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Ryan Gellert

Ryan
Gellert

General Manager of Patagonia EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa)

Circular economy expert
Ryan Gellert

Patagonia’s journey towards circularity

 

When did Patagonia start embracing environmental responsibility?

Ryan Gellert: The founder of Patagonia Yvon Chouinard started making climbing equipment in 1972, but he soon realized that pounding pitons and removing them was damaging the rocks he was climbing on. So he and his team started emphasizing clean climbing techniques and acknowledged the need to take responsibility for the environment. At Patagonia, there has been a steady progress in this whole path towards greater environmental awareness and responsibility in the past 40 years. We started by protecting the river which flows behind our headquarters, we then decided to give a percentage of our revenues to environmental groups and we codified that with the cocreation of 1% for the Planet.

Do you consider yourself a circular company?

RG: We certainly are not a circular company, nor a sustainable company. We work really hard to be a responsible company, which means that we have certain commitments to improve our business and minimize and offset our impact. Sustainability implies that we take as much as we can give back and as much as the Earth is able to regenerate. We keep working on it but we’re not there yet.

What achievements are you the most proud of?

RG: We’ve been using nothing but organic cotton for 21 years. We made that shift in 1996, when less than one percent of the world’s cotton was organically grown. We opened a new store in Boston and many of our employees started complaining of headaches, so we did an assessment and found out that it was due to the formaldehyde in the cotton. What we learnt was increasingly disturbing and that led us on this journey to better understand our supply chain generally. In the case of cotton, Yvon said that if we couldn’t reach 100 percent organic cotton by 1996, we needed to start canceling categories and make the business smaller, because we could not cut down our standards for ourselves, our customers and our employees. Another part is the level of activism we have been able to support financially. With the current political climate in the US, we felt the need to become much more activists ourselves, for example we publicly opposed Trump’s decision to make large reductions and redesignations of public lands. Another program that we’re proud of is the program called Worn Wear that challenges people to reduce, reuse, repair, and recycle thanks to tools and platforms we put in place.

What challenges are you still facing?

RG: Unfortunately, every key metric of the planet’s health is heading at the wrong direction: ocean acidification, greenhouse gas emissions, the use of pesticides and fertilizers, biodiversity, etc. This is the biggest challenge that we face as humans and it is part of our problems as a business. At Patagonia, we try to develop supply chains and leverage more organic alternatives, such as regenerative agriculture to help offset the current emissions of greenhouse gases and the carbon in the atmosphere. That’s why we started a food business called Patagonia Provisions.

 

Can you tell us about the “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign?

RG: It was published in the New York Times during Black Friday in 2011. Our intention was to catch people’s attention and tell them that despite all of our best efforts, creating a single jacket required 135 liters of water, generated 20 pounds of CO2 and spent off two thirds of its weight in waste. So the message was: “before you buy something, just ask yourself if you really need it, and if you buy it, see it as something you own and that you should repair, share and keep in use as long as you can.”

Are you optimistic about businesses’ ability to switch to circular practices quickly enough?

RG: I think governments are not capable or incentivized or motivated to solve the problems that face us. Collectives of individuals and businesses have a real responsibility here. Churchill once said “you can always count on America to do the right thing after they tried everything else.” Same about businesses, when they run out of other options, they will probably come around to doing the right thing. It would be nice if we could get there faster. Am I optimistic? Not really.

 

What is your advice for them?

RG: “To do good, first you have to do something”. Get started, do something and stop talking about it. Another piece of advice would be: be bold in your thinking and if that is not compatible with everybody that has ever done business with your brand so be it! The value of authenticity is really important and that is what people are increasingly looking for in big brands.

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