be out of the game and just quit. Then, then there’s no leading by example. And, you know, you always get rocks thrown at you when you lead by example. That’s fine. We’re, you know, we’re used to that.
Most customers don’t realize that to create a new supply chain that’s more sustainable, it often costs the company more. And we don’t always pass those costs onto our customers. You know that if you’re buying something that’s really cheap it’s poor quality. Probably the planet’s been exploited to make it. Probably somewhere in the world workers in the supply chain had been exploited. You know, as a customer and as a citizen, there’s a much bigger cost when buying something cheaply made. I think people understand the price/value relationships. If they buy something and it lasts for 30 years, then overall it’s been a good purchase.