Vincent Stanley has been at Patagonia’s since 1973 almost as long as I’ve been alive. It was started by one guy who bought an anvil in order to make climate equipment that would work for him and now it’s a global brand with incredible customer loyalty. In fact, I contacted him because I liked Patagonia’s mission and how they bet the farm so many times and come out ahead acting on their environmental values taking a leadership position as a result. Most people don’t do this, they don’t realize that this is exactly what people are scared of doing. They’ve done and they’ve succeeded by it. He today is their chief storyteller and talking to him you see why. He describes the growth and challenges of Patagonia over the decades, you see his own personal growth and you see the insight as to how connecting with nature is not against business, it’s part of business or it can be. And when you make it that way it works at the personal level for him, it works on the personal for me and it works on the company level. Vincent is also one of the panelists at the Leadership and the Environment’s first Panel of Experts. So, this is April 2 or April 3. Come to the event it’s April 3 at 6 to 8 pm at NYU. If you go to joshuaspodek.com, you’ll find a link to the event with all the details and without further ado, let’s listen to Vincent.
Joshua: So, I want to give a little context that you and I, this is the third time we’re talking. And the first time we met you were on a panel at a Patagonia store talking about I guess the growth of farming among young people, the growth of farming or resurgence I should say. And I had been told to come to this event by… I was at a different Patagonia store, [unintelligible] you should come by to that. I spoke to you and we talked a little bit there. But the next conversation was by phone I think and it was like I don’t remember all the details but when I hung up I was like, “I wish I’d recorded that for the podcast” because it was really… I talked to a lot of people who are leaders. I talked to a lot of people who are environmentalists. But you go back to… I read on line that you go back to 1973 at Patagonia so that tells me that’s a very successful company if you’re a director, then you’re a leader and you’re an environmental person and I really enjoyed the conversation.
Vincent: Well, I did too.
Joshua: Could you give a bit of what you do? You have this crazy title of like chief storyteller, chief philosophy something or other which I would associate with like some Silicon Valley very young company. What’s your role? What has been your role over time?
Vincent: Yeah, well, I was one of the original employees and I started work at the company when it was still a mountain climbing equipment company about 10 employees in 1973. Then that was the year that Yvon Chouinard who started Patagonia is also my uncle. That’s the year he started the clothing company. So those of us who were there on the ground it was a very sort of co-operative enterprise. And by cooperative I mean almost co-operative by necessity because we were all very young and none of us knew what we were doing so we used each other almost as checks. You know if you say, “OK, well we’re going to go to our first trade show, well what do you need to do?” And you need to build the booth and reserved space and staff. What do you do to do that? And we would all use each other to figure out what it was that needed to be done and then we would go ahead and do it.
The environmental side of the company, there was already a seed there because Yvon was a climber and he started in business not to get into business but because he was a very young climber doing these climbs, they are called big rock climbs in Yosemite in the late 50s, and that was he couldn’t find any gear, he couldn’t find the right gear that he needed and we all the [unintelligible] which are the metal spikes that climbers used to protect themselves, they hammer that in and connect themselves by a series of ropes and it’s kind of symbiotic between the [unintelligible] who goes first and the [unintelligible] and when you extend, when you’re hammering the [unintelligible] with these ropes what happens is that the lead climber falls, then the [unintelligible] climber rises and it breaks a serious fall. And these spikes that we used were all imported from Europe and they were made out of soft iron and they degraded after one use, two at the max, they were very cheap.
And you didn’t really need European climbs because they all have been so well-established you didn’t need [unintelligible] that could be we used time and again. But on these big walls in Yosemite you’re climbing 3000 to 5000 vertical feet. You have to carry the equivalent of a [unintelligible] up the wall if you’re going to dispose of each [unintelligible] as you place it. He decided he wanted to make the gear he needed. He borrowed $800 from his parents, bought a used coal fired forge and started to make in his parents’ backyard these hard steel [unintelligible] and that could be reused many times over. And then he expanded this business and started to make design and make other types of climbing gear.
