By Anders Lorenzen
Most of the international fashion industry is preoccupied with how it can create the next trend that goes viral. Meanwhile, little thought is going into sustainability and the consequence of economic growth. The fashion industry is the world’s second most polluting only beaten by the fossil fuel industry.
But one company that thinks differently is the outdoor clothing brand, Patagonia, founded in 1973 by mountaineer and environmentalist, Yvon Chouinard. The company associates itself with sustainability, by producing active sportswear with a lifetime guarantee. They’re also working actively to bring down the ecological cost of producing clothing.
Since 2005, Rick Ridgeway, a fellow environmentalist, mountaineer, writer and filmmaker who is also a close friend of Yvon, has been overseeing environmental affairs at Patagonia.
He recently spoke at the tech conference, the Web Summit, in Lisbon about why the world needs more sustainable entrepreneurs.
Connecting with the outdoors
Ridgeway gave an emotional and passionate speech, probably standing out from any other entrepreneur at the Web Summit. He described an expedition with Yvon and another climbing partner in the 1970’s. An avalanche hit them, and they were swept vertically 350 feet down the mountain. He and Yvon were injured while their climbing partner died, and they buried him under some rocks next to where he died. He explained how that experience had transformed him, making him into a different person, and causing him to appreciate every moment he was alive.
He described how that incident challenged his perspectives and his connection to the outdoors and climbing. He decided to continue climbing despite the accident and started to do consultancy for Patagonia. He watched from the sidelines how Yvon made the company an agent for environmental protection and, as they continued to go on trips together, their experiences influenced their increasing commitment to environmental protection
On one particular trip to a mountain in Patagonia, a region of Southern Argentina, which Yvon had first climbed twenty years earlier in the late 1960’s. Here they witnessed firsthand the changes since then, the human interventions including deforestation as well as the impact of climate change.
The rise of environmental awareness
Following on from that, Patagonia continued to focus on how they could give even more money to environmental non-profit organizations, and how they could make their products with less harm to the environment. Ridgeway himself continued his photography and filmmaking displaying the wonder and grandeur of nature but also documenting the environmental harm and destruction.
In 2005, after Ridgeway sold his company, he was invited to join Patagonia’s board and to take over the role of looking after their environmental initiatives. He accepted the challenge with one of his first initiatives being a policy of 1% for the planet, taking 1% of all sales (not only profits) and donating it to environmental non-profits causes. Ridgeway went on to say that the company during that transition had become an activist company. And so, for example, when Trump announced he would reduce the size of protected land in the US, Patagonia sued him. In Europe, they’re campaigning to stop the constructions of 3000 dams in the Balkans.
The constant struggle with economic growth
Even with all the charitable work, Ridgeway said the company is still profitable, “the more we grow, the more we give back”, he said. But he admitted that they still struggle with the paradox of growth, “we’re asking ourselves if we keep growing are we going to become the problem instead of the solution? ”. And thus, in order to counter that argument, they decided to engage more with customers and to look at how their products could truly fit into a circular economy model.
Patagonia ran a full-page ad in the New York Times, picturing one of their best selling products stating ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’. Ridgeway explained that no matter how much they tried to limit the environmental footprints of producing that jacket, it still used 135 litres of water, 20 pounds of CO2 and ⅔ of its weight in waste. He said that if we humans don’t figure out to address the issue of growth we are all going over the cliff. Producers had to engage with their customers to help them to limit their impacts while consuming their products. He stated: “If everyone took us up on our request to not buy anything you don’t need – what’s going to happen?”. Ridgeway said that he, of course, didn`t have the answer but it is a question they ask at Patagonia and is a part of their philosophy.
With Patagonia constantly challenging and asking themselves difficult questions, they were ready to take their next step, moving into food production and looking at regenerative techniques and the potential to return a large share of the carbon emitted back into the soil. Ridgeway explained that similar techniques could be used in the clothing industry experimenting with growing regenerative cotton, “if we can figure that one out, we can use it to make regenerative clothes. And that shirt you buy from us could represent a measurable amount of carbon which has been pulled out of the air and sequestered back into the ground “. That would mean that instead of just limiting their impacts they would actually create a net positive impact from their production.
Ridgeway finished off where he started with that accident. He talked about one of their interns a couple a years ago, who happened to be the daughter of their climbing partner who died in that avalanche when she was just one year old. During her internship, she had come to Ridgeway asking if he could take her up to the mountain where her dad had died. He explained that after thinking about it he could of course not say no to that. During the two month trip, he had a chance to talk to her about his journey, and why Patagonia and its business philosophy is so important.
Ridgeway finished his talk with a message to the audience. He asked them to challenge themselves in the way he did when he was younger. He said that a business must be more than just a business, it must have a purpose.
Rick Ridgeway spoke at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, you can view his full talk above.