Before Patagonia, you spent 25 years in corporate finance, working in a variety of places, from private equity to tech. Yet at some point you felt like your personal values and your professional work were in conflict. Was there a particular moment when this misalignment came to a head?
I had success, by any measure you consider. And by the measure of my immigrant grandparents, I would have been arriving at the very height of my career. But then I did have an important moment. I was in New York, riding in a limousine during a road show to raise some money. I saw this person crossing the street, who obviously had some kind of mental problem. My mother was schizophrenic and had issues as well. The person was kind of wavering in the street, and I started getting very frustrated because they were making me wait. I had that impatient thought that I had to get somewhere! Then I saw myself in the window of the car and thought, Is this what I’ve become? Is this what success is? I got out of the car, and I walked to Central Park to get near some nature, and I just reflected.
How long did it take you to get from there to Patagonia? Did you quit your job the next day?
No, no. That was a thought that entered my mind and then I think it was about six years of trying different things. Then it led me to Patagonia.
Patagonia is sort of a paradox. You manufacture clothing. You are in the business of making and selling stuff, and yet you tell people not to buy it. The company has funded Black Friday ads that say “don’t buy our products,” because you don’t believe in conspicuous consumption. Yet in recent years the company has doubled the size of its operations and tripled its profitability. How do sustainability and selling coexist?
Yvon‘s [Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder] very basic philosophy has always been to make the very best product, make it as durable as possible. A lot of people talk about the “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad, but what it really was saying was, “Don’t buy more than what you need.” The more you consume, the more strain it has on the earth’s resources. We don’t want that, because we all care about this nest we’re in. We put out a film this year called Worn Wear, which celebrated the durability of our product and the fact that it can be handed down from generation to generation, and that you can bring it back to us and we’ll repair it.
I think that those values are very healthy ones for business. It’s like alchemy, like everything kind of works together. I think people want to buy the product because they know what the company stands for, and because they know that we’re willing to take risks to talk about environmental danger, to open up a dialogue around that. Being a private company really gives you a lot of ability to express yourself and not be confined by this mentality that profit has primacy over all things.
Expressing yourself is one thing. But Patagonia recently funded DamNation, a full-fledged documentary about a polarizing environmental issue: dam removal. This is not a piece of branded content—it’s activism, which means you might be offending some of your customers. As the CEO of the company, how do you evaluate the return on investment when an opportunity like this arises? How do you decide whether it’s a risk worth taking?
This documentary took on an issue we didn’t feel that anyone else could take on in the way that we could. Any fight worth fighting is the sort of attitude that we take. There is a huge movement to dam almost every natural river in China right now, which means less biodiversity, which means a planet that I don’t think any of us want to leave to our children and grandchildren. That’s how the decisions get made. We don’t sit back and go, “Well, what kind of an ROI could we get on a film?” We felt that the environmental risk of not talking about the negative aspects of hydropower and how much methane gas it’s emitting were too high. We were concerned about those issues not getting out.
When Patagonia’s business is doing well, the company uses that extra cash to lean into issues. In October, you announced a new project to use state and federal tax credits to invest $13 million to put solar panels on homes in Hawaii. Where does an idea like this come from? How does a clothing company suddenly get into the solar-panel business?
We had capital that we had to use, and we want to use every arrow in our quiver right now because we feel so urgent about what’s going on. That came about by me talking to a great friend of mine who has been in the solar industry for years. We were talking about how solar infrastructure is not proliferating in the way that it should, and part of it is the high cost of entry for people. You need a very high credit score to be able to lease solar panels on your house. We have a lot of connections in Hawaii, we’ve been in business there for a long time, and there’s been actually a suppression by the status quo to build out that infrastructure. So my friend said, “You know, you can use federal and state tax credits for that. There’s a way to do it.” So we devised this plan and Bank of Hawaii came in and said, “Yeah, we’ll do that with you.” We’ll do it every year that we can.
Patagonia has a pretty generous attitude toward competition. If you have a product breakthrough that has less wear and tear on the environment, is that something you are willing to share with your competitors?
Absolutely. We just spent a lot of money and time on R&D for a bio-based wet-suit material, and the head of our surf division went out to the entire surf industry and said, “Here, you can have our intellectual property because at the end of the day this will be better for the planet. If you guys adopt it you can scale more, because you’re way bigger than us.”
I’m also really excited about our $20 Million & Change [Patagonia’s venture fund] because we are starting to have this coalition of companies that are all thinking, How can we work together? We all have the same issues—transportation, packaging, manufacturing, use of water, use of energy. These things are very basic. We can solve them. It’s only by a failure of imagination that we don’t. I mean, we’re smart businesspeople. This is why I didn’t want to go work for an NGO or become a nun or all the things I was thinking about. I really believe that business can be an agent for change.