So, the reason this is critical is when we’re talking about the creation of Patagonia we’re not talking about somebody with a marketing idea or somebody with an idea of an abstract concept of a clothing company or kind of a marketing idea that’s very different from the interests of a person who started. We’re talking about something that really organically grows out of a strong interest in a single person that he shares with other people. We’re also talking about an environmental ethic that [unintelligible] because climbing is fundamentally in a direct relationship with nature. You know it combines kind of a critical moments of human consciousness because if you’re on a climb you really have to pay close attention to what you’re doing. You can never be distracted and you’re in a kind of constant motion. So, your relationship to nature is direct.
And then as time went on, the late 60s – early 70s I think climbers as well as surfers and fishermen and other people who spend a lot of time in the natural world began to see the environmental degradation before many of the rest of us did. So, a climber would go back to Kilimanjaro for a second time and notice that the glacier had shrunk by X percent since he’d last been there. So, we’re using the business as a pulpit there but then the other thing that started, that developed with our company was a gradual realization that what we did as a business, what we were doing ourselves to harm the natural world and not necessarily what we did in Ventura because we participate in real global industrial system of making clothes and so our clothes are made in Asia and South America. We used to have a lot of fabrics made in the United States before the 90s but not so much now. And so, we started to learn. At first, I think we didn’t want to face what the environmental implications were of our own practices or not our practices but at the mills and the garment factories that we employed to make our clothing.
Joshua: You mean you knew that something was going on but you didn’t want to know what. It was better to let them deal with it, something like that.
Vincent: Yeah, I think there were two things. One is, could we do anything about it? These weren’t our businesses. And two, we didn’t want to know too much because we thought you know the more you know, the more you feel like you have to act, the more you feel like you have to be responsible.
Joshua: Or like many people that you have to keep suppressing and denying stuff that you know which is I think a more common tactic in today’s world but hopefully we will change that.
Vincent: If you’re a climber or you’re a surfer, you’re looking at nature as something that has an intrinsic beauty or an intrinsic life of its own. And you’re also understanding your own relationship to that as a part of nature. Now there’s a quote that I almost always start my talks with because I think it creates a context for what we’re talking about. That’s Aldo Leopold who said, “A thing is right when it tends to support the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. And the thing is wrong when it turns otherwise.” By biotic community he means everything. He means human life as well as the natural world we’re part of. So, it’s a fundamentally different ethic. If you say, OK, I’m in the resource extraction business and my business is to make as much money as possible from this resource in the ground and any other considerations are secondary, the environmental health of the workers or of the communities or the depletion of the resource, all of that becomes secondary. Whereas if you feel that your business should support rather than degrade the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community, that leads you to undertake all your activities with a very different mindset.
Joshua: So, it’s really the relationship between the company and the world. That’s going to set the tone of the relationship. If you are extracting a non-renewable resource either [unintelligible] but I mean they’re generally going after non-renewable resources then it’s just how much money you’re going to make. Then your competitive relationship with the others is going to be like, “OK, how little can I spend?” You’re looking at nature as something that you want to keep and sustain the way it is and relate with it and so that’s a maintenance relationship or a non-disturbing relationship.
Vincent: Right. Or at this point it’s almost a restorative relationship. Or a regenerative relationship. I mean I think the thing that we look at, one of the things we’re aware of because we participate in this industrial system is that almost everything we do is creating more environmental harm than good.
Joshua: So, let’s get back to where you were. You were saying that you sourced from these places and it was time to say, “Alright. What’s going on? Where is this material coming from?”
Vincent: Right. And in the process, you know occurred over time and it consisted of baby steps. One of the first big lessons we learned was, this is story I often tell too, we were going gangbusters, we’re expanding our business 30 to 40 percent a year. We opened up a store in Boston. Three days later we had to shut the store down because we had a problem with the ventilation – employees are getting headaches and stomach aches, calling an environmental engineer and I ask him know, he fixed the problem. He said what caused it, he said that, “That was formaldehyde off gassing from the cotton clothes stored in your basement.”
