Patagonia’s former eco-boss on business’s debt to the planet

Despite all the rhetoric, most firms still have a mountain to climb to achieve true sustainability. So says environmentalist, explorer and entrepreneur Rick Ridgeway, who urges them to leave the foothills behind
Rick Ridgeway scaling a rock wall in Antarctica. Credit: Gordon Wiltsie

Rick Ridgeway has the kind of CV that most of us can only dream of. The 72-year-old Californian is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, eco-campaigner and adventurer, whose exploits have ranged from scaling K2 without supplementary oxygen to hiking unaided across the Tibetan plateau. 

He’s somehow managed to fit in a lucrative career in business too, first as a product development and marketing consultant to Kelty, a high-end brand of camping equipment. He then founded a successful photographic agency, Adventure Photo & Film, which he sold before joining US clothing brand Patagonia, taking the lead on its environmental initiatives until 2020. 

As an early proponent of sustainable business, he has watched the field grow from the fledgling concern of a few wacky eco-brands to a multibillion-dollar industry.

So what has Ridgeway learnt along the way? One factor that hasn’t changed throughout his 50-year career is the deep, symbiotic link between environmental wellbeing and economic health, he says.

When the Earth is functioning fully, we are blessed with abundant raw materials, flourishing markets and prosperous societies, he says. When it isn’t, scarcity and crisis loom. As David Brower – the co-founder of Friends of the Earth who became a hero to Ridgeway and his former Patagonia colleagues – once warned: “There is no business to be done on a dead planet.”

So self-evident is this truth to Ridgeway that he wonders how anyone could fail to accept it. Yet many business leaders “just don’t seem to understand”, he says.

Ridgeway saw the light at a young age. In his early twenties, he forged lasting friendships with Yvon Chouinard and the late Douglas Tompkins, the founders of Patagonia and The North Face respectively, based on their shared love of mountaineering. Both men were giants of the early sustainability movement. To this day, Ridgeway quotes their maxims when holding forth on the subject. 

Take Chouinard’s views on companies that adopt strong positions in support of social and/or environmental causes. His advice: shout about these from the rooftops by all means, but ensure that you have a brilliant business to back up your words. Otherwise, to quote Greta Thunberg, all you’d be saying is “blah, blah, blah”. 

Business needs to understand that it can have higher goals and still achieve its fundamental objective of providing value to shareholders 

It’s a principle that Patagonia has certainly stuck by. With its annual sales regularly exceeding $1bn (£750m), the vocal US brand can well afford to run its own high-profile environmental campaigns and give generous grants – more than $140m to date – to front-line eco-activists. 

Success in the market also amplifies a company’s voice in the wider world, Ridgeway argues. “As Yvon said one time: ‘It’s OK to be eccentric – as long as you’re rich. Otherwise, people will just think you’re crazy.’”

In a similar vein, Tompkins taught Ridgeway most of what he knows about sustainability marketing – a key tool in alerting consumers to issues of concern and persuading them to change their behaviour. 

Patagonia’s full-page advert in the New York Times on Black Friday 2011 featuring the slogan “don’t buy this jacket” has become legendary in marketing circles. But what few people know is that Tompkins had run a very similar ad campaign for The North Face in the late 1980s.

“We need marketers who understand how to make an emotional argument,” Ridgeway says. “That’s what Doug was really good at.”

Another principle for which he credits Tompkins is that of taking one’s whole self to work. Corporate sustainability policies abound these days, but most get little traction, he says. The few that genuinely connect with employees do so because they resonate with their personal values. 

As Ridgeway observes about his mountaineering “posse” in his new book, Life Lived Wild: “The professional side of our lives was never the central defining attribute of who we were.” 

We need marketers who understand how to make an emotional argument 

For a man who has spent so much of his life up mountains (he reckons he has spent nearly 2,000 nights in tents), Ridgeway is remarkably grounded in the realities of commercial life. For one thing, he fully accepts that it’s crucial for businesses to generate a return for their investors. His only proviso is that they are best doing so when they value people and the planet on an equal footing to profitability. 

“Business needs to understand that it can have higher goals and still achieve its fundamental objective of providing value to shareholders,” he says. “The two aren’t mutually exclusive.” 

Ridgeway recognises that, for all its progress in recent years, the private sector is still a long way from achieving true sustainability – and has little time in which to do so. For that reason, he says, its leaders need to show genuine leadership.

It also requires big brands to work more closely with companies in their supply chains to tackle important environmental and social problems. Such engagement is starting to happen. Ridgeway cites a tool developed by the industry-led Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which he used to chair: the Higg Materials Sustainability Index helps firms to assess the social and environmental impacts of about 800 materials. The coalition’s 280 members, which include global players such as Gap, H&M and Levi’s, use the tool to identify areas of risk and discuss with suppliers how negative impacts can be mitigated. 

The SAC is looking to work with manufacturers in other sectors to adapt the tool to their own operations – something that Ridgeway believes would be “pretty easy to do”. One of the goals of this project is to make supply-side impacts clearer more generally, which would create a commercial incentive for suppliers across the board to improve their performance. 

Encouraging consumers to vote with their wallets is another area in which businesses need to show more leadership, according to Ridgeway. 

Again, he takes heart from emerging cases of good practice. For instance, a clutch of clothing brands are using the SAC’s tool to publish information about the eco-credentials of the fabrics they use. Participants in this scheme, which remains in a trial phase, include H&M, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. Their motivation? “To get their customers to pay more attention to these issues, because they know that they need a healthy planet to have a healthy business,” Ridgeway says.

Despite such initiatives, the route to true sustainability remains mountainous for most companies. A few business leaders, like him and his former colleagues at Patagonia, will be led by their instinct. Others will adopt a more calculated view, seeking out benefits such as brand reputation, employee retention and/or long-term resilience. Yet many are happy to continue tiptoeing around near base camp. 

Ridgeway understands this tendency, which is why he believes that government intervention is required if sustainable business is ever to go fully mainstream. 

He estimates that about 40% of players in the apparel industry are on board with the sustainability agenda. As he admits: “That’s real scale, but it’s still not where we need to be. We need to get them all.”

Full adoption of sustainability practices will happen only when governments make the use of reporting tools such as the Higg Materials Sustainability Index mandatory, he argues. 

“The cool thing is that we’ve already built these tools and they’re working really well,” Ridgeway says. “We just need to scale things up.”