Celebrating its 50th year in business this year, Patagonia still operates in line with its founding ethos, which revolves around good people, good products and a love of the wild.
WWD spoke with Patagonia’s director of philosophy, Vincent Stanley (who is also founder Yvon Chouinard’s nephew), and one of the longest-running employees, about his tenure and top moments at the company. Stanley revealed the motives behind the controversial “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad, which ran in The New York Times ahead of Black Friday in 2011, along with how the company’s structure — and mission — has evolved over time.
WWD: What stands out about Patagonia’s early days? How does that translate to the culture now?
Vincent Stanley: I’ve thought about it a lot. When I started, we hadn’t actually started Patagonia yet, it was a climbing equipment company. We had about 10 to 12 employees. But the best parts of that culture, I think, have survived.
There are a couple of reasons. One is that most of the early employees were surfers and climbers and so they have this love of wild places. And the second thing is we were all so young. We didn’t know what we were doing, so we leaned on each other. It was a really collegial atmosphere.
I came to work, and I intended to stay six months and then save my money and go travel, but I got engaged with everyone else and sort of creating: creating the logo, creating the first products, getting them made, etc., etc.
Today, one of the places where the culture is strongest and healthiest is in our retail stores. Because if you go in and you have a problem with a zipper, you know, nobody’s gonna say, “I have to talk to my manager.” There, it’s one human being talking to another. And they’ll take care of your problem. And whatever they do, they won’t be criticized for it or have their pay docked even if the manager disagrees with that decision.
WWD: Patagonia leads with an ironclad repair ethos. What is some of the best feedback you’ve ever heard about Patagonia’s repair ethos?
V.S.: We’re lucky that people associate our name, our brand with things they love to do. We had a customer in Italy who had a pair of Stand Up shorts, one of the original products, which were very heavy weight, cotton canvas that used to be 10 ounces, probably eight now, with doubled pockets and doubled seat. This customer bought his Stand Ups and every time he went on a trip, he would write the destination and the date on the pocket liner. And he did that and he used up all the pocket liners. So he snipped them out and reversed them, and then started writing on the other side. And when he filled those in, he sent them back to us and said, “How can you stay in business when you make a short that lasts this long?”
WWD: Marketers log Patagonia’s 2011 Black Friday ad “Don’t Buy This Jacket,” in their playbooks. What’s the story behind it?
V.S.: The background story is that we got interested in the whole idea of Cradle to Cradle [a book by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart that later inspired a certification of the same name], and so we committed in 2005.
We said, “OK, five years from now, we want to be in a position where we can take back anything we’ve ever made, and then we’ll recycle it into something with as much value as possible.” We did that, and by 2011 we started taking everything back. In the course of this, we learned recycling is really only part of the [four R’s] story. If you make a product right, it has a long life, and if it can’t be repaired, then you’ve taken a lot of value out of that product.
We borrowed [from] Doug Tompkins [cofounder of The North Face and Esprit] when he ran Esprit. He ran an ad in Adbusters, in the ‘80s, that said, “Don’t buy this dress,” and it didn’t get a lot of attention. [Esprit ran a similar anti-consumption ad in 1990 in the Utne Reader]. But we remembered that idea, so we used a similar headline. Rick Ridgeway [Patagonia’s now-vice president of environmental initiatives and social media projects] and I were the cowriters. What we wanted to do in that ad was show an R2 jacket, one of the most benign products we make. It has the highest possible recycled content we can use without sacrificing performance. It lasts 10 or 15 years, it can be recycled into something of equal value, you can send it to Japan, melt it down and make new polyester fiber. But it still generates X amount of greenhouse gases, X amount of waste, and uses enough water to meet the needs of the village.
Everything that we make, we know, takes more from the planet than we’re capable of giving back. And this is the same for the purchaser. So, that was the statement. And we used the arresting headline, “reuse the good product.”
WWD: Was the ad successful?
V.S.: We were worried that it would sink Christmas sales, because like any other retailer, we’re really reliant on that time of year.
