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Vincent Stanley is a storyteller
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Vincent Stanley is a storyteller
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Vincent Stanley is a storyteller
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"I think human beings are really only happy when we are acting. When we feel agency, when we feel a sense of responsibility and when we feel that we can put our stamp on something that can bring about change."
Conversations
22 November 2017

Vincent Stanley is a storyteller

Interview by Myke Bartlett
Photos supplied by Patagonia

Myke Bartlett on meeting Vincent Stanley...

Not many companies can boast a Director of Philosophy. American outdoor clothiers Patagonia is the exception. Having spent the first 20 years of his career managing the company’s wholesale wing, Vincent Stanley moved through editorial and marketing positions before winding up as Patagonia’s chief thinker and storyteller (although he says “chief storyteller” is merely an honorary title). This might not sound like the most conventional of career paths, but—as befits a company that specialises in adventure gear—Patagonia has always been unafraid of finding its own way.

Founded in 1973 by climber Yvon Chouinard (Vincent’s uncle), the company has its roots in the counter-culture of California in the late 1960s. Almost 45 years later, it retains a strong anti-authoritarian ethos, taking important decisions collectively and determinedly pursuing a responsible (if not sustainable) approach to its environmental impact. Patagonia works as proof that, in a consumerist economy, businesses have the ability to drive real, positive change—even if it means leading, rather than chasing, the consumer. Take their costly choice to only use organic cotton in their products, a decision made back in 1994, when few had any idea about the difference between conventional and organic farming.

Vincent has been involved in some of the more unpredictable commercial choices, including an advertisement run in the New York Times which implored consumers not to purchase the jacket it was selling. When he’s not subverting the world of marketing, he serves as a visiting fellow at the Yale School of Management and, with Yvon, co-authored the book The Responsible Company, which draws on lessons learned from Patagonia’s first four decades to help other companies follow suit. He continues to work with B Corps and entrepreneurs keen to build enterprises where the social and environmental bottom line is as important as turning a profit. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s also a published poet. (Writing, he tells me, is his vocation—everything else just happened along the way.)

We don’t discuss poetry, but we do talk about the importance of stories. The sort of stories Vincent likes to tell are the sort that really might change the world. They’re also stories that, despite the fog of gloom that seems to hang over 2017, usually have a happy ending. Most environmental tales tend to focus on what we have to sacrifice. Instead, Vincent’s ask us to think about what we truly treasure and how we might start to make it even better.

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So what’s the weather like at Torquay this morning?

It’s gorgeous. It’s chilly but very clear. And I saw my first bounding kangaroo outside a zoo.

Did you really?

Yeah! [Laughs]. So it was great.

How important is it to you to still get out in nature and hike around? Given, of course, that Patagonia is best known for its mountaineering gear.

It’s really important to me. I was never a hardcore mountaineer. I like very much being out a bit beyond the reach of other people, just to get out and feel the air and see the birds. You know, I’m 65 now, so it’s good to reconnect on a regular basis with the natural world and remind yourself of what it actually is [laughs].

So part of the appeal of nature for you is the ability to get away from other people, to actually see nature untouched and untainted?

A little bit. I think it’s more complex than that. I think in some ways it’s also something you share with other people. Even if you’re by yourself. Having that experience becomes a bond. I think that was really true when the early people who worked at Patagonia were mostly climbers and surfers. And there’s just this sense you get when you’re a kilometre from the road and you lose that sense of constant social support that you do in a built landscape. You feel more vulnerable to natural forces and at the same time you feel more self-reliant. Everything’s more beautiful. You’re aware of being in a wild place but it also connects to something in yourself. And I think for people who have had that experience it creates quite a strong bond. Because it’s something that you understand when you talk to each other. It’s very difficult to explain to somebody who’s never had that feeling.

So it creates a community?

Yeah. On the one hand it’s solitary but, on the other hand, it does create a community. I go for solitary walks, but if I’m going in the mountains I’m with my wife or with friends and it’s the same when you go sea kayaking or when people at Patagonia run together at lunchtime.

So there’s a sort of contradiction. You feel more vulnerable and yet more self-reliant when you’re in nature. There’s nothing protecting you but at the same time you’re aware that actually you can survive, you can do it.

Right. And you’ve got agency because you’re actually moving through a world. You have to be a little more awake. My friend Rick Ridgeway who’s worked at Patagonia for a long time has gone on long walks through Africa and talks about being hyper awake when they’re going through a landscape with, you know, black rhinoceros and hippopotamuses and a lot of animals that are much bigger than you are. The way he described it, it’s not like a fear of these animals, it’s just this sense of really being aware of how alive you are and awake you are when you’re going through that kind of landscape.

I can imagine it being something that seems quite precious now for many people, given that we do feel kind of half asleep, you know. In the city landscape we’re being bombarded and we tend to be heads down staring at our screens.

