In 1973, Vincent Stanley, then in his early 20s, received a postcard from his grandmother. She wrote that Stanley’s uncle, Yvon Chouinard, was paying $2.25 per hour at his new company, Chouinard Equipment — the company that would go on to become Patagonia. “Why don’t you ask him for a job?” she wrote. Stanley applied, intending to stay just six months. Almost five decades later, he’s still there.
Growing up in the Bay Area in the ’60s, Stanley and his parents rarely went camping. Once in a while, Yvon would show up with friends and camp out in the backyard, making him something of a mysterious childhood hero. A self-described writer from a young age, Stanley didn’t take to surfing and climbing like his uncle did, but he was also drawn to environmental causes.
Stanley’s career has evolved since his start as a sales manager. On paper, he currently holds the title Director of Philosophy, but most employees see him as Patagonia’s head storyteller. Much of his work isn’t consumer-facing, but some projects do stand out: he co-wrote the book The Responsible Company; founded the Footprint Chronicles, Patagonia’s revolutionary move to publicly share their supply chain; and co-authored the famous “Don’t Buy This Jacket” Black Friday ad with Rick Ridgeway.
Stanley’s current schedule is split between leading internal seminars on company history and ethics, guest-teaching classes at Yale’s joint environmental and business degree program (a unique masters program that recognizes the importance of combining these two perspectives), and working with B Corporations that share Patagonia’s values. This emphasis on education highlights a difference between Stanley and his uncle: while Chouinard is the brash public face of Patagonia, Stanley is a driving influence behind the company’s culture — more behind-the-scenes guru than eccentric, hermetic hero.
“Yvon’s been my mentor since childhood, yet we have pretty different personalities,” Stanley says. “Yvon will say that ‘anyone who does not believe in change has not worked with his hands,’ but I’m a word guy, a writer, and I also believe in change. He’s a pessimist — although not a cynic — and I’m more of an optimist when it comes to environmental issues. We see a different fate, but that won’t stop either of us from working in [the Earth’s] defense.”
In the late ’90s, Stanley helped the coalition that worked successfully to remove the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine, writing ads that ran on the op-ed pages of The New York Times and Washington Post. It was a pivotal moment in river conservation, as it was the first hydroelectric dam to be removed by the federal government — and the first time environmentalists had beaten a dam owner and a major corporation by proving the value of a healthy, unblocked watershed.
A few years later, he co-created the Footprint Chronicles, Patagonia’s take on a corporate social responsibility report, which details the process that products take from source to shelf. Sharing Patagonia’s suppliers and factories challenged the status quo in a business world not accustomed to such transparency, but instead of drawing ire, the move elevated the conversation around sourcing. “It taught us that transparency is a precondition for change,” Stanley says. “You need to know the landscape before you solve problems.”
In the early 2010s, Patagonia’s leaders saw a rise in brands coming to them with questions about best practices, driving Stanley and Chouinard to co-author The Responsible Company. The book establishes standards for responsible sourcing and manufacturing, providing a template for companies to assess themselves. Stanley believes the book helps brands see their shortcomings while motivating them to make changes.
“You learn from failure, not success,” he says. “So as we began to reduce our environmental harm, we became more ambitious. As a climber aspires to tackle a more difficult route or a surfer a bigger wave, we’re always inspired to take the next step.”
Today, nearly three-quarters of Patagonia’s materials come from recycled sources, an achievement driven by the company’s mission of doing less harm. While Stanley isn’t directly responsible for the specifics, he’s the one encouraging employees to take matters into their own hands. Among them is Sarah Hayes, the director of materials development who oversees the sourcing of new textiles like cotton, wool, hemp and synthetics.
The progress Patagonia has made with respect to materials sourcing is admirable, but so is its willingness to share its playbook, which includes suppliers, mills and manufacturers. A skeptic could view this openness as simply good PR — or scoff at a company divulging its secrets to the competition. But the way Stanley sees it, if other brands adopt and evolve these practices, the big winner will be the most critical player in this game: Earth itself.
Regenerative Organic Cotton
Working alongside Dr. Bronner’s (the environmentally conscious personal-care brand) and The Rodale Institute (a leader in organic-agriculture research), Patagonia has spent the past two years developing a certification for a better way to grow cotton. Dubbed Regenerative Organic, it is the near-opposite of the monocrop cotton fields of yore. Hayes says the work began by bringing together Patagonia’s top suppliers to question the sourcing of fibers, impacts on the soil and the best places to grow. Patagonia then launched a pilot program with 450 small farms in India, where the brand already had infrastructure in place and the farmers were most eager to take on the challenges of a new growing process; the apparel brand, in turn, committed to buying and using all the cotton grown.
Hayes hopes the project illustrates how cotton can be grown in a healthier way: using fewer pesticides, improving soil health and retaining more water in the ground. Due to the biodiversity of crops, she believes the process will allow the soil to sequester more carbon, too. After a successful first season, Patagonia is scaling up the program, still exclusively in India. You can only find Regenerative Organic Cotton in a small portion of Patagonia’s apparel (mostly T-shirts, for now), but it will likely expand into new lines soon.
Hayes plans to share these ROC suppliers as early as next year, when the pilot program wraps up. She explains that cotton’s complicated growing process and complex supply chain combined with rural Indian farmers’ limited access to the internet have made starting from scratch a challenge, requiring a lot of work and significant financial commitment. Yet she believes that it will pay dividends in the long run. “Early evidence suggests that the process is great for everyone,” she says. “It gives farmers diverse revenue streams while creating a more sustainable product, too.”
