A shop of the outdoor manufacturer Patagonia in Berlin-Mitte: jackets, pants and hoodies glow in pink, apple green and blue. You almost overlook an older man with light gray hair, a thoughtful look, thoughtful movements: Vincent Stanley,
For a summer job, Stanley came to his newly-founded cousin Yvon Chouinard’s company in 1973 at the age of 20 – and stayed with Patagonia all his life. He worked as a sales manager, driving consumer-critical campaigns and damaging campaigns, helping tidy up the Patagonia supply chain, and pulling up repair centers. His hobby has always been writing, like the book
“The Responsible Company”, which he wrote together with Chouinard.
Stanley came to Berlin to give a lecture on the “evolution of capitalism”. We sit down at a sales table full of fleece jackets, hats and pants.
MIRROR: Mr. Stanley, in an interview you thought out loud whether the company would be better Patagonia to conclude “because everything we do harm nature”. Is that the future of capitalism? Stomp everything?
Stanley: No. And today I wouldn’t ask that question anymore. Because we have improved a lot. We definitely do less damage than before.
Vincent Stanley, 65, has worked for Patagonia since its founding in 1973. The “Director of Philosophy” is more interested in books than climbing or camping: With company founder Yvon Chouinard, his cousin, he wrote “The Responsible Company” and developed the “Footprint Chronicles” Footprint of all Patagonia products. Stanley teaches at the Yale Center for Business and Environment.
MIRROR: What are you doing to reduce your damage?
STANLEY: We switched to organic cotton back in 1996. We have been working with recycled polyester for 25 years – long before anyone else. And we want to be completely CO2-neutral by 2025: by far the greatest lever for this, around 85 percent, lies in the fibers themselves. That is why we do not want to use any new crude oil for our fibers by 2025, but only recycled polyester and bio-based nylon. For a while, however, we will still buy CO2 certificates in order to become climate neutral.
MIRROR: It all sounds good and right, other companies are now doing it too. But Patagonia’s mission “We’re in business to save our home planet” (We are in business to save our home planet) goes much further. Is less damage good enough? Is that enough to save the planet?
STANLEY: No – our big goal is therefore ‘carbon positive’, i.e. to have a positive carbon footprint. And that is why we are now expanding into the field of regenerative organic agriculture. Because we are convinced that this is the only way we can make a positive contribution to the planet. This is even better than closing the whole shop.
MIRROR: The Patagonia Outdoor Company Now Produces Food? Are you turning it into an organic farm to compensate for the damage caused by clothing production?
STANLEY: We now even brew beer through our company Patagonia Provisions, which also restores the Great Plains in North America. In the past, the top soil was six meters thick, but now it is only 30 to 40 centimeters due to industrial agriculture. The idea with the beer came like this: We knew this agronomist who had developed a perennial wheat grass with roots six meters deep. They break up the ground, which creates the perfect atmosphere for microbes and fungi – and builds up the ground. We thought that was so good that we wanted to grow it – but we couldn’t buy it because the agronomist hadn’t yet found a market for it. So we partnered with a Portland brewery – and we’ve been making beer ever since.
“Our customers should think”
MIRROR: And where are the groceries sold? In Patagonia supermarkets?
STANLEY: No, there is an area in our clothing stores where we sell canned salmon or mussels, for example, but also cereals, grain-fruit bars or honey. So far, however, only in the USA and Japan, Europe should come later.
MIRROR: One of Patagonia’s core messages is to strive for little growth. Can a company thrive?
STANLEY: That is a difficult question. We have growth targets – we set a margin so that we don’t lose money, we have a sales target so that we sell what we produce – just like with conventional companies. But the way we grow is as important to us as the growth rate. An example: We hardly advertise. Our sales growth is mainly based on word of mouth, which we see as a kind of natural growth. This organic growth has been pretty strong over the past decade. Now the curve is flattened, we grow much slower – which we find good. Because it is very difficult to produce more and more under time pressure and to meet the high production standards in the supply chain.
MIRROR: But Patagonia is growing, even faster than the average of the outdoor industry. And since 2008 your profits are said to have tripled. Is that correct?
STANLEY: Yes, but this is mainly due to the fact that we have organized our purchasing more tightly: Our inventory has become much more efficient, we have done better shopping, and our products are sold out less frequently. Today we can meet demand much better. And that had a positive impact on the result.
MIRROR: Is growth a good thing or a bad thing?
