Vincent Stanley: Director of Philosophy, Patagonia

 
 
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Vincent Stanley in conversation with Nikki Stefanoff
Photos supplied by Patagonia
This profile was first published in Mini Matters.

Vincent Stanley has worked for Patagonia his whole life and, alongside his uncle and Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard, has built a business more passionate about the environment than it is about profit. We talk to him about the power of the planet and the positive effect consulting nature can have on business.


Nikki Stefanoff: Are you still working under the title of Patagonia’s director of philosophy?
Vincent Stanley: Yes, I am, although I am essentially doing three things. I teach company history and values to our employees around the world and I work with young companies who are B Corps, or who are interested in becoming B Corps, who use Patagonia as a model for the way they want to do business. And, last but not least, I work with a group of Yale students who are jointly studying environment and business.

You famously don’t like the word ‘sustainable’ and prefer to use ‘responsible’. Can you explain the difference?
When Yvon and I started writing The Responsible Company we were looking closely at the language being used around us and everyone was talking about ‘sustainable companies’. We thought, We’re not sustainable at all. We don’t know how to be a sustainable company. Even the most environmentally benign products we make are still taking more from nature than we can ever repay. So, we can’t be sustainable and to use that word implies that we are better than we are, however, any company can be responsible. And by that we mean that a company can examine its practices, work out what it’s doing wrong and start to take steps to engage in the process of continuous improvement.

Does the concept of responsible business mean the same to you personally as it does professionally?
It’s exactly the same thing and I’ll give you an example of something that was important to me both personally and professionally. Something we did very early on with Patagonia was switch from extensively grown cotton to exclusively organic cotton. We discovered, quite accidentally, that the amount of chemicals used in conventionally grown cotton damages the land and the eco system. When you have cotton fields with a high degree of chemicals being used you find that there are no longer birds flying overhead and no earthworms or vegetation in the soil. The air surrounding the fields also smells, as the phosphates used to control pests were originally created as nerve gases in World War I. When we discovered all of this we also realised that no-one cared. Our customers weren’t asking for organic cotton and it was risky to us as a business to make the change. So, the first question we had to ask ourselves, now that we had that information, was “Were we aware of what we were doing as a company?” And we had to answer that, “Yes, we were.” We knew that organic cotton was being grown and while it would be difficult to make the change, it was within our capability to do so. That’s what I would, personally, see as an example of a company being responsible. Decisions should always extend to your employees, your customers and the community you operate within.

 
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Patagonia famously considers nature in all of its decision-making. Has that ever made it harder to get things done?
Absolutely [laughs]. We often have people scratching their heads saying that where they used to work they could get 50 fabrics produced in a certain timeframe, something they can’t do with us. But I think that working in this way helps to force innovation.

Alongside Patagonia’s commitment to the planet runs the philosophy of ‘let my people go surfing’. How is that manageable in such a large global business and how do you keep all employees singing from the same hymn sheet?
It’s interesting because we do have a deep level of commitment from the employees. As we have become more well known for our practices we have attracted a lot more people who are interested in working with us as a company. Fifteen or 20 years ago, someone who had been a salesperson for another surf company, or even an accountant or controller for a more conventional business, would have no education in what sustainable practices mean and no environmental education. That’s no longer true. People have education and training from other companies but they also have a level of frustration that they can’t bring their whole self to work and they can’t apply what they know to the business. I think that the other big difference is that, as a business, we have 20 years under our belt of attacking certain problems and achieving successful solutions. Nothing is ever a wholly successful solution, however, but all of this work gives people confidence in us as a company.

In your experience, have you seen an increase in other businesses working in this way?
I have. However, I don’t know of, and I mean this humbly, any other company that is doing as much as we are on as many fronts. But I know a lot of companies that are doing work that makes a difference in some way and I would never want to belittle those efforts. For instance, if Coca Cola wants to spend a lot of money trying to save wetlands that’s great. I think that Coca Cola is very sensitive to the fact that we are facing major water storages all over the world and heavy issues with pollution so they are addressing that, and more power to them. Nike has done some remarkable work to improve resource efficiency in the manufacturing of its shoes. H&M stands for something very different to what we do at Patagonia but they are doing a lot of work to improve social conditions and pay in garment factories. You have to deal with people where they are. All of this work is needed.

Do you think it matters whether they are doing it from a business perspective rather than from wanting to do some good?
I think it’s okay as long as they are serious about the work they are doing. If you’re making a difference in the wetlands, that’s great. If you only say that you’re doing that then that’s not so great. I think that there are some companies that want to look green but don’t want to do the work so it becomes more of a marketing tool. I don’t think that those companies stay green for long because if you’re not serious about it, it takes too much work.

