Patagonia’s European head, Ryan Gellert, is leading the outdoorwear brand’s charge to make not just itself, but the whole industry, more sustainable.
“We’ve reached the point, as humans, where we don’t have a lot of time to solve the ecological crisis,” says Ryan Gellert, general manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Patagonia, leaning forward in his chair for emphasis. “We are so far past the point where businesses have the right to say, ‘This isn’t my job,’ and we’re also past the point of businesses saying, ‘We’ll take these three small steps and that’s it.’ We have got to be absolutely committed and fearless in joining together to reverse the biggest climate impacts.”
Patagonia produces clothing and equipment for all kinds of outdoor activities, including climbing, skiing, surfing and snowboarding. As a privately held company, it does not reveal profit figures but Gellert tells Drapers the business makes “comfortably more than a billion” dollars each year.
Central to the US-based brand is its long-standing commitment to sustainability. Others may pay lip service to becoming more sustainable – Patagonia is absolutely dedicated to it.
Beyond leading the way with its own environmental efforts – it has used organic cotton since the 1990s and aims to be zero carbon throughout its entire supply chain – the brand wants to be a force for wider change.
Increasingly, it is taking overtly political actions such as filing lawsuits against the US government and endorsing political candidates. It is a company governed by its mission statement: “We’re in business to save our home planet.”
Since 1985, Patagonia has pledged 1% of annual sales to supporting environmental organisations around the world, and gives grants to hundreds of groups every year. It uses organic and recycled materials, including organic cotton, hemp, recycled down, recycled nylon and recycled polyester, throughout its clothing. Patagonia also lets customers resell and recycle products through its Worn Wear programme, which allows them to trade in old items for credit toward new purchases.
It manufactures its product in factories across the US, India, Thailand, Nicaragua and China, and says it offers more Fair Trade-certified styles than any other apparel brand.
During last year’s Black Friday Sales event in the US, Patagonia matched individual donations to environmental groups to a limit of $10m (£7.7m), and raised $20m (£15.4m) for non-profit organisations including the Earth Law Centre and the Conservation Lands Foundation. The brand has also been a vocal and consistent critic of US president Donald Trump.
We look at it as trying to change the system, and we have failed utterly in changing the system
Patagonia was founded by Yvon Chouinard, who still owns 100% of the business today. Chouinard began climbing mountains in 1953, when he was still a young teenager. Bitten by the climbing bug, he bought an anvil and forge from a local junkyard, and taught himself blacksmithing so he could make his own climbing spikes, known as pitons. The young entrepreneur began selling them to family and friends. By 1970, Chouinard Equipment was the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the US.
Chouinard had also realised, however, that his business was damaging the very thing he loved. The repeated hammering of pitons into rockfaces at climbing hotspots in the Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, and Yosemite Valley, California, was damaging the delicate rock. In the early 1970s, he opted to phase out pitons – despite being the mainstay of the business – and focus on other climbing categories. Patagonia as we know it today was born.
In Europe, the business is led by Gellert. He grew up in Florida, in a beach town obsessed with surfing. Although he enjoyed the sport, he did not share the passion, and dabbled in skateboarding and snowboarding. He discovered climbing in his early twenties and was instantly hooked on the singular focus the sport requires.
In 2014, still a keen climber, Gellert joined Patagonia, relocating from his role as brand president of mountaineering equipment brand Black Diamond in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Patagonia’s European headquarters in Amsterdam.
He explains that the decision to stop making pitons “is a real reflection of how Yvon thinks about things, and it was also the first point [at which] he was prepared to put the business at risk for what he believes. It is also relevant to another journey we’re currently on with cotton. Patagonia opened a store in Boston, Massachusetts, in the mid-1990s and employees started complaining of nausea and headaches. It turned out to be formaldehyde that was off-gassing from the Patagonia products.
“Yvon made the decision to get out of conventionally grown cotton within 18 months. The product team said it was impossible, and he had to shrink the business by stopping styles, but he did it.”
Regenerative cotton moves past doing less harm and actually does good
Since 1996, Patagonia has only used only organic cotton in its products. Most other brands would be patting themselves on the back and celebrating this commitment – but not Patagonia.
“We made the transition when less than 1% of the world’s cotton was organically grown,” Gellert explains. “The reality is that today, that figure hasn’t changed. We don’t look at this issue as just trying to make our supply chain less impactful. We look at it as trying to change the system, and we have failed utterly in changing the system.”
In a bid to reverse that perceived failure, cotton is a core focus for Patagonia. For spring 20, it launched a range of T-shirts and shorts made using regenerative organic cotton – which helps to remove carbon from the atmosphere and improve the topsoil – grown on pilot farms in India. Last year, Patagonia also joined forces with US non-profit organic farming research organisation the Rodale Institute to launch a new standard, the Regenerative Organic Certification.
“Regenerative cotton has all the principles of organic cotton, plus the principles of regenerative, which is intended to, in short, do two simple things: sequester atmospheric carbon and create healthy topsoil,” Gellert explains. “It moves past doing less harm and actually does good. We started with 50 pilot farms in India, and very quickly scaled that to a couple of hundred. We’re now on the path to having a couple of thousand.”
Patagonia’s ultimate aim is to move from organic to regenerative cotton across all its natural fibres.