STANLEY: It depends on the type and purpose of the growth. We encourage our customers to think before buying. Wondering if you really need the jacket, shoes or pants. That was also the idea of the famous “Don’t buy this jacket” –displaywhich we published in the “New York Times” for Black Friday 2011. Because every product still has a negative environmental balance. And so that people buy less new, we repair: In every shop, also here (it points to a corner with a sewing machine and a hanger with repaired clothes) you can have your broken clothes repaired, regardless of the brand. In the United States, we operate the largest repair center in North America with 40 full-time employees. And so that sorted things are used, we have the “Worn Wear“- Build a platform where customers in the US can resell their Patagonia items. So we’re working on multiple fronts to drive consumer change.
MIRROR: Do you make money from your second-hand business?
STANLEY: “Worn Wear” is still a small part of our business, which we think is very important, because Patagonia clothing is also available at cheaper prices without having to lower environmental and labor standards.
“Don’t buy this jacket” – a bestseller?
MIRROR: Back to your famous “Don’t buy this jacket” ad: After that, your sales have apparently increased by 30 percent. And a few years later, when Patagonia wanted to donate all Black Friday sales to basic ecological movements shortly after the Trump election, you made sales of EUR 10 million instead of the assumed two million. Is it all very, very clever marketing?
STANLEY: No. It was very risky marketing. But before that, we considered how we should measure the success of this ad. And said: If the sales of this jacket increase, we are in greenwashing mode – that’s not a good thing. But if he falls, we are martyrs – not good either. But if the numbers are the same after three weeks – and they were – then we have done our job. Because we then drew attention to the actual problems behind the product.
MIRROR: Patagonia relies on durable clothing. While the trend in the industry is towards short-lived things, so that you have to buy more often. Is longevity a business model anyway?
STANLEY: If you make a jacket that lasts ten or 15 years, you gain the loyalty of people who appreciate well-made products. It pays off for us: we have a lot of regular customers who buy other products from us over time.
Greenpeace attack and “Four Paws”
MIRROR: Nevertheless, NGOs such as “Vier Pfoten” or Greenpeace have attacked Patagonia again and again in the last ten or fifteen years – because they used feathers from force-fed geese or toxic chemicals in their production. What have you done to make your supply chain cleaner?
STANLEY: The animal rights advocate from Vier Pfoten was interesting – we actually did not know that the down came from geese that were force-fed for the foie gras. Since then we have had a clear view of our supply chain, it is now completely traceable. Which was pretty complicated because the geese came from four different farms and were then slaughtered elsewhere.
MIRROR: And the toxic chemicals?
STANLEY: This is one of our biggest ecological challenges. For us, it’s all about the PFCs – the chemicals that make the fabric water and dirt repellent while still keeping it breathable. We now only use the less harmful – and legal PFCs. And we work with test companies such as Bluesign from Switzerland for all chemicals and processes.
MIRROR: Patagonia describes itself as an activist company. What’s this?
STANLEY: This is our self-image: as an organization of activists that supports environmental protection. Every year we donate one percent of our turnover to environmental movements. So: No big NGOs like Greenpeace, but activist groups with very few employees and a lot of volunteers. We do new campaigns every year or two, for example against dams, marine pollution or for wildlife corridors.
MIRROR: And you also sued the Trump administration.
STANLEY: Yes, we have become more political lately. Trump has radically downsized several nature reserves and opened them up to mining – we are complaining. And my wife and I – and all Patagonia employees – took to the streets with the Fridays for Future movement all over the world.
MIRROR: Sometimes it seems as if to speak with Goethe’s fist, ‘two souls in Patagonia’s chest’. As if Patagonia was an unwilling company. Wouldn’t you rather be an NGO?
STANLEY: There is a story from the eighties that explains it quite well: We grew quite quickly and without a plan, without a big idea behind it. That is why our founder Yvon Chouinard went to a consultant – it was more of a hippie who lived on a yacht in front of Miami and was known for brave ideas. This guy asked Yvon: Why are you in business at all? Whereupon Yvon said: Because I want to give money for the environment. And the consultant replied: Then you should sell your company better, set up a foundation and give your money to the environment. Yvon thought about it for a long time. And finally said: Why I am really in business: I want to do things differently. I want to prove that entrepreneurship and environmental protection don’t have to be a contradiction in terms. Since then we have taken a lot of entrepreneurial risks – and now we know that if you do them right, they are not a big risk. They can even be good for business. That is exactly what has been driving us ever since: We want to be a role model for other companies.