Patagonia may technically be an outdoor apparel company, but in the past few years, it's cemented itself in the public imagination as a whole lot more. At a time when Americans have less faith than ever in our public institutions and climate change is starting to feel more and more threateningly real, Patagonia is remarkable for the way it endeavors to face our collective fears head-on — whether that means setting the bar for sustainable clothing production or suing the Trump administration over the reduction of public lands.
Along the way, the apparel brand long beloved by climbers, mountain bikers and other outdoorsy folk has become a favorite of urban fashion insiders who affectionately refer to it as "Patagucci." Not to mention that it's seen its business continue to grow every time it takes a stand, even as other companies have faltered through clumsy attempts to play with politics and many legacy brands find themselves stumbling in a rapidly changing retail market.
So what's Patagonia's secret sauce? On Tuesday in New York, the brand's CEO and president Rose Marcario sat down at the National Retail Federation with Jeff Beer of Fast Company to lay it all out. Read on for highlights from their conversation, which ranged from politics to supply chain logistics to grassroots environmentalism.
On political activism
While Patagonia's decision to sue the Trump administration over the reduction of two national monuments might be the brand's buzziest political move, the company has also worked on bipartisan initiatives to give employees time off to vote, and publicly endorsed individual candidates that are "mindful of what's happening with air, water and soil" running for office in states like Nevada and Montana. In some close races, Patagonia's support has made a real difference in the outcome of local elections.
"People are saying that we're really politically active, when the reality is that it's proportional to what's happened," Marcario said. "In the early stages of the current administration, it did something that had never been done in the history of the United States, which was eliminate three million acres of public land... We've never seen anything like it. We felt like we needed to get involved."
Though dabbling in politics can be risky for brands — take for example Pepsi and Kendall Jenner's painful attempt to tap into the mood of protest for an advertisement — for Marcario, it's been a no-brainer.
"I think most of the companies that do that in a way that's really consistent with their values are rewarded for doing it," she said. For Patagonia, a brand that still relies most heavily on outdoors enthusiasts for business despite its newfound fashion cache, that means recognizing that fighting to keep wild lands wild isn't likely to alienate core customers. "This last decade has been the best decade for us in terms of business overall," she says.
On the climate crisis
While sustainability has become a buzzword in fashion relatively recently, Patagonia's been prioritizing the environment for years through its philanthropy and sustainable manufacturing. Lately, wildfires near the Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, California resulted in 75 percent of employees needing to be evacuated, a situation that only served to underscore why the brand places such a huge emphasis on environmental preservation.
"The climate crisis is not a forecast anymore. It's real. It's happening," Marcario said. "If we're going to survive the next 25 years, we need to work together more. We need to collaborate and we need more transparency."
With that in mind, Patagonia announced its plan to donate 10 million dollars that it saved as a result of Trump's tax cuts to environmental grassroots organizations late last year, citing the fact that something like three percent or less of philanthropic giving goes to environmental causes. The brand has also announced a plan to be completely carbon-neutral by 2025, an initiative that includes not only its offices and the factories it owns and operates, but its entire supply chain as well — an almost unheard-of goal in the apparel industry.
"I think [the supply chain is] where people need to really look and dive deep or we're not gonna have a world to live in that we're going to love, that has biodiversity and beauty," Marcario said.
On supply chain innovation
Though it may not sound as sexy as suing the president, sustainable supply chain innovation is where Patagonia has focused a good deal of its resources as it looks to make the world greener. Though Marcario maintains that creating a great product has to come first to create a brand with longevity, she also asserts that curiosity about one's own materials — and the desire to constantly improve them — is another key. She used the example of recycled polyester, which has been a significant resource for the brand in the past, having emerged as more problematic than initially thought with the growing concern around microplastic pollution.
"You have to be creating new supply chains, and investing in innovation," she said. "We all have to come to terms with the reality that we are not going to have virgin supply chains forever, because we are running out of resources, and as much as you don't want to face that or be in denial about it, it's true."
For Patagonia, that's meant working with recycled cashmere, cotton and down, as well as helping factories attain Fair Trade certification, which means that other clients of those factories benefit, too. More recently, it's also involved working on a regenerative agriculture certification with a coalition of companies. Marcario sees regenerative agriculture, which is a way of farming that encourages biodiversity and enhances soil, as the natural successor to organic farming.
"Agriculture really represents the best chance that we have of mitigating or ending the climate crisis. It's healthy soil, it sequesters more carbon," she explains, adding that it also provides additional revenue streams for farmers who need every dollar they can get. "We have something like 60 years of topsoil left. It's game over if there's no soil."
On what keeps her hopeful
Despite her citation of some dire statistics, Marcario remains reasonably optimistic about the future. It's a hopefulness that stems from the ways she's seen younger generations demand more transparency, the change that can happen when industry competitors work together and what the data says is possible when new methods of farming, producing and selling apparel are adopted.
"The science is saying that if we converted all of the industrialized agriculture to regenerative, organic practices, we could sequester all the world's carbon. That's pretty exciting," she says.
Though one gets the sense from Marcario that she'd be all in on this movement even if it wasn't good for business (she was, after all, considering becoming a Buddhist nun before she got involved with Patagonia), she also recognizes that Patagonia's ability to sell the dream of a better world is powerful from a branding perspective.
"We need to work on solutions because we need to have an aspirational vision of the future and not this apocalyptic 'Waterworld' reality, you know?" she said. "If you want to retain great people and have a great company, then you have to inspire the people to a greater, bigger purpose than themselves, and for us it's saving the planet."