So, this is the first realization we have that cotton which we had thought was a natural fiber and much more benign than other things that we use like polyester which comes out of the oil well or steel or iron, then it turns out that cotton had environmental implications so we did some research, hired an independent researcher to look at the four major fibers we used. He found out that cotton was the most harmful. And then we went through a process that took several years of converting entirely from conventionally grown cotton because it wasn’t the formaldehyde that was the main problem. It was the intensive use of chemicals and the cultivation of cotton that creates so much environmental harm. So, we changed entirely to organic cotton and it was a very difficult process that involved our relationship to the entire supply chain. It involved our relationship to our own employees because of the demands we were making on them in order to create a new infrastructure for cotton sportswear. So that was kind of the third major step in our evolution. And once we made that step which unbalanced our relationship to our suppliers and involved our relationship to employees, also involved our relationship to our customers because we had to pursuing customers while we were making that change.
Joshua: This story I’ve heard several times. You left out what…. Was there like at least one bet the farm moment where Yvonne came back and said, “I don’t know how we’re going to do it. We got two years to… We’re not going to sell the stuff. The company is not going to exist if we’re going to sell that stuff.”
Vincent: Well, it wasn’t that the company wouldn’t exist but that we would be out of sportswear. So, we said, “OK, we’re switching entirely.” We made this decision in the fall of ‘94. We said, “OK. By fall of ‘96 or spring of ‘96 our entire line is going to be organic.” We’re never going to use conventional cotton again and if we fail, we won’t be making anything out of cotton.
Joshua: In my experience, on a personal level for sure every time that I’ve done something like that for myself whether it’s my diet, my travel habits, you know taking on this podcast, it’s always worked out. And that seems to have been the case with you guys several times over. And I think that it’s not what you give up but what you replace it with that is by your values.
Vincent: Yeah, I think there’s a connection to when a group of people can do and what an individual can do it there and that is that if you make a decision in favor of your values and act on that, you’re able to act more wholeheartedly. And when you’re able to act more wholeheartedly that brings energy to your work and also a level of agreement and cooperation in a business situation that makes a huge difference. That’s the thing that I really observed. I think we talked about that last time that having this 45-year history with the company you know I can look back at times when we simply weren’t capable of doing what we’re capable of doing now. It wasn’t because we were poor, it’s because of this evolution of having actually faced real problems without yielding to cognitive dissonance or to cynicism, acting on them, finding that we had limited success, finding that that’s something that enlivens everyone and commits everyone to a common cause. And I think personally when we do that, when we do something it’s either a “no” to something or it’s something saying, “I want more of this in my life and I’m going to pursue it no matter what.” We’re able to live more wholeheartedly and when we live more heartedly we live with more commitment. We don’t have that resistance about internal drag.
Joshua: Yeah, I think you actually have an acceleration because each one leads to something bigger. You can’t get to the big changes if you haven’t done the little changes. People who are listening, I think a lot of them are thinking, “Well, I can do what I want but if a billion others don’t, what difference does it make?” I mean one thing is a billion others are not going to change if you don’t. I mean not that you’re going to cause that but if you don’t, then certainly everyone. We can’t get everyone but also that when you do it… Well, I want people who are guests such as yourself to share what their experience was and I hope people hear it’s not deprivation, it’s value and joy and being able. And you know leadership, the leadership in the title, if you say, “If no one else does stuff, then what I do doesn’t matter?” That is the opposite of leadership, that’s being led by people you disagree with.