 
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‘Fifteen or 20 years ago, someone who had been a salesperson for another surf company, or even an accountant or controller for a more conventional business, would have no education in what sustainable practices mean and no environmental education. That’s no longer true. ’

 

For smaller companies who want to be more responsible but can’t cover the cost, what’s the one thing they can do to be more socially and environmentally responsible?
I think that everybody can do something. Even if you’re not making any money you can do something. People ask me when they should become a member of 1% for the Planet [an international organization whose members contribute at least one percent of their annual sales to environmental causes], and I tell them to join right at the beginning of their business as it doesn’t cost anything. I liken it to how you would advise a young person on saving money – put five or ten percent of your wage into the bank right away. It will start to grow without you thinking about it and if you suddenly need $40,000 for a down payment, you’ll have the money available. From a business perspective, if you start to do things from the beginning it’s a company expectation for your stakeholders and everyone immediately knows what you are about. If you don’t do that and you’re in business for five years and then you suddenly say that you want to give one percent away or become a B Corp then everyone will say, “I thought we were a rigid company and that we didn’t care about this stuff. Where’s that money going to come from?” It’s different to when you fashion your company around this viewpoint from the very start.

Why was becoming a B Corp so important to Patagonia?
We thought about it for a long time as we were already doing the work and originally saw it as a lot of additional reporting and auditing for the business. We then started talking to B Lab and became interested when California passed legislation allowing companies to become Benefit Corporations. We saw this as an advantage because Patagonia’s owners are in their seventies and, eventually, their kids will inherit the company so we wanted to know that if, at some point, someone buys stock in the company they have to buy into our values. Then we discovered that although we have auditors looking at the way people are working in our factories and we have a company in Switzerland looking at the chemicals being used in our fabrics, B Lab and their biannual impact assessment report allowed us to look at our practices holistically. We’ve been through three biannual assessments and we’ve found it very useful to be able to see where we have improved and where we need to improve. Our scores have gone from 107 to 152 so it also becomes a source of internal competition to get better.

What’s the highest score you can get?
The highest is 200 and for us to get there isn’t that simple, but there are several things we can do. We have looked at our mission statement of “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”, and we have seen that most of the work we have done over the past 20 years has been to reduce the level of harm we have done to the environment. We are still very conscious that the apparel industry, as well as agriculture, are the two dirtiest industries in the world, but we’re learning more about how we can help to restore nature. One way is in the area of regenerative agriculture – that if you are growing food or fibre and actually replenishing the soil by reducing the tillage and using deeper rooted plants you can use less water, far fewer chemicals and help the soil gain strength. You can create topsoil faster than nature can. There’s evidence that regenerative agricultural lands can take back some of the carbon that the tropical forests and temperate forests can no longer do because of the extensive cutting of the last 20 years. And that the ocean can longer do because the pH is more acidic than it used to be. So, for the long term, what we’re looking at is what can we do to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in the fibres we make.

 
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For those about to enter the workforce you have said that there is an opportunity for them to “do good” and, while this might be achievable when starting your own business, what about those working for others? Do they look for companies they feel good working for?
Yes, absolutely. And I think that this is an interesting area for businesses to focus on. If you look at the environmental and social challenges we have to deal with in the world right now, every one of them is getting worse or coming to a head. Yet, at the same time, they are presenting us with opportunities. Let’s say that I decide that I want to make an organic chocolate, well, fine but there are 50 other companies doing this. Whereas if I ask if there is a problem to solve in this market I can use my skills to do both. Not only is this the best use of business, it’s the most socially and environmentally responsible thing you can do. As an example there is a wonderful man called Wes Jackson, who is now 80 years old and has made it his life’s mission to restore the Great Plains, a huge area in the US suffering from tremendous soil degradation. About 15 years ago he developed a perennial wheatgrass with roots that went 17 feet into the ground, which is fantastic, as when you put a plant into the ground with roots that deep you don’t need to till. You are creating an opportunity for microorganisms to grow, so you need less fertiliser and require a lot less water. After developing this perennial, he couldn’t get anyone to grow it but when we heard about it we took it to our provisions group and thought, We can make a beer out of it. So, we partnered with a brewery in Portland and Whole Foods who are selling it in 100 of their West Coast stores. This kind of thing is something that businesses can do, especially startups as they are full of people with fresh ideas and the commitment to create change. If I was starting out this is the kind of work I would want to do.


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Nikki Stefanoff is editor of Matters Journal. After spending 13 years editing and writing for newspapers and magazines in London, Nikki now uses her journalism background and love of a good chat to find powerful and meaningful stories to tell.