Yeah. I think it becomes more important to have those moments when you really do feel awake and they don’t come just from being outside. They can come from, you know, being immersed in a great novel or they can come from being really immersed in your work. But that sense of being alive and singular and connected to something is something that gets rare when you’re bombarded by technology, being bombarded by messages, and you have to field a lot of different things in an hour. That’s my least favourite part about work [laughs].

One term that came up when I was reading about Patagonia was this term “ecological bankruptcy.” What is ecological bankruptcy?

Our mission statement is to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. We’ve had that mission statement for 25 years and I don’t know that people have a very clear idea of what the environmental crisis is.

It’s not all that complicated but it exists on several fronts. One is what the scientists call the “sixth extinction crisis” where we’re talking about the loss of biodiversity and the thinning of the web of life, where climate change changes the habitat for animals and plants, bringing stronger storms and raising sea levels. We’re talking about the acidification of the oceans from having too much carbon and the loss of the ability of the smallest forms of marine life to grow shells, which affects the whole chain of life. The loss of fresh water so that rivers don’t meet the sea. Loss of topsoil and the degradation of the topsoil so that it loses nutrients and its capacity to grow plants without a lot of water or a lot of chemical inputs. The presence of toxins. So all of these things, what they add up to, is a kind of gradual desertification. So that we’re losing the capacity for nature to generate life of its own. And that’s, I think, what we mean by the prospect of ecological bankruptcy. ‘Cause what you’ve got is this extraordinary natural wealth that underpins every other kind of wealth we have. Human culture, industrial systems that enable us to live the way we do. All of that really relies on the health of the ecosystem.

There was a great quote, from Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises where one character asks another, “Mike how did you go bankrupt?” And he says, “Two ways. Slowly then suddenly.” I think that’s the fear that we have at this point. That all of these processes are going on unnoticed. You do notice it if you’re a citizen of Beijing and the air is really bad. Or if you’re a citizen of Seoul when the air comes over from China. Or if you live in a place where the water is heavily polluted. But most of the advanced industrial countries, we’ve had these clean air and clean water practices in place for about 40 years that makes it almost harder to see this gradual decline in the quality of the environment. It’s going on on so many levels. Even to the point where our food has something like 40 percent less nutrients than it did 50 or 60 years ago.

People can get depressed when they hear that litany I just gave you of environmental problems. You look at that and you say, “Oh my God,” you know, “What can I do about that?” But the fact is that there is a lot we can do in different areas. It is a struggle. And it’s a struggle to achieve this on a wide social scale.

But in some ways I think human beings are really only happy when we are acting. When we feel agency, when we feel a sense of responsibility and when we feel that we can put our stamp on something that can bring about change.

So I would discourage anyone from the kind of pessimism that causes you to not get out of bed and to put the sheet over your head. We don’t know how fast things are happening. We don’t know what we can do to bring about change. But when we’re doing that I know that’s when human beings start to thrive.

As well as being the company’s Director of Philosophy, you’re their chief storyteller. If you’re thinking of the company’s relationship with the public, with consumers, what sort of stories do you feel it’s important for your company to be telling?

What we’ve been doing for a very long time is try to tell the story as completely as possible so that our customers have a deeper understanding of what we’re doing, but also can change the way they relate to the things they buy. You know we have a culture, consumer culture, that’s now 77 percent reliant on consumer spending. No culture in human history has ever sustained this before. It’s interesting but there are some studies that show if you ask people what will make them happy they’ll name an amount of money which is exactly twice as much as they make. But if you come in and you do studies from the outside, what you’ll find is people don’t get happier when they get richer. What makes people happy is not the acquisition of goods or striving to get those goods but time spent with family, time spent with friends, meaningful work, doing things that you love to do. Those are the things that build happiness.

 

To go back to the story that Patagonia is telling, we got our start as a mountain climbing equipment company. We were a tiny company and we had a customer base that was made up of friends, friends of friends and friends of friends of friends. So we developed very early this way to talk to our customers, this way that we wrote in our catalogues, which was essentially to treat customers as friends and adults. And I think this is something that we carried into the clothing business quite unconsciously. But it’s something we maintained. So when we started to do some things that customers hadn’t really asked us for, like make a switch to organic cotton—when we switched the entire line to organic cotton we had to shrink the size of the line in order to make the changes in the infrastructure, we had to raise the prices three to five dollars on everything we made—we had to explain to the customers why we were doing this. That again put us in the position of trying to tell a story as fully as possible to try to bring our customers along. We had to explain to as many people who were our stakeholders as possible why this was a necessary good thing to do.

I can imagine that being challenging because, on one level, what you’re doing is encouraging people not to buy the products you’re selling. Patagonia is selling clothing but you’re telling people to think twice before buying your product. I guess the best illustration of this is your advertisement I think from 2011, which said “Don’t Buy This Jacket.”

