Inside Patagonia, Inc., with Vincent Stanley
spent a Saturday morning with the storied firm’s director of Philosophy and
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
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.”
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,”
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.
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.
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.
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
Braga ’16 is an intern in Marketing and Communications at Johnson.