“What I want to do is change the world, and this is probably the most influential position I can be in,” says Beth Thoren, director of environmental action at outdoor brand Patagonia. And she has a point.
The company topped an Axios Harris poll in the US this year for best reputation, a position it probably already held anecdotally in most people’s minds. Set up in 1973 by a bunch of “dirtbag climbers”, the company has stood fast by its heritage of protecting the natural world, developing into a force to be reckoned with on the campaigning world stage.
Its jaw-dropping footage of the natural world is now more often than not employed for the purpose of protecting that world, from raising funds and awareness to protect Europe’s last pristine river, the Vjosa, to spearheading a progressive movement for community energy as a way of fast-tracking renewables.
As Thoren, speaking from her home (and Patagonia’s Europe HQ in Amsterdam), puts it: “What we’re really good at is storytelling. We’re a marketing company that tells environmental stories. And so if we can make something come alive, and really make a difference to that topic, that tends to be what we go for.
“Without a doubt, climate change is the biggest environmental issue. So that absolutely is the top priority. But it’s important to recognise that nature is the tsunami that’s right behind that. And if we don’t also work on protecting our biodiversity, then human health, food, and safety will be threatened. So we see it as a twin problem.”
She goes on: “We’re in business to save our home planet, that is our purpose. Part of that is being a responsible business and minimising our footprint. But the other side to it is using our voice. Whether that’s to lobby for good regulation to protect our natural world, or actually campaigning.”
This stated purpose might sound glib, but Thoren’s own role as director of environmental action backs it up – and she says that she finds the same absolute dedication to the planet throughout the business: “I don’t need to talk to our finance people about trying to get an ethical bank to work with. I don’t need to speak to our logistics team about our last mile of deliveries on products, because they’re already looking at how to minimise the footprint. It is super empowering.”
Amid worker shortages in the UK, and growing calls for climate justice and a fair green transition across the world, it’s noticeable that two of Patagonia’s current campaigns are centralising people – through community-owned power in the UK, and campaigning for the rights of local communities threatened by planned hydro dams in the Balkans.
Speaking about the energy campaign, Thoren says: “It came about because the big problem from a fossil fuel perspective is energy generation.
“And so the first thing that needs to be done is shifting to renewable sources of power, and the Grid needs to be updated. One of things we noticed was some people are like ‘I don’t want a windfarm near me or solar panels’, but actually if the community gets to benefit from that directly, then attitudes change. And what happens is neighbours get together, they invest in solar panels or a windfarm, and the profit from that goes into their community.”
While there is a strategic focus on issues that people see as closely connected to their own lives, Thoren points to a much bigger awakening to social justice generally in the last two years.
“I think George Floyd’s murder transformed western society,” she says. “Particularly in the US and the UK, and to some extent in Europe. Because it was that real recognition that all of these issues are absolutely interconnected. I’m certainly seeing it in the environmental sector, that widespread recognition that it’s people and planet together.”
Thoren’s own trigger in awareness came during a trip to save whales in Antarctica, after which she found herself unable to return to her marketing director role.
“Once you see what nature is supposed to look like, and then you see how badly degraded it is, then you realise the dramatic damage that we are doing and are blissfully unaware of. Because most people live in cities, so they have absolutely no idea. So that was my turning point,” she explains.
She spent time working in nature conservation, before moving to environmental law firm ClientEarth, and joining Patagonia just under a year ago, in a journey that has gradually scaled up how much impact she can have. But she’s also aware of a shift in power dynamics between business and politicians, and who really influences change.
“I think in the past governments used to lead,” says Thoren. “But I think over the past decades, increasingly governments have become beholden to business, and so tend to follow business or look to business for permission to act. I think that shift in power balance is really important to recognise.
“That being said, only governments can create legislation. And we are not going to save our planet unless there is proper government legislation that forces businesses to cut their carbon emissions, and legislation that protects natural spaces.”
To this end, Patagonia in the US, alongside 50 other large businesses, recently sent a letter to President Biden to state they will pay higher taxes to support a new climate infrastructure bill.