Unlike its fledgling experiment with cotton, Patagonia has a well-established recycled-wool supply chain, having worked with the same supplier for more than a decade. The Calamai family, based in the Prato region of Italy, runs a large wool-recycling center that fulfills almost all of Patagonia’s wool needs, supplying it for everything from sweaters to caps — basically, everything but the innermost base layers. The mill takes in large pallets of used garments, sorts them by color, shreds them and prepares them to be repurposed. The greater Tuscany area has a long history of recycling wool, rooted in the shortages during World War II.
Hayes is the first to admit that recycled wool isn’t quite the same as virgin wool. Recycled wool is shredded and processed, making it coarse; virgin wool has smaller threads, allowing for finer-size yarn and softer garments. (Most base layers require virgin wool to be comfortable enough to be worn next to the skin.) And, while some suppliers are working on a topical finish that could augment the end result, recycled wool is still limited by the physics of the process, which can’t be undone; shredding used apparel up will never be quite the same as using virgin wool.
Still, recycled wool holds plenty of value. Because it is already dyed and easy to recycle, upcycled wool has a lower environmental impact and is often cheaper than virgin wool. Certified by the Global Recycled Standard, the entire process — sorting, shredding, spinning, weaving and finishing — is traceable, too. This makes recycling mills easy to find. Hayes believes that any clothing brand can follow Patagonia’s model, switching at least some of its wool to recycled sources.
Spurred by the 2018 Farm Bill, which opened the door for widespread hemp farming in the U.S., Patagonia is working to diversify its hemp supply to include domestic sources. While the bill was a critical step forward, marking the first time industrial-scale hemp has been legal, other challenges stand between farmers and a successful entry into the apparel supply chain. Patagonia’s entire supply is currently imported from China, from farmers who have grown it for centuries. Catching up on institutional knowledge has been harder than many expected.
Hemp’s potential advantages are many: it’s durable and surprisingly breathable, making it ideal for use in items like workwear. Hayes and her team have teamed up with a handful of small hemp startups to develop a usable fiber, collaboratively ironing out the process while simultaneously studying the impacts hemp has on the soil. (Small plots have already shown that hemp has the potential to clean toxins out of the soil and help it retain more water, primarily because hemp has longer roots than other crops.)
While they haven’t yet found an American-made hemp that is ready to go into production, Hayes estimates they’re only a year or two out, with potential uses in everything from shorts and shirts to hats and jackets. She explained that hemp textiles require a very specific growing process — the right seed varietal, planted in high density and grown tall and skinny. “We’re learning that it’s geo-specific by climate, too,” she says. “It’s an art form as much as a science.”
Six years ago, a materials-innovation engineer at Patagonia had an idea about environmental savings. After a deep dive on various manufacturing processes used to produce synthetic insulation, he theorized that they could eliminate the use of heat previously required to bond fibers for structural integrity, cutting down on carbon emissions while producing an equally viable product. Soon after, Patagonia kicked off discussions with its partner, PrimaLoft, about co-developing this new insulation. Known as Pure, it’s made using a manufacturing process that bonds fibers by exposing them to air, eliminating the need for heat and reducing the product’s carbon footprint by more than half.
Bringing the material to production-ready status took significant work, says Hayes. Scaling up production of Pure forced Patagonia to retest it for quality at every step, and often make procedural changes to meet their own standards. But it worked: starting this fall, Patagonia’s popular Nano Puff jackets will come with Pure insulation. Next spring, the new insulation will be offered to other brands.
Growth Through Failure
Hayes and Stanley share a common belief about change, whether it be with materials, processes or end products: you have to fail to learn and later succeed. While many customers see Patagonia as a beacon of hope for sustainable business practices, Hayes and Stanley are quick to point out that this wasn’t always the case. It took hard work and many mistakes along the way.
“We’ve failed a lot. I’ve failed a lot,” Stanley says. “In fact, I’m gleefully wrong about a lot of things. For example, mission statements. They’re often such bullshit, designed to provide cover and hide what you’re actually doing. So I was opposed to the adoption of our first mission statement [in 1992]: ‘Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis,’ because I thought we weren’t up to that — it wasn’t true at the time. Yet, that aspirational language helped us grow. And over the years, we started to make that statement true, to inhabit it."
Just last year, Patagonia revealed a new mission statement: ‘We’re in business to save our home planet.’ At first, Stanley was skeptical of its loftiness — to him, if felt disconnected from the product, process and people. But after a few weeks, he saw how it changed behavior at the company.
“Words are powerful. As a writer I should have known that,” he says. “Everyone started to own it, figuring out how this statement applied to their own work. Within months, it’s changed the company for the better.”
Since then, Patagonia has doubled-down on efforts to improve its supply chain, improving products while putting a larger emphasis on regenerative-agriculture supply chains that capture carbon and help reverse the emissions from the rest of us. They’ve also made bold moves in other arenas, becoming one of the first brands to endorse political candidates, giving millions to activist organizations that aim to aid the environment and communities, and buying large swaths of land for conservation efforts.
“The new mission lit a fire under everyone,” Stanley says. The world, after all, won’t get better on its own. “It’s urgent, and all hands on deck.”
A version of this story first published in a recent issue of Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today.