Rick Ridgeway is VP of Public Engagement with Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company that was named a UN Champion of the Earth in 2019.
Note: Due to a work conflict, Rick is no longer able to speak at 2020 Climate Leadership Conference in Detroit, March 4-6th.
You have an incredible history. What did you bring from your career as a mountaineer, environmentalist and writer into your role with Patagonia?
As a mountaineer, I spent a lot of time in nature and wild places…that is the source of my commitment to conservation and environmentalism. This is also true for the founder and owner of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, as well as many of the people who work here. Through our lives as outdoor sportspeople, we’ve seen first-hand the deforestation and conversion of grasslands into deserts, we’ve seen ice disappear, we’ve seen species go extinct. When you witness these things, you want to find solutions. At Patagonia we are always asking ourselves how we can use our business to solve these challenges.
How is this environmental ethos reflected at Patagonia?
Our company mission is “We’re in business to save our home planet.” Over forty-plus years we’ve stayed true to our core values, which include a commitment to making the highest quality and durable products we can with no unnecessary harm. Another is to use our business to support environmental activism and give back to our planet. We donate our time, services and at least 1 percent of our sales to help hundreds of grassroots environmental organizations all over the world – we’ve given more than $100 million in grants and in-kind donations over the years.
What have been the biggest changes in the sustainability landscape in your sector?
The leaders in the apparel and footwear industry are more and more committed to managing their business so that they minimize damage and address the climate crisis. Sometimes we engage directly with our competitors to move the dial even further – for example, we founded the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which includes over half of the apparel industry.
I’m really proud of the tools that SAC has delivered to help its members measure their impacts. The Higg Index tool set enables brands, retailers, and facilities of all sizes — at every stage in their sustainability journey — to accurately measure and score a company or product’s sustainability performance. One of the tools I’ll be talking about at the Climate Leadership Conference measures the environmental impact of materials. This allows company designers to have a view of the relative impact of one material over another.
Given the urgency of the climate crisis, what have been the biggest barriers to action and how have you overcome them?
The biggest challenge in society is to understand the actions available to all of us – to understand how each of us can do our part to solve the climate crisis. We see an opportunity for Patagonia to show how all of us can deepen our commitment to solutions through our own actions and communications. We try to be a model for how to do it.
For example, on Black Friday we always try to go against the trend of over-consumption. A couple of years ago we had the idea of giving 100% of everything we made globally on Black Friday to environmental non-profits. Based on historical sales, we thought we’d be selling $2-3m globally; sales were in fact $10m, and that is what we gave to environmental NGOs. This year during the period between Black Friday and December 30th, we told customers we would match what they personally contributed to environmental non-profits, capped at $10m. We hit that target on December 17th. Our revenues were bigger than normal during those periods because our customers wanted to join us and do something.
If we can create a model for other people to follow, we can contain global warming to 1.5 degrees. There are enormous challenges, but we have the solutions. We can do it.
What are the emerging opportunities for Patagonia to have even more impact?
We’re trying to bring awareness to and scale regenerative food production techniques through our new food division, Patagonia Provisions. Basically, we want to increase soil health because healthy soils are carbon sinks – they pull carbon out of the air. We believe this is the single biggest opportunity available to human beings, and we think our food business will be bigger than our apparel business in 20 years.
Another opportunity is the extent to which we can scale closed-loop recycled materials. The most important component of a circular economy is preferred and responsible materials. The most preferred material of all is one that is recycled in a true closed loop. An example of this kind of material is closed-loop recycled polyester. Technology exists that allows you to put a polyester product (a recycled jacket, for instance) in a chute and the machine then chemically recycles the polyester into polyester pellets. Those pellets can then be delivered to a polyester fiber company who will use it to make their yarn.
This closed-loop technology is the holy grail – it exists but it’s expensive. The low cost of petroleum makes it so that it isn’t cost competitive but, with the right policies in place, closed-loop recycled materials could be less expensive than virgin polyester. That’s the kind of outcome we need: the material that has the lower impact on the environment is also the lowest cost.
You’ll be talking about the circular economy at the Climate Leadership Conference. Can you give us a flavor of what you’ll be talking about?
I’ll be focusing on two things, using responsible or preferred materials and developing a business model that includes user responsibility. The degree to which a company can choose materials that are recycled, reclaimed or bio-based will move that company towards a circular model. The business model is also an important part of the equation in that there are opportunities to partner with customers so they take mutual responsibility for the products and keep them in use as long as possible. Our Worn Wear program is a great example of that. Once customers buy our product, they can make its footprint as small as possible over the course of the product’s lifetime by bringing it to us for repair, trading it in so it can be re-sold, or bringing it to us to be recycled when it is completely worn out. We repair over 100,000 items a year, so our customers really are our partners in this endeavor.