Hope for Environmental Activists: Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario Shares Why She’s Optimistic About the Future

Marcario Believes in the Power of People Changing the World and Says Business Should Play a Role

Robert Strand and Rose Marcario at BFTW 2016

Robert Strand, executive director of the Center for Responsible Business at Berkeley-Haas, interviews Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario on why she's hopeful about business and environmental activists.
Photo by Venice Blue

Rose Marcario is CEO of Patagonia, the iconic brand founded by Yvon Chouinard that has earned its reputation partly for its product quality and partly for its strong sustainability profile and leadership. The company has not shied away from actively engaging with the public around environmental efforts, and that engagement has contributed to the company’s enduring popularity and success. What follows is an interview with Marcario conducted by Robert Strand, the executive director for the Center for Responsible Business at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

As Strand points out during the interview, activism oftentimes seems anti-business, but Marcario is presenting the idea of activism within business. Plus, Strand asks Marcario why it is that business leaders who incorporate their values into their companies “tend to be a bit more joyous and they aren’t assholes.”

A video of this interview and of the other panels, interviews and presentations made at the Best for the World Gathering are available on our online Best for the World hub, where you can also learn more about all the Best for the World honorees.

Rose Marcario on Environmental Activists in Business

Robert Strand: … Rose really needs no introduction, being the CEO of one of the world’s most iconic companies in Patagonia. Iconic because of, well, for a number of reasons, because your products are great, but you also have this very strong sustainability profile, and have been a B Corp for quite some years now. Rose, if I could just ask you, how is it that Patagonia is such a sustainability leader, and what role has being a B Corp played in all this?

Rose Marcario: I think that when you look at the roots of Patagonia and the values that Yvon, our founder — Yvon Chouinard — had around environmental protection and preservation and conservation of these wild places that we love and that we care about, that naturally from the very moment of his kind of clean climbing and when he was making pitons, to now through our clothing business and beyond that, into our venture fund and now into our food business, it’s always been a real core value of environmentalism. It’s built into our mission statement, to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Your company can become a force for good when you download our FREE Special Report, Companies That Make a Difference: Innovative Businesses Receive Honors as Best for the World in 2016.

Now, when you think about that, having been a part of the mission statement for more than 15 years, he was very prescient about what’s going on in the world right now. We’re living in a world where business is responsible for more than 60 percent of the pollution of our air and our water and our land, and yet they take very little responsibility. I think what the B Corp community does is it brings together these like-minded companies to be a greater force for good in the world. When I think about Ben & Jerry’s in the early days — it started about the same time Patagonia was — I think about Seventh Generation, I think about Dr. Bronner’s — David Bronner’s still doing amazing work. These are companies that kind of were the original B Corps in a way, and there’s probably many more that I forgot to name there. Patagonia was in that realm, as well, and I think this idea that business is somehow bifurcated from the rest of life, it has no responsibility to the environment, it has no responsibility to social good, is total bullshit. We all know that.

It’s a totally outdated way of thinking about the world. One of the things that really gives me hope about this movement, because not only does it provide a legal structure, which didn’t exist before, thank you for that, that’s really important because business people need things like legal structures or they flip out. It provides a legal structure but it also provides a community and a legitimate certification process. … I was just back in the green room with all these amazing people, who do amazing work every day and lead their companies in an imaginative, innovative and smart way. To me that’s where it’s at.

What I see with young people today, whenever I’m at a college or whenever I talk to young people, is like they’re so much more well-informed than we were. It took so long, for me personally, for the penny to kind of drop. I was in my mid-30s before I really started to get it. I feel a completely different sort of experience being here and talking to young people who get it, and they actually don’t care about things like traditional advertising and a lot of the things that regular corporations do. They see through it.

Strand: You said the word “community” in here, and it’s something that Bryan [Welch, CEO of B the Change Media and host of Best for the World Gathering]said earlier right when he first came on. Some talk about the people as part of this movement in this community, they tend to be a bit more joyous, and they aren’t assholes. Does that resonate with you?

Marcario: It’s so obvious on a certain level. You have to be a good citizen and I think that … means corporate citizen but it also means a citizen in civil society, and that means that you participate in civil society. … You have to vote. You get to make choices, you know: “Am I going to vote for the guys who think that 99 percent of the scientists are wrong?” Probably don’t want to vote for them. … Community is a huge part of the benefit corporation movement because we’ll create a lot of traction around these issues that have just been so fundamental to our businesses. Kim [Jordan, co-founder of New Belgium Brewing] was running her business like that long before there was a structure. Yvon was running Patagonia this way long before the structure existed. The structure gives us an organizing movement, which I think is really important.

Strand: Now, we heard from a number of food companies. A lot of food companies represented here are doing really remarkable things, and now that also includes Patagonia, with the launch of Patagonia Provisions. What are you trying to do with Patagonia Provisions? What are you hopeful for?