A lot of the things that I’ve learned that are most useful and applicable for me when I think about the environment came from business – accounting, responsibility, things like that, it’s system’s perspectives. I guess I got that from mathematics originally but still it’s pretty big in business. And people in business I would think would be able to get the stuff the best and be able to act on it the most. But I think it has to come from this perspective maybe that we talked about earlier about extraction versus cohabitation that if you come from an extractive perspective or an Enron perspective of compartmentalizing you not caring about one part, it just doesn’t connect. But I feel like the tools of business are really like in a balance sheet. If you’re running your business based on… How do I put it? If you’re paying operating costs out of investment capital instead of your revenues, you’re in trouble. And if your inventory is going down and you’re acting like it’s not, you’re in trouble. You’ve got to get rid of that CEO or whoever the operations person is. You’ve got to keep track of your inventory, like this is going down, you can’t replace it and you depend on it. You’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do.
Vincent: We have those, it is a very partial, compartmentalize sense of economics in which the… And for businesses, they don’t have to account for. I mean this has been an argument for 25 years [unintelligible]. Business that don’t pay for externalities. So, you know what you have is a pursuit of a private profit but a lot of the losses due to environmental degradation or most of the losses are due to environmental degradation or are socialized and given to us as citizens because we have to pay for the pollution in the water or the drawing down of the aquifer. And so, you know I think one of the things we need is everything that you describe in traditional accounting which came up you know from the Florentine monks 600 years ago, a lot of people saying, “OK, well how do you then do triple bottom line accounting?” Nobody has really come up with a good system for that. But I think that that’s something that we cannot lose sight of at this point is that the way we look at gross national product, the way we look at economic health completely excludes the environmental harm that we’re doing.
Joshua: Yeah, I feel like capitalism is very effective for a certain set of assumptions and some of these assumptions as far as anyone knew they were valid for a long time and they are not that valid anymore. And we have to adjust based on… I like how Richard Feynman says it, “If you have a theory and it disagrees with observation of the world, the theory is wrong not the world. You got to change your theory.” And I don’t feel like people have gotten that.
Vincent: A lot of businesses are founded the way Yvon Chouinard started this little climbing equipment business in his backyard out of a kind of basic human interest in a specific, something specific that they wanted to do. That’s a wonderful creative impulse that cannot really be about except in what we think of as business. You know you don’t…. Government and academia, they can’t create those kinds of things, they can’t do what artists do and they can’t do what entrepreneurs can do. But I think if we’re going to justify and say OK, that business can pay for itself only really by addressing these big social environmental problems.
Joshua: This core issue of acting, of not just knowing but doing. Now as I’m sure I mentioned it before a big part of his podcast is that I asked the guest, I invite the guest to consider a value, something they care about with environment and take on a personal challenge to do that more. Now you may be… Sometimes I hear this challenge with people who have been doing this for a long time. They generally have done all the things. It’s not like there’s no [unintelligible] fruit left but I would still offer you the opportunity if you’re up for it to think of a value that you’d like to act on and see if you can come with something that you can do to talk about later. Oh, and I have to say that some constraints and some constraints that it doesn’t have to be something that you have to… You don’t have to solve all the world’s problems overnight. Because some people think, “If I don’t…”
Then it has to be something that you do, not something you tell other people to do. You have to make it up, not me. And it can be something short term but I ask people when they do their challenge even if they say they’re not going to eat meat for a month to think about what it would be like if they did it a long term, maybe you know their whole life. And it has to move the needle on something, it can’t be awareness or facts or knowledge, it has to be something that makes a measurable difference in terms of whatever it is. It could be less pollution or it could be less emissions of greenhouse gases or it could be reclaiming land or topsoil, a lot of different things it could be. Would you like to take on a challenge?
Vincent: Sure. Could it also include reclaiming time?
Joshua: I mean I’ve tried to be as accommodating as I can that it’s something measurable. So, can you… It could be. What do you mean?
Vincent: I’m not sure yet. It’s actually a good time to think about this because it’s the beginning of the year and I’m planning my year, I’m trying to figure out kind of my long -term employment. So, it’s a good time to think about these things but I would like about a few weeks to come up with something. But the first thing I thought of was that there was…You’ve mentioned this when we were talking about your impatience with Facebook and Google. And I read about this, it’s called the “colonization of time” or “colonization of a private life” that would give over so much to these electronic connections and to these… And the idea that struck me was, “OK, what if I can set about a goal to reclaim a certain portion of my time to be actually really free from those conventions that I would then use for creative work with not just to read the paper.”
