Mountain climber and adventurer Rick Ridgeway talks to TRUE about his work with Patagonia and its customers to protect the environment.
Q: Would you discuss the evolution of Patagonia’s connection to the environment?
Ridgeway: At Patagonia, we make outdoor apparel for outdoor athletes, and we are our own best customers. Many of us, including myself, are mountain climbers and rock climbers and skiers and backcountry enthusiasts. We’re surfers. And because we use our own products, we’re out in the wilds of the world, where we’ve seen firsthand the environmental degradation of the places that we love on this planet. We’ve seen wildlife decrease right in front of our own eyes. We’ve seen the glaciers retreat. Our ice climbs aren’t even there anymore. As a company, we’re committed to doing something about that and using our company as a tool for environmental protection.
Most of our customers recognize Patagonia’s core commitment to the environment, and many support us and wear our products because they’re proud of that commitment and they like to associate with our brand because of that. The commitment goes back 40 years since we started. From day one, we have run the company to provide solutions to the environmental crisis — both internally by making our products with the least amount of harm possible to the environment, and externally, using our business’ success to support nonprofits that are working to protect the planet’s rivers and forests and wetlands and beaches. We give over 700 grants a year to NGOs around the world. We take 1 percent of our sales right off the top and give it back to the environmental movement. Good year, bad year.
Q: Would you describe some of the customer initiatives Patagonia has started to extend its environmental protection?
Ridgeway: We examined our own environmental footprint, the footprint of our products, and we quickly realized that it wasn’t just ourselves responsible for the lifecycle footprint of those products. Our customers had their responsibility as well. We had to bring them into a partnership to mutually reduce that footprint.
On our side, we agreed to make the product with the least harm possible to the environment. On our customers’ side, we ask them to fix it if it’s broken, resell it if they’re not using it, recycle it if it’s truly worn out.
We’re trying to get our customers to think about their clothes as embodying stories, as actually having a personality. That jacket in your closet has been with you on so many ski trips and with you on hiking trips. It has collected your stories. We want people to think about their clothes that way so that they hang onto them for as long as possible, so that they repair them if they’re broken. At first we called this partnership Common Threads, but recently we rebranded it Worn Wear. We’re even creating a website where customers can tell the stories of their clothes.
We even asked our customers to think twice about whether they need a product in the first place. We most famously did that two years ago in a full-page ad that came out in The New York Times on Black Friday. It had a picture of our best-selling jacket with the giant, bold headline, “Don’t buy this jacket.” It was meant to shock people so they would read the advertisement’s very serious message from us about consumption and the need to consume less.
Many of the employees in the company were concerned about that ad when it came out, even though we hire people who are already aligned with our core values before they join the company. And you can imagine what the merchants and salespeople in the company felt when they saw some of us running an ad asking customers not to buy our stuff. Many of the customers did respond by often thinking twice about whether they needed a jacket, but because people really liked our core values they were attracted to the brand and it worked out that sales actually increased. That may not always be the case, and we recognize that taken to its logical conclusion there will be winners and losers in the industry. But we have no choice given the state of our environment.
Q: Do you expect other companies to follow your lead in programs like these?
Ridgeway: Patagonia is a privately held company, and as our owners, the Chouinard family say, that means we get to do whatever we want to do. And what they want to do and what they have done is use the business as a tool for environmental protection.
You can’t quite do things that are that far out on the edge if you’re in a big, publicly held company. But what you can do is recognize the benefits and business value to your organization from CSR management — and CSR values are being recognized increasingly by the C-suite in companies as a core value and responsibility for their organizations. Companies are increasingly incorporating social responsibility values into the warp and weft of their company. And some of the highest performing companies on the planet are doing just that.
I hold Unilever and its CEO, Paul Polman, up on the highest pedestal of how a publicly held company can be managed for CSR and environmental and shared values. The executives recognize that there is no business without healthy societies. They recognize there is no business without a healthy planet. And increasingly, their customers are rewarding them for that.
The first thing Paul did, when he joined the company, was to announce that he was no longer going to issue quarterly reports. He was only going to issue annual reports because he wanted to manage the company for long-term outcomes, not with short-term thinking. Nobody had ever done anything that bold. There were many who predicted that Paul Polman wouldn’t last very long, but he has been there for a few years now, and every year the company has continued to deliver a sterling performance. Every year the company overall has continued to lower its environmental footprint with a myriad of programs across all its supply chain, across all of its products.
Patagonia has become what is commonly called an iconic or a cultural brand because it stands for more than just making the best product. It stands for using its business for social benefit, for environmental benefit. And that has been great for us as a company, and it has really been fulfilling for our customers.
I think all the companies that are the so-called “iconic” brand — the Nikes and the Apples of the world — are all managed for what are called “shared values.” Those companies are managed not just for their own internal performance and for the sale of their products; they’re managed to provide value to the societies that create the markets for their products. They’re managed for the protection of the environment in which those societies exist.
Q: Why do companies embrace values that ultimately may slow the expansion of their business?
Ridgeway: Because they see they have no choice. At Patagonia, we consider environmental regulation to be absolutely inevitable. The direction that business is going in now cannot be sustained indefinitely, given the limited resources of the planet and the deterioration of the planet. Companies that are recognizing the inevitability of these policies and are managing for CSR values are going to be ahead of that regulation. When it comes, these companies will be at a competitive advantage to those who have ignored that. The smart companies know that. The smart companies see this as a crucial and central reason for pursuing CSR management.
I work directly with the leaders in dozens and dozens of large apparel and footwear companies, and I’ve noticed, in my relationship with these executives, there’s another trend entering into the reason why companies are aligning behind CSR values, and it’s individual. As people, as individuals, as fathers and mothers who have children, these executives are increasingly concerned, not just about the health of their businesses, but about the health of the planet that they live on, that their children are going to inherit from them. So for personal reasons, they are increasingly committed to CSR values. That’s the final driver for aligning around CSR values, and to me that’s the coolest one of all.
Photo: Don’t Buy This Jacket (Patagonia.com)