Patagonia’s New CEO Plots a Post-Trump Future for the Activist Brand
(Bloomberg) -- The leader of the retailer that did more than any other to #ResistTrump wasn’t watching the around-the-clock coverage of the election results on cable news. That’s because Ryan Gellert, the new chief executive officer of Patagonia, doesn’t own a television.
When he took over the company this year, it was already at war with Trump. To try to unseat Republicans, Patagonia had bought political ads and employees had pumped cash into congressional races. That weekend in November, his phone blew up with texts from friends and colleagues across North America and Europe as he watched President-elect Joe Biden’s victory speech from his home in the Netherlands. Gellert felt a wave of relief, then sat down to compose a message to his employees. He told them to celebrate. “It was like taking a lot of big bricks out of your backpack as you’re trudging uphill,” he recalls in an interview with Bloomberg Green.
For years, Patagonia made its position plain, suing the administration over public lands, battling Trump’s oil and gas allies, and trying to expel the bureaucrats the president appointed to lead federal agencies.
The election was the main event. Management gave employees four days paid leave to serve as poll workers. While on the job, staff members were given time to write letters and text environmentalists encouragements to get out and vote. Some employees will remain in Georgia to aid voting rights operations into January, when two runoff Senate elections are to be held. Patagonia endorsed Democratic Senate challengers in Arizona, Maine, Montana, and North Carolina to try to beat climate-change-denying incumbents. The tag line: “Vote the assholes out.”
There are 74 million Trump voters who are sure to shun Patagonia’s Synchilla pullovers and Nano Puff jackets, if they haven’t already. Long ago the company decided it could live without them. Still, even though Patagonia says its business exists to “save our home planet,” it isn’t a charity. If they want to keep up the work of protecting the Earth, executives need to continue to sell vests and backpacks. And, as it turns out, fighting Trump proved to be a boon for Patagonia, which set sales records in each of the president’s first three years in office and approached $1 billion in annual revenue in 2019.
But Patagonia, like so many of its peers, hasn’t been immune to the economic damage the coronavirus has caused. Gellert took his new job as the virus was upending global markets and forcing governments to close nonessential stores for months, leaving millions unemployed. At one point, Patagonia executives had furloughed about 80% of the brand’s retail staff. Most have since returned, but some layoffs have become permanent. The company also delayed new store openings and warehouse upgrades as cash got tight. Inventory piled up as products languished on shelves while stores were closed.
As a private company, Patagonia doesn’t disclose financials, but Gellert says the past few months have been so chaotic that he hasn’t even set a budget for this fiscal year. He’ll take a do-the-best-we-can approach, he says, managing expenses as they come. Since he got the job, he’s been running the business from Amsterdam, but he says he hopes to move to California in December. (The company’s headquarters is in Ventura.)
But the perpetual crises of 2020 have given Patagonia a renewed sense of purpose. It will continue to invest money and manpower trying to influence policy—in the U.S. and abroad. Gellert says he’s willing to bring more litigation against officials who try to roll back or diminish environmental protections. “I think we have absolutely lost the right to have philosophical debates about the role of business vs. the role of government or whether it’s too late to do anything. I think it is absolutely implicit that government step up and do the job.”
Or, as he puts it more bluntly: “Can people expect us to back down at all? Hell, no.”
America’s CEOs tiptoed around #MeToo and fumbled for words following the police killing of George Floyd in May, issuing bland condemnations of racism as protests spread through the nation’s major cities. Patagonia, meanwhile, took a more introspective tone. “We are a white-led outdoor company reliant on recreation on stolen Native lands that are not yet safe for all,” the company said in a statement. “We must confront Patagonia’s lack of progress and take full ownership of the legacy of our failures.”
If the company’s strategy feels like it’s lifted straight from environmentalist beatniks, that’s because it was. Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s owner, started the precursor to the company in the late 1950s, making pitons and carabiners with a forge he salvaged from a junkyard. His misfit operation grew into a sizable climbing-hardware business after he returned from the Korean War, and by the 1970s he’d branched into the apparel sector. Early goods were pragmatic: bivouac sacks to keep mountaineers warm at night, beanies to cover their frigid ears, and anoraks to protect them from the elements. Over the years, Chouinard and his executives created the blueprint for corporate activism, starting in 1985 when the company began tithing a portion of profits for environmental preservation.
Gellert’s predecessor as CEO, Rose Marcario, was a former private-equity-executive-turned-activist-rebel. She turned up the volume on the company’s activism, delivering speeches on the failure of world leaders to stem the climate crisis, calling for students at Columbia Business School to become social activists, and telling a ballroom full of businesspeople at the 2019 Aspen Ideas Festival that it was their responsibility to stand up and fight.
Her loudest moment occurred in late 2017, less than a year into Trump’s term, when the president signed an executive order to slash the size of public lands in Nevada and Utah. Several months earlier, President Obama had created the 2 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, named after two buttes that jut into the sky resembling a bear peeking over the horizon. After a uranium company’s lobbying efforts, Trump invoked the Antiquities Act, signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt more than 110 years ago, to cut more than 85% of the area. Marcario hit back. “If the president decides to usurp Congress’s authority and shrink the boundaries on his own, Patagonia will take legal action to defend our public lands,” she threatened. That December the company sued the administration. The front page of Patagonia’s e-commerce website abruptly went black, and product listings were replaced with a five-word decree: “The President Stole Your Land.” The lawsuit is still stuck in court, though it may become moot if Biden restores the protections next year.
