Being responsible is an ongoing process about getting better and improving, rather than a fixed destination as it were.
Yeah. And it’s also more exciting. A friend of mine, a banker in Florida, had a great line. He says, “Who would ever want to have a sustainable marriage?” [Laughs]. You know, it’s not very exciting. What you really want to do is to create something that has more health and more vibrancy than what you have now.
You grew up in what’s now known as the heart of ’60s counter culture. Do you see that having a lasting impact on the sort of company you went on to work for?
Yes. I think it had an effect on the company we created. When I was 15, I more or less told my parents I wasn’t going back to high school. And they very kindly agreed to send me to an experimental high school that was in the Santa Cruz mountains. It was a school without classes. The director of the school was a writer and became my mentor. And then at a certain point my parents divorced and I didn’t have tuition money. So I actually got a job running the office at this small school. When I graduated I worked with the former director of the school on a newsletter for alternative education. So that was my background.
And when I went to work for Yvon I was broke. It was a recession. I wasn’t intending to stay for long. But I really loved the culture of the company. I loved that there was an anti-authoritarian quality of working with the climbers and the surfers. I liked that the quality of what we were making was the best in the world. And I think that it became very important to me and to all of us to sort of keep that collegial democratic quality to the culture as the company grew.
That quality is very difficult to maintain. But as we get close to a billion dollars I think we still have the best parts of this early countercultural sense that anybody who’s affected by a decision should be involved in it. In that sense that nobody really is better than anybody else. One of the best things about the company is on-site daycare where we’ve got, you know, children playing within earshot; you can hear them while you’re having a meeting outside at the picnic tables.
That sounds fantastic, if possibly slightly distracting. In terms of that democratic process you’re talking about, how difficult does that make the sort of changes that you were talking about earlier? The move to organic cotton, for example.
In the case of organic cotton, there really was a kind of crisis point when we were not too far along. ‘Cause we’d done our work very carefully. We thought we were prepared but what we found was that we had actually broken our relationship to the supply chain when we started to deal with farmers, because the farmers had no relationship with spinners, who are the ones who turn fibre into yarn. All of the sudden we had to go out to find spinners who were willing to work with us and willing to work with organic cotton. So you’ve got the product people saying, “Okay I’ve got to design the line, I’ve got to spec the clothes, I’ve got to colour it, I’ve got to go to the trade shows, make the salesman samples, and by the way you want me to find an entire new infrastructure for creating cotton sportswear, raise the prices three to five dollars and deliver it to customers who have never asked for it. So why are we the martyrs? Why us?” What we did is we took them to a conventional field and then to an organic field. We pulled the bus up to the conventional field, opened the door and the first thing you noticed was the smell, which is the organo-phosphates used as pesticides, which were developed as nerve gas for World War One.
And it smells the way you expect. There are no birds anywhere near a conventional cotton field. If you dig your hand in the earth there are no worms. And the worms won’t come back until three years after you stop spraying. There’s no vegetation. The plants are basically held mechanically in place and fed fertilisers and if they weren’t, they wouldn’t grow.
And then we went to the organic field and it didn’t smell like the inside of a laboratory and there were birds present and if you put your hands in the soil it was black and it had earthworms and it had vegetation. And after those trips nobody ever said, “This isn’t worth it.” Everybody said, “This is a royal pain, but this is something that we really need to do.” So this is kind of an example of being in a company whose practices are non-coercive and fairly democratic, but you’ve got to make your point. You’ve got to sell the work to the people you’re working with. And persuade everyone this is the best thing to do. And you’ve got to be willing to be persuaded by people of much lower standing when they point out to you that something should not be done.
The changes that we’re talking about here, the positive changes, environmental changes, these kinds of changes traditionally come from ground roots activism, leading to political change. If this is something that you’re interested in, why work for a company like Patagonia rather than say a charity or environmental foundation?