“I think the days for individual companies thinking their voice can be heard are long gone. I think it’s really important to speak in coalition,” says Thoren. She lists a network of influences, including the NGOs with the experts and scientists “who know what needs to be done”, the youth activists and people raising their voices, the financial markets moving their investments, and businesses choosing to act. “It’s all of us putting our shoulders against the wheel,” she says. “And so I was really excited to come to Patagonia, because businesses are 75 per cent of global GDP. If business doesn’t change, then there’s no hope.”
While climate is the top priority, with nature the “tsunami” coming close behind, consumerism is arguably the fuel behind both fires. And that’s a tricky act to balance, as a retailer whose primary function is to sell stuff.
Patagonia has begun to face the problem head on, ramping up its ‘worn’ clothing arm, where customers can trade in used products for resale at certain stores, an initiative primarily available in the US.
“We don’t want people to buy more than they need. We want to make really great, durable products that can be fixed, encourage people to only buy what they need, and if it gets broken to repair it,” explains Thoren, who says making money out of second-hand clothes is what she finds most impressive among Patagonia’s many sustainability initiatives.
It does make you wonder how far margins would be hit if second-hand was to take over from the undeniably premium prices of the main range, but Thoren is clear on its potential impact. “The ability to sell second-hand products I think is the kind of thing that will transform how people think about capitalism,” she says.
Researching microfibres, using recycled material in 70 per cent of its range, buying Fairtrade, and moving to source its materials from regenerative farming practices are other areas of focus. As Thoren says: “We share all of our research with our competitors. Because it doesn’t matter if we stop using microfibres, it matters if everyone stops using them. So we do the research and then we share that with the rest of the industry.”
It’s certainly hard to pick holes in the integrity of a business that offers such transparency, and has determined to keep a deliberate distance from other high-profile campaigners like Greta Thunberg.
“We cheer them and back them, but we don’t want to take any brand credit or use her name,” says Thoren of the Fridays for Future youth climate movement Thunberg founded. “Her name should be used for the movement, not for Patagonia. So we keep a respectful distance and just amplify what she says in any way we can.”
One thing she will take from Thunberg, though, is recognition that friends are what give you strength to carry on – something that the young Swedish activist recently told the Guardian she relies on.
“My role is to figure out how we can maximise our positive impact for the environment. And when the world is burning, that feels like an enormous responsibility,” says Thoren. “I get strength from a number of different places, and one is from my fellow colleagues.
“It is enormously supportive to have other people who believe and who are fighting for the same cause you are. Friends are what keep you going when there is so much against you.”
She also sees shoots of hope across the world, including the EU’s wide-ranging Green Deal, which outlines specific support for organic farming and land and marine protection, as well as examples of compassionate leadership from the likes of New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern.
Despite facing up to the crises in the natural world, Thoren seems in no way jaded by the task at hand, outlining next year’s to-do list – where she will ask the business for more aggressive reductions in emissions, and develop a new campaign that positions nature as a solution to the climate crisis.
“Nature-based solutions are something I’m very excited about because it brings together the urgency of climate with something Patagonia has a really authentic voice on: standing up for nature,” says Thoren, who says the campaign will make sure citizens understand how important nature is to solving the climate crisis, starting with protecting intact ecosystems like old-growth forests and peatlands.
Nature is also where Patagonia will eventually start looking for carbon offsets, but it will be driven by a need to protect and restore the natural world, rather than the other way round. “Offsetting isn’t something you just do for Christmas. We need to be protecting nature alongside reducing emissions, long-term,” says Thoren.
There is often a false dichotomy set up leaving many to wonder: are individual actions even worth it, in light of the inertia of major corporations and countries?
“All businesses, all governments, all individuals need to act,” says Thoren.
“So it is not sufficient for people to say ‘I don’t need to change my life because a company’s impact is so much bigger than mine’. The thing that’s really powerful about individual action is that you change what’s normal. Right now, nobody talks about climate change – start talking about it with your friends! Make it normal. Now is that sufficient? Absolutely not. We are going to crash and burn if we don’t get our governments and businesses to change.”
There is a clear sense of purpose at Patagonia that is found across a growing number of ethical businesses. But it’s the sense of itself as part of something bigger, perhaps a product of its heritage staring up at immense immoveable mountain ranges and wilderness areas, which sets it apart. When faced with the future, and a collective chance to make a positive impact, Thoren says simply: “We want people to care and we want them to act.”
This interview was originally published in the autumn-winter print edition of Wicked Leeks. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu.