Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert on evolving the company’s mission
Three years ago, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard changed the company’s mission statement to something more direct, urgent, and crystal clear: “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.” Ever since then, the outdoor apparel company says it has been doing everything from product development and grassroots environmental philanthropy to advertising strategy and political endorsement with that goal in mind.
CEO Ryan Gellert was named chief exec back in September 2020, to continue and build on the work former CEO Rose Marcario had done over the past decade. Now he is about 14 months into his tenure, a few weeks removed from COP26 and looking ahead to the Senate vote on the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better bill, which includes very ambitious climate commitments like greenhouse gas emissions at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, earmarking $70 billion to upgrade the electricity grid, and $7.5 billion to build a network of electric vehicle charging stations.
The bill is top of mind for Gellert, as is how organizations like the Business Roundtable and American Chamber of Commerce have lobbied against it, citing opposition to corporate tax hikes. The 48-year-old exec has no patience for members of these organizations who, on one hand, talk a good game on sustainability—Walmart declared itself a “regenerative company” in September—while undermining it all by holding back the bigger picture infrastructure investments.
“The [corporate] sector has historically been full of shit, and the sector is still full of shit,” says Gellert. “They all say they’re all in on climate to their customers and to their employees, and the members of those two groups—and I’ve seen the strategy docs, so this isn’t rumor or innuendo—are actively seeking to undermine the current package from the Biden Administration, which includes really ambitious climate commitments.”
That duplicity between what major corporations are saying about climate and what their actions illustrate ticks Gellert off the most. “That is a huge issue,” he says. “Where I come down on it is, define for me what you mean when you say ‘all in’ [on climate]. Because you’re saying that and then hiding over here, and it’s bullshit. There’s a special place in hell for people doing that. It’s the kind of thing that has to change.”
Patagonia has long been know for its activism, as well as for constantly auditing its own behavior and supply chain, in order to stay true to its mission. Gellert says his job so far has been about pushing the company even further.
“We’re really making progress on distilling down not only what’s important to us as a company, but what we feel we’re uniquely qualified to contribute to and to have the most impact on,” says Gellert. “I feel like getting more surgical on our own footprint, defining what that is, figuring out where the levers are and how to impact those, as well as acknowledging that decarbonizing our business is going to make no difference to the issues we face as humans, but we need to participate in driving systemic change. And for a brand like us, that’s advocacy.”
Looking ahead to 2022, Gellert says that the company is finding the specific areas it wants to focus its advocacy on and then figuring out what tools they need to execute those goals. “Some of that is really amplifying things that already exist at Patagonia, and some of it is adding some new things to the mix,” says Gellert. “I’d be getting ahead of myself if I said any more about that, but there are a number of things [coming] relative to new tools that we’re focused on.”
In the last few months, Patagonia has raised eyebrows for a handful of moves that made clear where the company stands on a few issues. In April, the company announced it would no longer add corporate logos to its apparel, a hit to finance bros everywhere. Then in August, it pulled its products off the shelves at Jackson Hole Resort-owned retail shops because one of the resort founders hosted a fundraiser for the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, with U.S. Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene as a headliner. In October, Gellert released a statement reiterating Patagonia’s advertising boycott of Facebook, which started for the Stop Hate For Profit campaign in summer 2020, and called on other companies to join back in.
All of these moves tie back in to how Gellert is evolving Patagonia’s approach to its mission. The company sees its supply chain not only in the materials and manufacturing of its products, but where those products are sold, where it advertises, and the type of financial institutions it does business with.
“We started this conversation talking about how a company can live with doing good with the left hand and bad with the right, and that contradiction, and we’ve come to understand that it isn’t acceptable,” says Gellert. “If we give 1% away [to environmental groups] and it ends up being $10 million or $15 million in a year, and then we’re banking with financial partners who are focused on financing the extractive industry, the whole experiment is full of shit. It’s just time to wind it up and be done with it. We have to keep moving the goalposts on ourselves, and part of that is expanding our definition of our supply chain.”
Discussion around Patagonia’s banking partners have been ongoing for years, and the company has worked with outside NGOs that specialize in evaluating the financial space. Other decisions, like for Jackson Hole, are easy. “Honestly, that was a Saturday morning decision from top to bottom,” says Gellert. “Here’s what’s happened, here’s our decision, we’re moving on. Candidly, that wasn’t a decision we planned to talk publicly about. It was just voting our conscience and moving on something that was inconsistent with our values.”
When asked what advice he might have for company leaders, entrepreneurs, and people within large organizations who want to make changes in how they operate in relation to the climate crisis, Gellert is blunt. “It’s not that complicated,” he says. “Figure out what your north star is. Figure out what you think you can do to contribute to that, acknowledge that there’s no end point to this, and continue to push yourself to do more. Existential threats require that level of commitment, and that level of systemic change. These are the issues that we’ve created as people, and these are the obligations we have to solve them. If you’re not up for it, stop pretending.”