For years we’ve been making synchilla fleece jackets that are now handed down from parents to children because they don’t wear out after 20 years. But what we wanted to do was to have an arresting headline and in the body copy we illustrated that the jacket we talked about was one of the most environmentally benign pieces of clothing we make. But we pointed out that even one of our most environmentally friendly products still generates 23 times its weight in greenhouse gases, two thirds of its weight in waste, and its manufacture uses enough water to meet the needs of a small village. In manufacturing we do not yet know how to pay back nature as much as we take. Everything we make costs nature more than we can repay. That’s one of the reasons we try not to use the word “sustainable” but we use the word responsible. We think everybody can be a responsible company, which means that you can identify the practices that you’re doing that cause harm and you can make improvements. Anybody can do that.

To us, sustainable means that you are repaying nature. We’re not a sustainable company. If we use that word then we start to pretend, or we start to all persuade ourselves that, you know, by recycling our paper or our aluminum that we’re being sustainable when it’s not nearly enough.

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.

Wow.

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.

When consumers do wake up and exercise their power, businesses have no choice but to respond because they can’t sell things that people can’t buy.

Our clothes are probably an excellent illustration of the fact that not only do consumers not necessarily know much about the supply chain, but we also perhaps prefer not to. We’d rather not know who’s really paying the price for the cheap clothes that we’ve become so accustomed to being able to buy.

I think that’s true. But I think that if you look at the natural foods movement 15 or 30 years ago, you would have a similar situation where most people would not want to be bothered to find out what the conditions were for the chickens that provided their eggs. But then when people started to look at the health of their children, then at their own health from what they were eating, then they would discover that the food from the farmers’ market or the organic carrot had much more flavour as well as more nutrients. And then it becomes a matter of interest. It’s not like just another thing weighing on you that you’ve got to worry about that you don’t want to worry about. And I think eventually, as people start to get more information about everything that they’re buying, that they’ll start to exercise the same kinds of judgements that they do with food.

 

I guess this comes back to that storytelling we were talking about earlier, the sense that companies need to make this positive change more attractive to consumers. To people who don’t buy products from Patagonia, people who perhaps don’t think about where their clothes have come from, what’s the one thing you would most like to tell them?

I would tell them it doesn’t take all that much time or all that much effort to really think about everything you buy. To ask questions like where did it come from? How was it made? What were the environmental and the social costs? What are the benefits to me? What are alternatives to what I’m buying that might be better for me, might be better for the planet, better for my community?

The other thing I would do is rather than look at this all as kind of a negative, you know, how can I avoid harm or how can I avoid slipping bad things into the waste stream, I would start to look at my own community. What are the elements of the natural world that my community really relies on for its health?

What do I care about? Is it the surf break, you know, down at the beach? Is it a patch of forest that’s threatened for development? Is it a particular stretch of a river where people like to canoe?

To reestablish this sense of what’s important on a local basis, something that we’ve lost somewhat with globalism. At the same time the great advantage of globalism is this interconnectivity around the world—if I care about that particular patch of river, there are activists all over the world trying to save their particular structure of water. There are activists all over the world trying to save a forest. There are activists all over the world trying to create liveable cities. If you start to care about the place that you live and use all the resources at your disposal to try to improve the health of that community, I think that that’s a more hopeful, more intimate, less negative approach to looking at the actual impact of what we do.

I think that’s beautifully put, thank you. The last thing I’d like to ask you: if you were beginning a company again now, if you were starting out now beginning Patagonia afresh, what do you think your priorities would be now?

You ask the most interesting questions. [Laughs]. You know, whenever I talk with old timers and especially when I talk with Yvon we just shake our heads that we go, “We were so stupid. We were so young! We made so many mistakes that if you started a business now you’d be out in the street well before we ever had the chance to make a success of the company.” When I work with younger entrepreneurs and people who are just starting out, which is a lot of fun for me, I do advise them to take on this sense of responsibility that came to us very gradually and by making very serious mistakes. If you’re going to give one percent for the planet to environmental causes, you want to do that from day one when it’s putting fifteen cents in the coffee can, rather than building up a 20-million-dollar business and then wondering, “Where am I going to get 200,000 dollars? I’ve already committed everything!”

It’s much, much better practice to look at your responsibilities to your stakeholders, to your employees, your customers, your community. Where is the financial health of your company going to be? What is your commitment to nature going to be? If you do that from the beginning you create a set of expectations in your employees, in your investors if you have them, in your customers, in the community at large that creates grounds for support and for expanding those practices. Whereas if you start off and you say, “I’m going to make as much money as I can. I’m going to skint on quality, I’m going to do whatever I can, to just maximise that bottom line and build up my equity to the point where I can be a good guy.” Well, nobody does that. Very few people make those kinds of changes. It’s almost like the classic story of the Godfather who wanted to go straight. After five years if you decide to make the change and go green and be a good force in your community, you change the expectations of your investors, your customers. You don’t have the trust of the community. And it becomes much harder to do that than if you started to build that process all along.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett was born in Perth, and spent his first twenty years trying to escape. A trained journalist, Bartlett writes on politics, movies, pop culture and rock music for Australia’s best known cultural publications. His debut young adult novel Fire in the Sea won the 2011 Text Prize. Read more at mykebartlett.com

Photos supplied by Patagonia

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