Nobody’s ever asked me that. I think a lot of people who work at Patagonia have started out at NGOs. In the past they would drift in because they were strongly interested in one of the outdoor sports that we serve, climbing and fishing and surfing or skiing and snowboarding. Or they would see the kind of impact that a business makes or how quickly business can move once it decides to do so. A lot of them come out of NGOs and they get frustrated working at NGOs because of the limited scope of the activity and they say “boy, if we can change business, we can make such a difference”.
So you really see business as being in a unique position to yield power for progress. But aren’t businesses hampered perhaps by the need to increase their profit line? Or does there not need to be that gap between profit and progress?
I think people have an outmoded idea of what makes a business successful. For one thing, there has been movement against this idea that the sole obligation of the business is return to its stockholders. The second thing we see is that a lot of the environmental improvements we’ve made have actually been drivers for innovation. They have forced us to look at our processes and not just make a bad process more efficient, but to abandon a process and come up with a new process that actually makes a lot more sense.
But the great potential for business I think is in helping to solve environmental problems by coming up with an idea for a product that people like and will buy. So for instance we have a hero in the US named Wes Jackson, 80 years old now. His life project has been to restore the health of the Great Plains, which were once covered with buffalo and had the world’s thickest topsoil and are now largely degraded landscape thanks to monocultural grain farming. So 20 years ago or so he and a partner developed this amazing perennial wheat grass with roots that go 17 feet deep into the ground. And when you get roots that deep you don’t need to till, you actually create a habitat for these microorganisms that create enormous amount of life in the soil. You reduce your need for water by a half and you have the potential to sequester carbon, to actually draw carbon back down out of the atmosphere and drive it deeply back into the earth.
This grass is called Kernza, but they couldn’t get anybody to grow it. The farmers said, “I’ve got to have a market. Who’s going to buy this?” At Patagonia, we have a little food division called “provisions”, so we said “okay, let’s make a beer out of it”. We partnered with a brewery, a microbrewery in Portland, and we got Wholefoods to buy it in 108 stores on the West Coast. And now, for the first time, Wes has got a couple of farmers in Minnesota growing Kernza. This is the kind of thing business can do that an NGO would have a really hard time doing. And it’s a lot of fun for one thing, it’s really motivating for anybody who’s involved and doing business this way. And it also has the potential to build a healthy business over time through innovations that are actually helping to regenerate the environment.
That’s really interesting. Rather than just asking, “How can we make a profit?” you’re looking at progress and innovation and saying, “How can we find the profit in this?”
The problem Wes had was he had this great solution but nobody could imagine how you would make money. And that’s something business people are really good at doing. I think this represents a much more interesting way of doing business. If we got into the food business we could say, “Okay let’s be the 573rd company to make fair trade coffee.” But I think it’s much more interesting if you identify a particular problem and then come up with something where you don’t have a very crowded market. You’re actually creating something new. Everybody likes to drink beer and it’s a pretty good beer. And we’re actually getting some Kernza grown that can help restore the health to the soil.
I suppose you’re talking about whether companies need to be led by consumers or to lead consumers.
That’s a good way to put it. I think that it’s important to actually lead consumers. On the other hand, we encourage consumers to exercise their power, because if they stop buying something, of course a business responds immediately.
In a consumerist society do you see consumers as having power? As having agency? As having the ability to speak to power more effectively through their dollar than they can through their vote for example?
Well, it’s kind of sad that it’s very difficult to affect power through your vote these days if you’re interested in environmental issues! But, for instance, the rise of natural foods has put the food industry on its ear, has changed the way grocery stores operate. You do have reduced demand for processed foods. But consumers don’t know much about the food they eat. Where it comes from, what its nutritional value is. And they know far less about their clothing. Organic cotton is still one percent of all the cotton grown. People don’t know what the labour conditions were at the factories where people sew their garments. The global supply chain makes invisibility a big issue to deal with because you’re not going to church with a fellow who owns the factory. You’re not having a beer with the person that runs the company that supplies your auto plant. All of these things are hidden from view, all this production is done thousands of miles from where the major consumers are. And that’s a challenge. But it’s unquestionable.