An honest interview with Patagonia - sustainably leading the outdoor clothing industry for over 40 years

rethink sustainability

An honest interview with Patagonia - sustainably leading the outdoor clothing industry for over 40 years

Following Lombard Odier’s certification as a B Corp last year, we decided to catch up with one of the originals. Patagonia has been a B Corp since 2011, and remains one of the movement’s top performers. In this sit-down, Patagonia’s Ryan Gellert talks about the company’s mission to eliminate waste, investing in innovation and its honest approach to measuring progress toward sustainability.


What does it take to make a business as sustainable as Patagonia is today?

Well, I don’t think that we are actually a ‘sustainable’ brand, if you apply the strict definition of “take from the planet only what it can renew”. For the majority of our 46-year history, we’ve worked to try and become a truly sustainable business. But we’re not there yet. I always feel it’s important to make that point, because I think the word “sustainable” often gets a bit stretched beyond its definition these days, and I struggle with it at times. Every difficult question you answer leads to ten more that you may not be able to answer immediately. That’s the journey.


What has been one of the most significant sustainability challenges you’ve faced as an apparel company, and what did you learn from it?

At the time we decided to use only 100% organic cotton in 1996, less than 1% of the world’s cotton was grown organically. It looks as though we had foresight. But fast-forward 23 years and still only 1 or 2% of the world’s cotton is organic. So, to be honest, we haven’t changed much. That’s a harsh reality. But I think there’s a lesson there. It takes more than just doing or talking about something to make a real difference. To do that, you’ve really got to understand how to change the systems that underly the issue.

Today, we’re committed to not doing this in isolation. We’ve worked with other organisations and business to create a standard for regenerative organic certification. And we’re trying to create a movement that will steer the sourcing, food and fibres toward a higher bar.

We’ve worked to try and become a truly sustainable business. But we’re not there yet. Every difficult question you answer leads to ten more that you may not be able to answer immediately That’s the journey.

What are you doing to make your supply chains more sustainable?

A couple of years ago, we significantly reduced the number of suppliers that we work with so we could have much stronger relationships with a smaller supplier base.

We have also been increasingly involved in Fairtrade certification. About 70% of our products for this season come from Fairtrade certified lines. Ultimately, we want everybody involved in making a product for Patagonia to receive a living wage.

Another area that we’re working on is understanding the energy sources for each of our factories. If it comes from a coal fire plant, for instance, then we’re having conversations with those suppliers around how they can transition to more renewable sources.
 

Patagonia_ArticleLOcom.jpg


How do you approach innovating for sustainability?

We have an internal venture capital fund that we use to invest in like-minded, environmentally focused, socially-conscious businesses that are working on technologies we think can be scaled within our supply chain. As with any emerging technology, we never know for sure whether they’ll work out. But we’re hopeful, and we’ve made a couple of really interesting investments lately: a new way to optimise the recycling process, and a non-petroleum-based alternative to nylon and polyester.

We’ve made a couple of really interesting investments lately: a new way to optimise the recycling process, and a non-petroleum-based alternative to nylon and polyester.

How is Patagonia working to reduce clothing waste?

We have a programme called Worn Wear, which consists of four Rs. The first is Reduce: don’t buy things that you don’t need. We’re committed to helping our customers to think before they buy. The second is Repair. We run repair facilities in Asia and Europe as well as in North America, where we make around 100,000 repairs a year. So, if you buy a piece from Patagonia and the zipper fails or the dog chews it however many years later, send it to us and we’ll repair it for you. The third is Re-use. We have a platform in the US—we eventually want to bring it to Europe—where, if you have an old, usable Patagonia piece that you’re done wearing, you can bring it back to us and we’ll give you a store credit. We’ll then launder, repair and re-sell the piece so that somebody else can get it at a much cheaper price. The final R is Recycle. If anything you buy from us reaches the end of its life, you can return it and we’ll take responsibility for recycling it.


As one of the original B Corps, what do you think about how the movement has developed since its inception?

One of the biggest concerns I’ve had is that, in seeking to become a bigger movement, its impact and standards would be diluted. But in seeing what was presented at the B Corp summit, I feel reassured that such a dilution of principles isn’t happening. So, I think it’s a movement that we’re still incredibly proud to be a part of.


What happens when a sub-contractor to a supplier has a sustainability issue?

Our starting point is always to try and solve problems, because you won’t change systems by simply eliminating relationships. However, we are willing to do that if we have to. For instance, about four years ago we worked with a group of Merino wool farmers in the Patagonia region of South America because we thought they had some really interesting practices that involved using the sheep to help regenerate heavily impacted grasslands. But then a lot of videos and images started to surface that showed some of the sheep being mistreated, and it very quickly became clear that we were not okay with this and there was no prospect of quickly and definitively fixing the issue. So, we had to make a rapid decision to move away. But we didn’t just change supplier. We actually got out of the Merino wool business for about two years while we rebuilt the supply chain. And, in the process, we created a new standard for how we—and anybody else that wanted to join us—were going to manage that supply chain.

The B Corp movement is a movement that we’re still incredibly proud to be a part of.

What do you do in your personal life to reduce your carbon footprint?

I bike everywhere and I try to take public transport as much as I can. But, in the role that I have, I fly much more than I would like. I think it’s important to be honest about that. And, in being far from perfect, I think I’m a microcosm for many of us as individuals and businesses.

I also have two young kids, who both inspire me and make me feel a responsibility to educate them on why these issues are so important. I take my eight-year-old son to the climate strikes here in the Netherlands to give him a sense of what’s going on and how he can participate. He already asks questions and he learns about it at school. Even a couple of his school plays have involved environmental themes. It’s very different to how I grew up.

Ryan Gellert’s biography

As General Manager - EMEA for Patagonia, Ryan Gellert oversees all sales, marketing, sustainability and operational initiatives for the brand, throughout the region. 

Based at the European Headquarters in Amsterdam, Ryan leads a team who live and breathe the Patagonia mission statement: We’re in business to save our home planet.

An avid climber and backcountry snowboarder, Ryan has climbed and ridden throughout Asia, Europe, North America, Australia, the Middle East and South Africa. Ryan has extensive experience of working with direct action environmental groups, serving on the boards of Access Fund and Protect Our Winters.

Prior to joining Patagonia, Ryan spent 15 years at Black Diamond Equipment, where he held a number of roles including Brand President, VP of Supply Chain Management and Managing Director of Black Diamond Asia.

Ryan holds a J.D. from the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah; an M.B.A. from Florida Institute of Technology; and a B.S.B.A. in Finance from the University of North Carolina – Charlotte.

Important information

This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

Read more.