When Marcario stepped down in June, she left a void. Gellert says that her exit was a mutual decision made by her and the company and that she’d been contemplating retirement for some time. She set expectations high, maintaining a tempo that was hard to keep up with. “I don’t think we got better the day Rose walked out of the business,” says Gellert.
“I had a wonderful 12-year run at Patagonia,” Marcario wrote in an email in December. “We have a new president to celebrate, who believes in science, and we might just have a fighting chance now.”
In September the board selected Gellert for the big role. A onetime skateboarder from Cocoa Beach, Fla., with graduate degrees in business and law, Gellert volunteered with the American Civil Liberties Union after college and later worked with death row prisoners in Alabama and the homeless population in Salt Lake City. But he isn’t really the lifelong activist type. He used to run Black Diamond, a mountain climbing equipment brand, before taking charge of Patagonia’s business in Europe.
With Patagonia’s primary adversary vanquished, who’s Gellert supposed to speak out against now?
“I do think they have to proceed carefully,” says Dorothy Crenshaw, CEO of public-relations company Crenshaw Communications. She’s consulted on brand reputation in tech, wellness, and other industries and says advocacy becomes riskier when a beloved personality who’s served as a champion on the issues customers care about—e.g., Marcario—steps back. A new figure will need to keep winning more followers to the cause. “Trump is going away,” she says. “So don’t talk about Trump. Don’t talk about Republicans. Talk about the issues.”
Yet Patagonia remains a resistance brand. By taking actions most companies wouldn’t even consider, it’s proved to shoppers that its environmentally friendly branding isn’t just bluster. That makes people who align with those views happy to don the Patagonia logo. Even with allies in office, the company’s agenda will likely be more ambitious than that of the federal government, whether it’s preserving the Minnesota wilderness from a sulfide-ore copper mine or defending a wildlife refuge in Alaska from Big Oil.
In Europe, Patagonia is working to protect the last free-flowing rivers from hydroelectric power projects in the Balkans. Off the southern coast of Australia, it’s trying to stop a Norwegian oil company from deep-water drilling.
In the U.S., Patagonia’s focus will turn to forging a relationship with the new president. Biden has promised to take drastic action against climate change and ensure the entire economy reaches net-zero emissions within the next 30 years. Patagonia’s main lobbying focus will be geared toward wining Biden’s support for 30-by-30, a proposal to conserve at least 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030 as a means of curtailing extinctions, promoting biodiversity, and decelerating climate crises. A resolution in the Senate co-sponsored by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris seeks to do just that. “It’s one thing to say it,” Gellert says. “Now let’s put a plan in place and ensure that it happens.”
Last year, Patagonia hired Avi Garbow, Obama’s former top lawyer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to lead its battle in Washington. They call him the company’s “environmental advocate” and include him in senior management discussions.
Gellert has his guard up. Patagonia didn’t always see things the same way as Obama either. “There was a lot we agreed on,” he says. “There was a lot we didn’t agree on. I expect the same with the Biden Administration.”
Since March about $64 billion in clothing store sales has evaporated, according to U.S. Census data, and sent dozens of retailers into bankruptcy. Patagonia’s sales will shrink in 2020, though it wouldn’t share specific estimates of how much. Its profits will contract as well. But even as retailers back out en masse from the brick-and-mortar market, Gellert has no plans to close any of its 39 stores in the U.S.
Instead, the company is considering new ways of doing business. One idea is to start a clothing rental service, à la Rent the Runway or Le Tote, for Patagonia goods. Gellert wants to expand repair services so products last longer, reducing waste. And he’s planning to take the brand into the clothing resale market, which more fashion-oriented outlets such as ThredUp and the RealReal are dominating.
Patagonia has a crucial trend on its side: Many people either can’t or don’t want to go to gyms right now and are taking their exercise outside. Athletic apparel sales have helped offset some of the losses for the company and rivals REI and Columbia Sportswear. During the summer, for instance, U.S. sales of bicycles jumped 63%; sales of equipment for paddle sports such as kayaks and canoes were up 56%; and sales of camping equipment rose 31%, according to data from research company NPD Group.
The exodus outdoors could be permanent, says Gabriella Santaniello, founder of fashion and retail consultant A Line Partners. If it sticks, everyone will need proper equipment to keep them comfy in the colder months. “I really don’t think people are going to go back to their gyms,” she says. “People are like, ‘It’s just better outdoors.’ ”
Patagonia is leaning into these pandemic-caused shifts. It’s looking to develop and sell more technical products, such as weather-resistant layers made with moisture-shedding fabrics for the outdoor sporting communities who require specialty goods—the trail runners, the mountain bikers, the fly fishers. Meanwhile, executives are reallocating resources to spur e-commerce sales that have taken off as shoppers continue to hole up at home.
Just as Patagonia thrived throughout Trump’s term by refashioning itself as the opposition, so does it hope to adapt to what lies ahead. Gellert says it’s vital to be “relentlessly honest” and is encouraging his staff to accept that they’re living through several crises at once, not only ecological but also social and economic.
“It’s implicit that we not look at this period and say, ‘Holy shit, it’s overwhelming,’ ” he says. “We need to chart a course in recognition of that reality.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.