Patagonia CEO: Corporate initiatives are key to sustainability

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015

Emphasizing the importance of recognizing Earth’s limited resources, the CEO of the outdoor gear company Patagonia told a Princeton University audience April 23 that businesses need to take on social and environmental responsibilities.

"I see some movement in corporate America and there has been a lot of development in the sustainability world," Rose Marcario said. "But there needs to be more action." If an ethic of social and environmental sustainability does not take hold in the business community in the next 25 years, we are in serious trouble, she said.

The event, co-sponsored by Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Keller Center, is part of the University's G.S. Beckwith Gilbert ’63 Lecture series established in 1988. The goal is to bring innovative leaders in business, government, and the professions to campus to share their ventures and insights gained in their careers.

Marcario described Patagonia's own corporate responsibility practices and urged that other companies build social and environmental sustainability into their cultures. Manufacturers must take responsibility for the products they market, and consumers must take responsibility in their choices, she said.

"We’re consuming at such a high rate that we’re using up all the planet’s resources," Marcario said. "That’s a reality. It’s time to stop thinking about being consumers and start thinking about being a citizen."

Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia, joined in a conversation moderated by Princeton undergraduate Sharon Gao (left) and visiting professor of entrepreneurship Derek Lidow (right). (Photo by Victoria Sulewski)

Catherine Dennig, a Princeton senior and co-president of the Social Entrepreneurship Initiative, opened the event by introducing Marcario to a large audience of students, aspiring entrepreneurs, and community members at the University’s McCosh Hall.

Marcario joined the outdoor adventures retail empire in 2008 and embarked on transforming the company’s infrastructure to improve its operations and financial performance, according to Dennig.

"Under her leadership, the company has doubled its scale of operations and tripled its profits," said Dennig.

Marcario, 50, described her journey to Patagonia as "amazing," and said it began when she became "disillusioned" with the corporate world and decided she wanted to live a more meaningful life.

She met Yvon Chouinard, climbing enthusiast and founder of Patagonia when he was looking for someone to help run the business. After a few years, he asked her to become the company’s CEO.

Marcario elaborated on her career path during vibrant question and answer period moderated by Derek Lidow, a Princeton alumnus and professor at the Keller Center, and Sharon Gao, a Princeton senior.

Asked how she was able to contribute to such a significant growth in the last several years, Marcario said it was making a 42-year-old infrastructure better and working with great people.

There is no "genius" way, she said with a laugh. "It’s also the simple things like delivering product on time, having good suppliers, and making it easy for people to shop."

Marcario also believes that being more outspoken on social and environmental issues has been very helpful for the company.

"People resonate with it," she said. "People who connect with the brand really appreciate it."

The company, established in 1973 by Chouinard, was inspired by his desire to create mountain-friendly climbing tools that did not destroy the environment. It soon expanded from his parents’ backyard to a "Certified B Corporation," a designation for companies that create a positive impact on society and the environment while generating profit.

As part of its environmentally conscious philosophy, Patagonia donates one percent of sales to environmental activism groups annually. Since 1985, the company has donated over $60 million to grassroots organizations.

It is in the company’s DNA to preserve the culture of environmental activism and maintain employee benefits, while making the best quality product with the least environmental harm, said Marcario.

When it comes to building high-quality items, the number one priority is durability and functionality. If a customer’s gear is broken, they can bring it in for repair, she said. Patagonia is also creating on-the-road repair centers where people can learn how to repair their own gear.

After several years of research, the company found that the single most valuable step toward sustainability that people can take is to "keep their stuff" and repair it. "The idea is to not be in a situation where you’re constantly buying new things," she said.

At Patagonia, once the product developers have determined a new product’s quality, the social and environmental impacts of each working process comes into focus, such as the way factories’ are evaluated and creating ethical supply chains.

As one of the largest makers of wetsuits (a suit that keeps divers warm in cold water), Patagonia views the petroleum-based rubber used to make the suits as a prime example of an ongoing environmental issue the company is addressing. Patagonia is also dedicated to helping its supply chain partners in meeting human rights standards, particularly human trafficking and child labor, Marcario said.

Beyond the products themselves, Marcario said it is important to her personally to be involved in a company that takes initiative and educates its consumers.

"That’s what really drove me to be a part of Patagonia," she said. "Sitting around and doing 'business as usual' isn’t ok anymore."

What advice can she give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

"Pay attention to what you’re feeling. Continue to look for places where you can be your complete and total self," Marcario said. "You can bring your whole self to work. It’s possible."