Patagonia CEO on leading a company with a cause

Patagonia has been held up as a paragon of brand purpose, but its recently appointed CEO, Ryan Gellert, stresses that there’ll always be room for improvement

Ryan Gellert is not a business leader who dilly-dallies. Barely a week after his appointment as CEO of Californian clothing brand Patagonia in September 2020, he was spearheading a hard-hitting campaign to defend public land rights in the US. Next, he was supporting a community energy initiative in Europe, followed by a coalition protecting citizens’ access to the vote in the state of Georgia.

The activist streak in the 49-year-old Floridian informs his approach to the business and free enterprise more widely. While most CEOs enter the job promising growth, growth and more growth, Gellert admits to “wrestling” with the size of the operation, which turns over about $1bn (£710m) a year, and how to square that with his views about capitalism’s undesirable effects on the world.

“We are a for-profit enterprise, but we’re committed to using our business to do more than just make money,” he says. 

Speaking in his first UK interview since his promotion from the role of general manager of the firm’s EMEA operations, Gellert has no qualms about blaming unrestrained capitalism for the “ecological crisis” and many social inequalities.

As unorthodox as his stance may seem, it’s effective. In May, his company topped a reputation ranking by Axios and Harris Poll of the 100 most prominent brands in the US. The next clothing company on the list was Adidas – in 49th place. 

So what’s the secret of Patagonia’s marketing success? And what can other brands learn from its ascent from niche vendor of climbing kit to globally admired clothing label?

Getting brand purpose right

Gellert baulks slightly at Patagonia’s status as a marketing case study, yet it’s routinely cited as an exemplar in how to achieve a winning brand purpose. Part of the reason for this is the continuing influence of its founder and owner, Yvon Chouinard. 

Gellert may be free to set the company’s strategic compass, but the 82-year-old former rock climber remains Patagonia’s visionary in chief. A lifelong environmentalist, Chouinard pledged in 2002 to donate 1% of his firm’s sales income each year to grass-roots environmental charities. It was also his idea to do the same with the savings the company achieved because of the corporate tax cuts enacted by the Trump administration. 

Clearly, not all brands can imitate Patagonia in claiming that they’re “in business to save our home planet” – and nor should they, Gellert says. To be “authentic”, a company must analyse its own markets, offerings and customers before identifying its guiding purpose. 

You simply can’t fake it, he warns. “As an individual, you don’t wake up each morning and say: ‘What does the world want me to be?’ The same applies to businesses.” 

For that reason, Gellert is cautious about placing too much emphasis on the commercial benefits of brand activism. Ideally, he says, a firm should be close enough to its customer base that the public positioning of the former matches the beliefs of the latter, thereby creating a virtuous, reputation-enhancing circle.

If we feel strongly about an issue, then we have an obligation to step forward

A prime example of this is Patagonia’s remarkable ad campaign during the Black Friday pre-Christmas sales period of 2011, which told shoppers ‘Don’t buy this jacket’, just as most retailers were offering huge discounts. The idea was to encourage consumers to repair their old clothes rather than always buying new. It actually led to a spike in sales.

Patagonia knows that having the courage of its convictions will alienate some potential customers, but it’s clearly reconciled to that prospect. In 2019, for instance, the firm antagonised many anglers by campaigning against artificial salmon breeding in a feature-length documentary, Artifishal. While it knew that the move would harm the sales of its fishing gear, it went ahead all the same. 

“However uncomfortable it may be, if we feel strongly about an issue – and if that issue ladders back to our reason for being – then we have an obligation to step forward,” Gellert says.

It’s not a strategy for the faint-hearted. Last summer, Patagonia pulled all its advertising from Facebook and its Instagram subsidiary because of its dissatisfaction with the former’s efforts to tackle hate speech and fake news. Gellert admits that this decision reduced “eyeballs on our messaging” and has made it harder to reach consumers. But he insists that the firm’s approach to marketing is what brings “energy, complexity and excitement” to the brand. 

It has a positive impact on staff, he says, who often join Patagonia because of its activism. It also lands well with its loyal customers, many of whom have almost come to expect the company to make a nuisance of itself. 

The imperfect activist

Another reason why brand activism is so hard to get right is that it puts a company at risk of being accused of hypocrisy. Whenever a firm publicly criticises another entity, in effect it’s inviting every consumer, journalist and competitor to start muckraking.

