Inside Patagonia, Inc., with Vincent Stanley

MBA students spent a Saturday morning with the storied firm’s director of Philosophy and long-time employee

Inside Patagonia, Inc., with Vincent Stanley inline-block

By Patrick Braga, ‘16

MBA students at Johnson at Cornell University recently got a glimpse into the tensions between profit maximization and incorporating a private benefit mission into a business at one of the most storied outdoor apparel and equipment companies in the world: Patagonia. Vincent Stanley, chief storyteller and director of philosophy of Patagonia, spoke to students in the class “Changing the Game: Purpose and Profit,” taught by Fred Keller, senior visiting lecturer of management at Johnson.

Stanley is the longest-employed person at Patagonia besides its founder, Yvon Chouinard. In 1990, when he served as vice president of sales, Patagonia adopted a mission statement to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Though Stanley said he personally was not in favor of mission statements, “it’s hard to see in the middle of New York City what’s happening to nature,” so it was a healthy form of committing to environmental causes. “For Patagonia, when we started giving to one percent of our sales to grassroots environmental organizations, it was penance – we did environmental harm, so we charged ourselves a tax,” Stanley said.

At its founding in the 1970s, the company produced rock-climbing equipment and specialized particularly in hard steel pitons, which climbers use to secure themselves into rock. Though this reduced the pollution resulting from disposable pitons, the company noticed that the process of hammering the rock open to retrieve the durable piton was “destroying the sport that is the basis of our business; we were desecrating the rock that is the basis of the sport that we love,” Stanley said.

At that point, the company identified an alternative: British aluminum and chalk, which was “a huge risk since the customer base didn’t demand it,” now that they already had reusable pitons, Stanley said. So the company began a trend of “talking to your customers as friends” by publishing a catalogue that was “half manifesto, half instruction manual.” In this publication, the company discussed the importance of changing away from hard steel pitons. “That catalogue was discussed by every climbing spot in the country, by every climbing club, and it had a huge impact,” he said.

Stanley discussed a similar moment in 1988, when the firm discovered that industrially produced cotton was making employees sick. Shifting to organic cotton posed a challenge, since Patagonia again had to convince both customers and employees of the value of organic cotton, and also had to find an entirely new supply chain. This involved looking for spinners in Asia who would be willing to work with the stickier organic cotton.

Patagonia then took its employees on a field trip to an organic cotton field and to a conventional one, where the differences were immediately apparent. Whereas the conventional field smelled toxic and had no birds in the air, the organic field felt radically healthier, and the employees were convinced to take on the challenge of switching. “I don’t think we could have made that change if we hadn’t changed 15 years ago from pitons to chalk,” Stanley remarked.

Over the next 20 to 30 years, every business will deal with adaptation and resource problems, Stanley said. One of the keys is to involve employees, customers, and other stakeholders in solutions.

 “People get very engaged when they realize there is something they can do,” he said. “I’ve seen the whole company change gears and mature in a very interesting way. The company really lives its mission statement.”

Patrick Braga ’16 is an intern in Marketing and Communications at Johnson.

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