“The hope is that the [retail] industry makes the transition to the most sustainable forms of natural fibres, either through pilots we start or by inspiring others. We don’t have the power to lead that transition, but we have the ability to showcase what can be done.”
Gellert tells Drapers that the European arm has trebled in sales over the past five years – but quickly adds that this metric is the one he is least proud of. More important, he argues, is the environmental commitments the brand has been able to make as a result of that growth.
“We could grow this business a hell of a lot of quicker than we have, if growth was the sole ambition,” he explains. “We spent a lot of time saying no to things, so that we can keep things moving at a pace we’re comfortable with and ensure what we stand for is leading the conversation.”
Patagonia was a dream brand for us when we opened our first physical store
Dee Dee O’Connell, Brokedown Palace
Patagonia has 10 stores across Europe and is stocked in more than 1,300 doors. The UK is one of the brand’s biggest and fastest-growing markets in Europe.
Patagonia has two stores in the UK – in Bristol and Manchester – and is stocked in more than 120 doors here.
As well as appealing to outdoor enthusiasts, the brand has a strong following in the streetwear market. As a result, in addition to outdoor specialists such as Ellis Brigham and Cotswold Outdoor, UK stockists include traditional fashion retailers including Selfridges and Mr Porter. Retail prices range from £10 for a coin purse to £650 for waterproof waders.
“Our concept has always been to stock responsible brands that share our values, and make high-quality gear,” Dee Dee O’Connell, owner of outdoor clothing retailer Brokedown Palace, which has stores in Shoreditch and Spitalfields, east London, tells Drapers. “We supply products that work whether our customers are commuting in London by bike or backpacking in the mountains.
“Patagonia was a dream brand for us when we opened our first physical store. It has been supportive from the beginning, which makes a huge difference as an independent business. We’ve partnered with it on events such as film screenings and panel discussions.”
Sam Kershaw, buying manager at Mr Porter, says: “Patagonia is one of our leading outdoor brands. It has a unique position as it speaks to both the seasoned active explorer and the lifestyle-minded urban dweller. Bestsellers include the traditional plain logo T-shirts (£35) and textured fleeces (£80). Patagonia performs well globally, and we’ve seen an increased demand from our [Asia-Pacific] territory.”
Gellert is unapologetic about the brand’s appeal for these “urban dwellers,” who buy the brand’s logo T-shirts and colourful retro fleeces, but probably are not wearing them to scale mountains.
“We’ve been in the sportswear business for a long time and we embrace that,” he says. “A lot of people who are interested in solving the ecological crisis we’re facing live in urban environments. It goes back to the communities we exist to serve. There’s this slice of humanity who recognise that the crisis is real, and they’re frightened and pissed off about it.”
Solving the environmental crisis has meant Patagonia increasingly takes a political stance, which is risky for a retail brand. Clothing businesses can be reluctant to stick their heads above the parapet, for fear of alienating swathes of potential customers.
“Becoming involved in politics is something that we’ve reluctantly embraced,” says Gellert. “The situation has become too serious to justify sitting on the sidelines.”
Patagonia’s political action has included two lawsuits against the Trump administration: one filed last year against changes to the Endangered Species Act, and another in 2017 protesting the reduction in size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, which reduced the amount of protected land by millions of acres.
In the 2018 US mid-term elections, the brand also publicly endorsed two Democratic candidates who supported the protection of public lands: Jacky Rosen and Jon Tester. Both went on to win. In Europe, it has partnered with local activists and groups to demand the protection of rivers in the Balkan Peninsula, as well as supporting grassroots groups in Iceland to ban open-net salmon farms.
Next up on Patagonia’s to-do list is tackling its carbon emissions, and Gellert says it has pledged to decarbonise by 2025: “For us, that means the whole supply chain, down to mill and factory level. We’re still working on how we’ll do that, because it is a really complex challenge. Our philosophy is to use offsetting as little as possible in the most impactful way possible. We want to remove the carbon-intensive elements from our supply chain, not just offset them by planting trees. By the end of this year, we’ve committed to having every store, showroom and office running from renewable energy.”
Gellert adds: “Our supply chain continues to be where the carbon-intensive activity happens, so that’s where we need to take action: steps like transferring mills to renewable energy sources. What we’ve found in this journey, and others like it, is that you can usually tackle some of the really big problems easily once you understand the landscape. Then there’s the long challenging tail of tackling that half per cent here and there, which can be very difficult and time consuming.”
Patagonia may have been dedicated to greener business for several decades, but much of the fashion industry is only just experiencing a comparable sustainable awakening. Gellert describes the sector’s recent environmental sea change as “an overwhelmingly good thing – which is different from an entirely good thing”.
He expands: “It is positive that businesses are finally starting to wake up and take the issues more seriously. The challenge in that is that a lot of brands are intentionally trying to create confusion. They’ll spend 10% of the budget doing something moderately positive and 90% telling people they did it. We’ve been doing everything we know how to do to minimise the impact of our business for the past 47 years and we would not describe ourselves as sustainable – if anything, we’re a responsible business.”
Sustainability may now – finally – be on fashion’s radar, but the issues the industry faces are complex. Solving them will require real commitment.
“There isn’t a finish line for sustainability,” Gellert concludes. “The whole ambition needs to be constantly asking yourself tough questions about better ways to do things. If you’ve solved one problem, then what’s next? That needs to be the mentality.”