With this factor in mind, Patagonia works hard to ensure that it can take a stand and remain on the moral high ground while doing so. For instance, it uses 100% organic cotton and includes recycled fabrics in two-thirds of its products. 

This doesn’t mean that the company has found all the answers. Its use of petroleum-based materials remains an issue. Selling nylon backpacks and plastic sunglasses, the brand is still wedded to the fossil-fuel economy it so readily berates. 

Indeed, the brand’s refusal to sell its fleeces to oil companies prompted a Wall Street Journal reader to write a letter denouncing Patagonia’s “self-satisfied environmental snobbery” as “hypocrisy masquerading as virtue”.

We must constantly figure out how we can use this business to champion the issues we care strongly about

The conventional advice in such situations is twofold: be honest about any shortcomings and be clear about how these are being addressed. Patagonia does both. Regarding the first, it states on its website that “everything we make has an impact on the planet”, but that it’s working to mitigate that impact. As for the second, it reports the percentage of petroleum-based fabrics in its overall clothing range every year.

Gellert concedes that the difference between Patagonia’s low-impact ambitions and its considerable footprint presents an inherent “contradiction” that cannot be ignored.

“This keeps us on our toes. We must constantly figure out how we can lessen our impact, how we can scale up solutions and then how we can use this business to champion the issues we care strongly about,” he says.

Whenever Patagonia works with grass-roots campaign groups, it tends to keep its brand in the background so as not to hog the limelight. The exception is when its marketing clout might give the cause a crucial boost. Take the Balkans, where many of Europe’s rare free-flowing rivers face being dammed for hydroelectric power projects, whose environmental costs would far outweigh the benefits. With opposition from local activists failing to make an impact, Patagonia has put its marketing muscle behind their cause (see the “Patagonia Films” panel).

Whatever the level of support provided, it’s crucial that the brand-campaigner relationship stays non-commercial, according to Gellert, who says: “You’re not going to see it splashed across our homepage.”

The same goes for working with other brands. Gellert’s recent denouncement of Georgia’s bid to impose voting restrictions, for instance, was part of a campaign co-founded with Levi’s and PayPal. The ‘Time to Vote’ initiative now has about 2,000 other corporate signatories. 

An advocate of “talking straight” in corporate communications, he argues that terms such as ‘purposeful’, ‘responsible’ and ‘regenerative’ are now so “coopted” that they’ve become almost meaningless. “When companies that use organic cotton in the trims of some of their T-shirts start talking about ‘sustainable collections’, it’s bullshit. And it’s not bullshit by accident; it’s bullshit by intent.”

In the case of ‘regenerative’ cotton specifically, Patagonia’s solution has been to set up a robust certification system under the aegis of the Regenerative Organic Alliance. That way, shoppers can be sure that the Regenerative Organic products they are wearing are the real deal. 

Next, Gellert says brands need to pick their causes carefully and be careful not to jump into every campaign going. Once you’ve chosen one, he says, offer it a credible plan of action. Clever tweets and catchy ads have their place, but this work needs to be baked into the business model and strategy. Patagonia’s approach to documentary filmmaking is a case in point. Behind every new release comes a series of follow-up actions, from town-hall-style debates through to parliamentary petitions. 

Talk of petitions brings the conversation round to politics, a subject that few brands seem willing to discuss publicly. Patagonia is different. Brands, like citizens, operate as a part of a wider ecosystem, he says, so efforts to effect change eventually encounter structural barriers that only legislators can fix. 

While playing politics is undoubtedly a dicey game for brands, Gellert believes that there’s more room for consensus than many people might imagine. The bearpit of party politics aside, most people broadly want the same things, he reasons, adding: “The more we can figure out where those basic values unite us, the more effective we can be.” 

Not every CEO has as much freedom as Gellert to express an opinion. In the same month he started in the job, pairs of Patagonia shorts began mysteriously appearing with a stitched tag reading ‘Vote the assholes out’, clearly referring to the Trump administration. This sort of thing would push most companies into full-on crisis mode, but Patagonia is different from most companies. Chouinard simply said: “These are great. I need a pair in size 32.”Gellert concedes that brand activism is a tougher task for companies without such “enlightened leadership”. But he concludes that “the absence of an owner like Yvon is no excuse for you not to work out how to play a role in the business world that goes beyond lining your pockets”.