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By Stephen Kurczy
Rose Marcario, president and CEO of Patagonia, has dramatically expanded the company’s commitment to environmental and social activism during her decade of leadership. Charting a new path in corporate sustainability, Marcario has made Patagonia’s production and sourcing processes more green, launched an in-house venture fund to seed environmentally conscious startups, and overseen the creation of Patagonia Provisions, an organic regenerative food company. With Marcario at the helm, the company introduced Patagonia Worn Wear, a place to repair, reuse, recycle and resell Patagonia gear, and helped create the Regenerative Organic Certification for agriculture.
“I think it's really a false choice to say you can either make money or do good,” Marcario recently told a gathering at Columbia Business School upon receiving the Botwinick Prize in Business Ethics, awarded by The Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics. “You can do good and make money, and the company has been proof positive of that.”
One of the most established and prestigious awards granted by the Business School, the prize was endowed by the late Benjamin Botwinick, BS ’26, and his wife, Bessie, in 1989. The annual award is conferred upon an individual exemplifying the highest standard of professional and ethical conduct, as well as ethical decision-making and leadership.
Marcario’s nomination for the prize comes at a time when consumers are challenging business leaders to reformulate success in a way that combines profits with purpose. Her emphasis on sustainability and environmentalism defines her as a values-driven leader, and it also doesn’t go unnoticed that the outdoor apparel company’s profits have quadrupled under her tenure.
Not only did this make her eminently worthy of the Prize, but this has led to other accolades such as being named one of Fast Company’s most innovative CEOs and one of Fortune magazine’s most powerful women in business. And, at the Business School, she spoke at length about her passion and work to Assistant Professor of Management Vanessa Burbano while students, faculty, and staff in the audience proudly sported their own Patagonia-branded gear.
Sustainable Supply Chains
Patagonia’s environmental focus did not begin with Marcario. The company’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, started out in the early 1970s making “clean” rock climbing equipment that eschewed traditional methods of pounding steel pitons into the rocks. That philosophy of sustainability spurred the company to switch to all organic cotton in its supply chain in the 1990s after seeing “the devastation that chemical agriculture was doing to the planet,” according to Marcario.
Still ahead of the pack on environmental issues, Patagonia is now working to decarbonize its supply chain and become carbon neutral by 2025 despite the significant cost involved. And, rather than guard the company’s intellectual property around sustainable supply chains, Patagonia intends to share its IP on apparel production, with Marcario “setting her sights” on persuading larger companies such as Nike to adopt more sustainable production practices.
“To the extent that we influence those brands and competitors to adapt and adopt more environmental fabrics and processes, I think that's a really good thing,” Marcario said.
More companies are getting on board Patagonia’s do-good bandwagon. In 2018, BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink announced that his $6 trillion investment firm wanted to support companies that benefit the “communities in which they operate.” “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society,” Fink wrote in his annual letter to S&P 500 CEOs.
While Marcario said she supported Fink’s sentiment, she was still waiting to see action. “Larry Fink coming out and making those statements is a step,” she said. “I don't know if it's a big enough step, but it's a step.”
As for advice on implementing change at other companies, Marcario advised leaders to first “understand and respect the culture that's there,” then develop a following “by giving people something bigger than themselves to go toward.”
Catalyst for Change
Marcario’s leadership legacy will also be noted for her political activism on environmental issues. Most notably, in 2017, after the Trump administration reduced the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah by nearly 2 million acres combined, Patagonia sued the federal government for allegedly violating the Antiquities Act.
“There were a lot of people saying that we're going to lose a bunch of customers by suing the administration,” Marcario said. “And that was just the exact opposite. We got more customers and we got more revenue.”
Now, the CEO is making a concerted effort to become more involved with policy and renewable energy efforts at the state, local and regional levels. Marcario wants to use Patagonia “as an activist and a catalyst for change in a deeper way than we were doing before by just funding NGOs.”
Although the more than $110 million that Patagonia has donated to NGOs through its movement called 1% for the Planet is funding important grassroots organizations, getting into communities at the local level will do even more to create real, palpable change.
Patagonia Action Works, a digital platform that connects people with environmental activism opportunities, is one of the first ways Marcario intends to make good on her promise. Since 2018, Patagonia Action Works has connected communities with local groups through volunteering, petitions, donations and event support, breaking activism down to the local level and allowing everyone, not just those in powerful positions, to get involved and do his or her part in saving the planet.
Mission that Inspires
The benefits of Patagonia’s mission-fueled work culture are underscored by the academic research of Professor Burbano, who moderated the conversation with Marcario. Burbano’s studies have found that workers are willing to earn less for companies with a clear social mission and that worker misconduct declines when employees are aware of their company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives and ethics code.
“We have a much bigger mission than just the product that we're making,” Marcario said. “I think when you do that you have a much more inspired workforce. You have people that show up to work today, every day, wanting to fight the good fight … And I think that's a big part of what makes the company successful.”
Patagonia is also known for its family-friendly work practices, including having an on-site child development center at its California headquarters, which Marcario credited as a reason why Patagonia has an equal split of men and women in management. The company’s mission is also why Patagonia received more than 9,000 applications for 16 summer internship positions last year.
“When you have a mission that really inspires people, then you will get thousands of applicants for jobs,” Marcario said. “You will get the best people who really care about solving these issues because they're focused on working for those companies that they think are doing real good in the world.”
Inspired by the vision of Yvon Chouinard, Marcario herself left the world of private equity and joined Patagonia because it was an opportunity for her to realign her values—something she sees the current MBA population also seeking to do.
“They want their life to have more meaning than just making a quarterly profit,” she said. “If you could harness that in a productive way, then I think we could solve most of the big intractable problems that we're looking at today.”