Sustainability is a core tenant of Townsend Bertram & Company and is the first thing we look at when evaluating the brands we carry. Patagonia is a leader in environmental responsibility, not just in the outdoor industry but in the business world. Dive into this exclusive interview with Paul Hendricks, Manager of Environmental Sustainability for Patagonia and discover the impact you make in keeping the wild places wild by practicing conscious consumerism. We hope these interviews empower you to vote with your dollar by shopping local and supporting brands that produce sustainable products in an environmental responsible way .
Tell us about yourself. Who are you? What inspires you? What drives you? What brings you joy?
I have always been an environmentalist in some shape or form. I grew up in Northern Michigan and spent my childhood exploring the woods. I see a healthy environment as the backbone for a healthy culture.
I previously worked for a non profit that focused on the intersection between people and environment working in South America. I was super skeptical of all corporations but have always been an outdoor person and knew about Patagonia’s environmental and social initiatives. Five years ago when I started at Patagonia, I helped manage the 1% for the planet grant program. I’ve been in my current role on the social/environmental responsibility team for 3 1/2 years. It has been inspiring to see the blossoming sector of businesses out there that are not just trying to mitigate harm but businesses really ramping up their initiatives to make impactful change.
Tell us about your role as Senior Manager of Brand Responsibility Manager of Environmental Responsibility at Patagonia. How did you get to where you are today at Patagonia? What do you love about working for Patagonia?
The social and environmental responsibility team at Patagonia focuses on all aspects of sustainability. We work to increase social benefits and decrease environmental impact. Our team also researches materials to find less impactful ones. As manager of environmental responsibility, I oversee our brand initiatives, looking at the impact of our stores, distribution center, offices, transportation, and employee engagement to reduce our impacts along water, energy, and waste within our brand footprint.
A lot of my work also involves communication; how we communicate externally with our customers, our wholesaler retailers, and our stakeholders. It’s important that Patagonia consistently communicates what we do and why we do it. We are trying to do a better job of communicating to other industries through our involvement with organizations like the B-corp community. Patagonia is also focused on explaining the why to our customers to inspire people to become more conscious consumers.
I also work closely with our marketing teams to make sure that what we are sharing is authentic, credible, and inspirational to drive other businesses and customers to make meaningful changes. We often think of ourselves as a small business compared to Nike and Gap. We can make changes like switching to organic cotton but if we don’t get others to onboard, we won’t see indicators of planetary health change. Inspiring others to be more environmentally conscious is an important part of our mission.
What does brand responsibility mean to Patagonia?
To Patagonia it means we need to clean up our own house first and make sure we are walking the talk. I was in a meeting earlier with the person who leads initiatives with Bears Ears and he was saying if we weren’t doing the right thing internally, we wouldn’t have the credibility to do the political things we are doing externally.
What does it mean to you personally? How do you walk the talk in your own life?
I’ve got a wife who holds me really accountable. We live in a really small house, 400sq ft. We try to live a zero waste lifestyle in every way from reusing plastic bags to riding bikes to work. Yvon always says living an examined life is a pain in the ass. But it can also be super rewarding. We always talk about the challenges of living simply but it is amazing how liberating it is to live a simpler and slower life.
Patagonia was founded on the idea of sustainable business with the 1% for the planet program and a focus on corporate responsibility. Tell us about how Patagonia lives up to it’s values in product production, company culture, and environmental protection.
For product production we always start with quality as the number one value for environmental sustainability because if you can keep a jacket for 10 years instead of 5, it reduces the impact by half. Quality is the bar. Then with that we are trying more and more to reduce the impact of materials in our production process.
We use a 4 fold process when we have a potential new supplier or when we are reevaluating a current one. We look at quality, business capacity (timing, speed, delivery, price), social responsibility, and environmental responsibility. Whenever we have a new supplier or are reevaluating one, someone from each of those departments at Patagonia gets together and if the supplier doesn’t meet any one of the standards, then we don’t move forward with them. I don’t know many other companies that hold social and environmental standards as highly and that’s one of our core programs. It holds our own internal teams to those standards but it also sets a standard for anyone who wants to work with Patagonia. We have a ton of great suppliers who are doing a ton and living up to all 4 folds. Those suppliers are modeling what we want in future supplies. We hope to move the whole supply chain to greater responsibility.
In terms of company culture, sustainability definitely drives our culture, sometimes intentionally and other times unintentionally. When people are on-boarded they are giving a new hire orientation. They get a tour with Chipper who is the essence of Patagonia. Chipper has been around forever and he just knows the culture and knows how to communicate it and what we stand for. He drives why we exist as a company into anyone who is coming her for the first time. He does it with humor and humility. The orientation also includes rock climbing and surfing and connecting to the environment. One thing that is interesting is that people at Patagonia know the mission statement by heart and treat it as a north star.