Marcario: Many, many years, Yvon has been interested in food, but really we were looking at what can we do that will have the most environmental impact, and agriculture has such a significant impact on climate change. We wanted to take that on and talk about it in a way that we felt would tell the stories and help educate, because a lot of the education that you see and that even children see around food is coming from big multinational corporations that want to sell you chemicals and GMO. That’s what they’re spending all their advertising on. We wanted to take our ability to tell stories in the supply chain, which we’ve done for 25 years in our apparel business, and talk about the food supply chain, because we feel it’s really important for people to understand the link between what they eat and how that impacts soil health, toxicity in the water and the air, and overall, conventional monoculture that ends up being a detriment to the planet instead of a regenerative force for the planet, which it can be.

I think that’s the really exciting news, is that regenerative organics can actually sequester more carbon. Healthy soil sequesters more carbon; it’s a fact. I don’t think the conventional food industry would want you to know that, but it’s a fact.

Strand: Now, it starts with some of what you’ve said here today, and I’ve heard you in the past, of course, and it strikes me as there’s some activist kind of underpinnings to some of what you’re saying. Can you talk about activism? Activism oftentimes seems anti-business, but you seem to be talking about activism within business.

Marcario: Jostein [Solheim, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s] was talking about it, too, [in his presentation]and I think any company that just does stuff, makes change, makes hard choices, are activists in a corporate culture where that is not appreciated or respected. I think that activism has always been really important to Patagonia, partly because very few people fund environmental activism. The corporate funding that goes to environmental activism, it’s only about 3 percent, and that includes like funding for the ASPCA, cats and dogs, and things like that. There’s probably a good chunk of that 3 percent that’s in there. Very, very little philanthropy is going to environmental causes, which seems really crazy when you think about it. You can understand why corporate philanthropy wouldn’t go there, because they’re causing a lot of the harm.

Funding grassroots activism has always been super important to the company and we were at COP21 [the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference], and I was at the People’s Climate March, and I looked around and I thought, “This will move the meter.” Activism will move the meter. It’ll force the legislators, it will force the municipalities to pay attention to what it means to people, individual people, around concerns around climate. I think it did move the meter. It did change things. We got an accord.

Strand: This seems like a legacy of Patagonia to encourage such activism and, perhaps, is that your own personal legacy that you’d also leave with business?

Marcario: The B Corp structure has been great because it’s allowed our founders to really institutionalize that philanthropy into our charter, which I think is really important. One percent of sales, not profits, 1 percent of sales, so even if we don’t have a profitable year, that 1 percent sales is still going to go to grassroots activism. I’m talking about very small grants, $10,000 to $20,000. I’m talking about the people that are standing in front of bulldozers, that are trying to create fossil fuel infrastructure, that kind of thing. That’s institutionalized into the charter, is super important to me and to the founders and as well as our relationships with our employees and the social aspect of the business that we offer, including on-site child care and leave to do environmental internships and things like that. All of that is really important, and it is part of the legacy.

Your company can become a force for good when you download our FREE Special Report, Companies That Make a Difference: Innovative Businesses Receive Honors as Best for the World in 2016.

For my personal legacy, I just go to work and do the work every day. I think you prove that things are possible by doing them and making them happen. I’ve sat in on a million sustainability meetings and whatever, but the truth is, make products. That’s how you change things. You make stuff that’s so good it replaces the status quo.

Strand: That seems to tie in with a number of the themes that we’ve heard earlier today, and part of that I heard from Jostein from Ben & Jerry’s was, go out there and try it. Go out there and get moving. I’d like to close with a very open-ended question, if I could Rose, and that is, the world faces a lot of real challenges. Are you optimistic?

Marcario: It’s funny. Our founder [Yvon Chouinard] always answers this question by saying he’s pessimistic about the future, but that that spurs him on to action. I would say that I am optimistic because I have seen a few things that I think have really changed the landscape. One is the ability to interconnect in a way that we’ve never seen before. It’s very, very powerful, and we’ve been funding activists for a long time, so we’re very tapped into an activist network. I haven’t seen the ability to organize and collaborate in the way that I have seen it today. It is amazing, and it is a wonderful leverage. I think it will really change things. I think that makes me optimistic. Look, we’re in a crisis. The science is telling us that, and we can make choices, and consumers can make choices, and customers can make choices. I think we need more customers than consumers. We need more citizens than consumers. They can make choices not to buy stuff: not to buy stuff you don’t need, not to buy a T-shirt that’s grown with conventional cotton. That’s a choice you can make, and that will make a difference.

I think that gives me hope that there’s the ability to network and collaborate outside of the typical means of doing that. There are people that are very good at doing that, that are just starting to tip that over. Then for me, I think in agriculture, we’re starting to learn an awful lot about regenerative organic agriculture and how powerful it could be to potentially restore the planet’s health. I think that’s really exciting and hopeful, and I put a lot of emphasis on that, and we’re doing that a lot in our food business, and I can see that really taking hold if customers really forced the change. Because the change is only going to come, I think, through customers.

Strand: Rose, I’ve shared with you that personally I’m very optimistic because I have the good fortune of being surrounded by these incredible students, and on a daily basis. I know that our students, and not just here at Berkeley, but throughout the States and beyond, are inspired by your work and the work of Patagonia. I’d like to say on behalf of all of us here, Rose, thank you, so very much.

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