Somebody came to me before we ran the ad and asked, “What’s our metric for success?” And I laughed and I thought about it and said: “OK, here it is, if the sales of this jacket go up three weeks from now, we’re greenwashing. And we’re using our values and our ethics in order to boost sales. If the sales go down, we’re martyrs. And so if the sales stay the same, that’s the Goldilocks [effect], that’s going to be just right.” And the funny thing is the sales of that product didn’t go up or down. So, it actually met that metric. Sales went up that year, but it was a good year for the outdoor industry and for Patagonia in general. So I don’t attribute that to the ad. But I know that the ad got a tremendous amount of attention, and that people still remember it.
WWD: How has the Patagonia core customer changed over time? Or rather, what do you think of Wall Street adopting the Patagonia vest?
V.S.: Having been with the company this long, I’ve been through several cycles where we become a uniform for someone or another.
As the [business] dress code got more lenient, the idea of wearing this comfortable vest with the Patagonia logo stood for quality. Both Wall Street and the tech people in Silicon Valley were wearing this. And of course, we welcomed the business. But at a certain point we were getting 60 new requests a day. We were doing a lot of dual labeling and we drew back from that, because we thought, what does that mean?
One of the concerns is we thought we were reducing the life of it. So that if you got fed up with working for JP Morgan Stanley, it seems like that jacket was going to have a shorter life. We decided not to take on new private labels unless the company was a B Corp, or did something that reflected what our values were.
WWD: In September 2022, Patagonia made headlines for making Earth “our only shareholder.” How has that changed the company?
V.S.: As time goes by, I think we’ll know more. In some ways, it doesn’t change because the board hasn’t changed. Now, Earth is the only shareholder but the board is interpreting on behalf of the shareholder, so I think that that’s a really great move.
It’s wonderful for the family. I’ve seen this because it’s my family too, Yvon is my uncle. I’m not a part of the ownership. I never was, but I could see what kind of burden it is. A billion dollars goes a long way, but how many beat-up Subarus can you drive around? None of the family wanted the onus of that. Even with the B Corp provisions into our charter, it was the idea of selling the company that was really difficult.
So this was a good solution. And it was only possible when the law changed in 2018 [new tax legislation passed in the U.S., allowing charitable organizations to have 100 percent of voting power in a corporation]. And it’s good for the employees because they don’t have a change and they don’t have new managers coming in. There hasn’t been a sale that creates a lot of debt. Even if the employees bought it, then you create a debt structure that creates more pressure to increase growth. So what we can do is we can grow when it doesn’t cost us a lot and we can not grow when times are tougher without suffering financially.
WWD: Where is Patagonia putting its weight these days, and how is it building a more inclusive outdoors every day?
V.S.: We were affected like everyone else by the George Floyd murder, and by the response of our own people. I think progressive companies were affected even more strongly than other companies. It’s changed the way we hire, for sure, and it’s also changed who we cover, or what kind of athletes we dress, and our environmental giving although we were already down that path of promoting environmental justice.
Nobody builds their chemical plant in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. They build it in Cancer Alley, Louisiana. That injustice has accelerated that work.
WWD: Is Patagonia on track to keep cutting its footprint?
V.S.: Here’s the complication for companies: What’s happened with business over the past 50 years, 97 percent of our environmental impact is in the supply chain. The rest of it is operating stores and all that. It becomes incumbent on us to work with suppliers in a way that helps them to change their practices. And 82 percent — the number changes every year — is in raw materials. The reason that’s so high is because most of the mills are fired by coal. Now, for instance, we’re helping to fund studies for mills, so that they can find alternative sources of energy. That’s what makes the work so complicated, because we can’t just snap our fingers.
WWD: In this 50-year milestone, what’s resonating with you?
V.S.: We used to be a company that supported activists, but now we’re more of an activist company. What has changed the company more than the change in structure has been the change in the mission statement to: “We’re in business to save our home planet.” If you’re serious about that, then you have to reduce your environmental impact, but you also have to build alliances with your community to save your home planet. That’s going to be the most important task for the next 10 years. When we get to be 60, at 60 years, that’s what we would have hoped to achieve. That we would have strengthened our alliances with our customers, our employees and our environmental partners to help create actions that address climate change. Not just climate change, but biodiversity loss, and for much of the world the loss of freshwater.