Another thing that affects culture I think is Yvon’s pride in being a successful company. He isn’t ashamed that Patagonia is profitable because if we weren’t successful, no one else would follow. That mentality resonates with the team and inspires people to do their job correctly. We know if we don’t do our best, no one else is going to stand up for public lands, or switch to renewables, or seek recycled and organic materials for their products.
TB&C shares Patagonia’s view on the importance of public lands for people to have access to the outdoors and the key role they play in supporting the outdoor industry. The President Stole Your Land statement on your website is a bold and powerful statement. Tell us about the actions you are taking as a company in defense of public lands. How were those decisions made at Patagonia? How have your customers reacted?
Public lands have been at the core of this company for as long as we have existed because it is where a lot of us recreate and where our customers adventure. We have had a grants program since the beginning of the company and have been giving money to public lands from the early days. We don’t just see the benefit in protecting places to play but there is an inherent need for public lands for biological diversity. There is also a psychological component akin to when you are on a long hike and need water. If you have water in the car, just knowing that it exits gives you a respite. Even if you are not at Bears Ears, there is a hope. We may not always be out there ourselves but there are places worth protecting even if you never go there.
What are some of the challenges Patagonia has faced in holding itself accountable to higher standards of sustainability?
Challenges multiply when we hold ourselves to a high standard and work to find suppliers, materials, and technologies that are sustainable. It would be easier if we were simply looking for a low price point and going with that. From a time and human resource perspective, it is challenging too.
Another challenge we have always found is in transparency which is a core value and one we stick to even when it reflects negatively on the company. We’ve put ourselves out there in saying we don’t have a solution yet for micro-plastics and we recognize that as a big environmental issue with an article explaining that micro-plastics are a side effect of making fleece. We followed up with an essay and blog post about efforts we are doing to find solutions and doing outreach on the topic. Other companies didn’t come out to the same level and so the byproduct of transparency is we then get attached to every time the effects of micro-plastics in the apparel industry is brought up.
The question then becomes, how much do we put ourselves out there and how much do we push our industry without shooting ourselves in the foot?
How does Patagonia keep a positive perspective in the midst of the challenges, setbacks and overwhelming environmental issues we face today?
There is a policy vacuum that has started to get bigger and bigger in the current administration. I think you’ve seen businesses really stepping up to set standards. Businesses are stepping into the void and I don’t think that would have happened if everyone was still on the cruise control state we had with the Obama administration. I am very hopeful for the impact the business community can make.
The environmental movement on the ground level is becoming stronger through this time in reaction to the the current administration. People who wouldn’t define themselves as environmentalists are now coming out and saying I do care about pubic lands and water. It is still going to be a tough couple of years but if you look at the long view, we will have refined our tools and be more unified. I remind myself that the trees up in the Sierras, the ones that are exposed to wind and elements, are stronger because their cells have unified to survive in the conditions.
What is the biggest obstacle Patagonia faces today in being a business with an environmental conscious?
The biggest obstacle is getting business across the board to embrace the message we are trying to get out there and ensuring that we are walking our talk. We aren’t doing everything perfectly but unless we get other businesses to try, unless we get everyone on board, nothing is going to change.
What do you think is the best way to get other businesses to try?
We’ve been trying to be involved in some of the larger coalitions, the sustainable apparel coalition and the B corp community. Those are two big efforts we are dialed in with and have the means to move more industries and businesses to push those organizations to raise the bar higher for sustainability standards. I also think putting more and more responsibility on consumers is an essential part of the solution. Until we get to place where people stop buying so much fast fashion, things aren’t going to change. Living more simply, living in your means, and being a conscious consumer will have a huge impact.
What’s next for you and Patagonia?
Work on climate is huge and working towards really being a leader. If we can pull off providing real leadership and instigate action towards meaningful changes that positively impact the climate, that is going to be a game changer.
How can other companies take steps to follow in Patagonia’s footsteps to become more responsible, environmentally conscious companies?
First to remember you don’t have to do everything. And you don’t have to do everything right away. Ask yourself what you care about? What do you have the most impact on? Start small. Start on one thing. I think businesses can take it one step at a time. The most important thing is taking the first step. Joining up with other businesses to push the movement of environmentally conscious business forward and really trying to push the industry you’re in forward will have long lasting effects.
What piece of advice do you have for individuals who want to be sustainably minded consumers?
Buy less. That’s the number 1 thing. And buy better.
What is your favorite Patagonia product and why?
The Houdini. It is one of the pieces of gear I take everywhere. I ride my bike in it to work, bring it on a trail rain, have it clipped on my harness when I am climbing. One of our key environmental initiatives is making multifunctional gear so you don’t have to buy as many products. The Houdini is one of the the key products that is multi functional.
We love hearing from you! Comment with one way you practice environmental responsibility in your daily life.