Rick Ridgeway

Rick Ridgeway, vice president for public engagement at Patagonia, spoke of his company’s efforts to decrease its environmental impact while increasing its social impact. A variety of programs and policies designed with these goals in mind have led to Patagonia being called the “coolest company on the planet” by Fortune magazine.

Ridgeway described Patagonia’s humble beginnings as a blacksmithing workshop making mountain climbing equipment.

“[Founder] Yvon [Chouinard] also hired his friends, and they were referred to appreciatively, and today even reverentially, as ‘dirtbags,’” Ridgeway said.

By the early Seventies when Chouinard began selling a few items of clothing, not much had changed.

“The clothes were still designed by dirtbags and worn by dirtbags, and that became the founding culture of the company that we captured in the photographs that we ran in the first Patagonia catalogues. We really worked hard not to take ourselves too seriously, and we avoided hiring pro athletes,” Ridgeway said. “And we wanted to show that our gear was for women as much as it was for men, so we ran photographs of women that told the real story of what it is like to be a mom in a world where everything always doesn’t go perfectly.”

This unconventional marketing strategy helped to endear customers to the brand in its early days, while a love for the outdoors meant that Chouinard and his team saw firsthand melting glaciers, and the effects of deforestation and overgrazing. The founder felt “morally obligated to do something about it.”

According to Patagonia’s new mission statement, the company is “in business to save our home planet,” and as a certified B Corp. its six core values all demonstrate its commitment to giving back. It has pledged to donate 1 percent of its total sales to support environmental causes (what it calls a “voluntary earth tax”), it is committed to creating the best products while causing no unnecessary harm, and it says its operations will cause no unnecessary harm to its employees. In addition, it has pledged to share its best practices with other companies, to be as transparent as possible, and to provide a supportive work environment.

As a part of these efforts, Patagonia awarded 1,210 environmental grants during its last fiscal year, including giving $2.8 million to groups fighting climate change and $2.6 million to preserve and protect public lands.

Other recent efforts that Patagonia has undertaken include an organic regenerative agriculture program under its Patagonia Provisions label. This type of farming restores soil biodiversity, pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and efficiently grows crops without the need for chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Ridgeway said research has suggested that if half the farming on earth was changed to this method or agriculture, that alone could trap enough carbon in the soil to reverse global climate change.

“That’s why Patagonia is in the food business,” Ridgeway said.

Patagonia grows a grain called Kernza using organic regenerative techniques, and in turn uses this crop to brew its own beer, called Long Root. The name comes from the plant itself, which has a dense, up to 10-foot-long root system and grows perennially, eliminating the need for tilling or pesticides in order for it to thrive.

When it comes to clothing, the company asks its customers to practice what it calls the four R’s: repair, reuse, recycle and reduce.

“We support our customers to join us in reducing their personal footprints,” Ridgeway said. “The final R is to reduce, and this is the most difficult one to communicate to our customers, to anyone. It’s a hard conversation, but it’s a core of our environmental crisis.”

To get the conversation started, Patagonia ran a full-page ad in The New York Times and the start of the Black Friday sales period, asking customers not to buy their products unless they really needed them. It was a bold and unconventional move for a company in the apparel business, but being conventional and doing the expected is not what has earned Patagonia the title of “coolest company on the planet.”

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