Joshua: Well, you’re in luck because there’s a guy who I interviewed a little while ago and he was at an almost total loss of what he could do to change his effect on the environment. I was shocked that someone couldn’t think of like just turn off lights. But what he came up with was he was going to use his cell phone last and his cell phone his connection to social media and so forth. I thought technically it’s the cell phone not on that’s using less power. It’s like the least power using stuff around but as it turns out when I talked to him the second time it made a really big difference on him because it turns out that his screen broke soon after that and instead of fixing it right away because of this challenge he decided to go without using his cell phone for a while. And the next thing you know he’s gone with the wife and the dog to the beach, this is you know earlier, and he’s working outdoors and he’s learning about all the stuff that was all there but when your eyes are fixed on the device you don’t see it.
And so, environment I normally think of environment is like protect and greenhouse and pollution but it’s also joy, watch the dog running on the beach and stuff like that. And so, because of that one working out so well yours sound so similar, I’m like I see this going well too. Of course, it’s going to be your experience. I would say maybe if just to make it like power, just to humor me, maybe the things you do instead if they’re not using something plugged in and we can say it’s definitely not using power. So, let’s make it a SMART goal if that’s cool because it sounds like you had this in mind and it’ll fit in with something you’ve been wanting to do. That is to say, it fits with your values.
Vincent: It may be like 1-4 hour walk in a working day completely electronically disconnected on which I’m still working.
Joshua: Is that one day per week or one day per month?
Vincent: One day per week, so one morning per week so I can be writing but I can’t be using a computer or actually or I do have an old manual typewriter in the attic but I will be writing with a pen.
Joshua: And how many weeks would it take to get a good experience of this to share on a second conversation?
Vincent: So, let’s do three months.
Joshua: All right. Three months. So, let’s see, we’re January, February, March, so April. Are you up for scheduling that conversation?
Joshua: So, today’s January 4, so that would make April 4.
Vincent: Let me look at the calendar. That’s my birthday.
Joshua: Oh, happy birthday.
Vincent: May we try for the 5th?
Joshua: OK. Yeah. I’d love to keep this conversation going and just explore different areas because I think the big thing is that I took away from this is there is in the individuals within Patagonia as well as the company of Patagonia there was a development and growth that I thought was just there from the beginning but it’s not. And it took time and devote…
Vincent: [unintelligible] And I’d love to talk to you more about that about what I think are those stages [unintelligible] came.
Joshua: So, let’s pick up where we left off as well as to hear a midpoint of how things are going with the four-hour block. And I often ask at the end is there anything we didn’t think to bring up or I didn’t think to ask about? But I feel like there’s a lot.
Vincent: I think we just covered it. I think that I would have, and I’d love to talk more about what this combination of having owners who were really committed and having people working cooperatively to achieve the sense that they get in a way that is now possible that wasn’t possible 10 or 15 years ago.
Joshua: Let’s pick up there next time. Thank you very much and enjoy your challenge and I look forward to hearing about it and I look forward to seeing you in person hopefully the next time or the time after that.
Vincent: OK, great. Thanks, and enjoy the storm.
Joshua: OK. Bye.
Vincent: Take care.
I appreciated the most out of this conversation hearing the evolution of the company Patagonia and thinking not in terms of a company but of a group of people in some ways going back to how things have been in many ways before, in some ways doing things that no one had done before. His personal challenge I think he expects a lot out of it. I’ve done things where I’ve unplugged for you know I do these meditation retreats where I have no reading, no writing, no talking, no Internet, no phones for 10 days at a time. I think he expects a lot out of it and I expect he’s going to get even more. So, I’m really looking forward to the next one.
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