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Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s Environmental Champion | Interview

Rick Ridgeway, Vice President of Environmental Affairs at Patagonia, talks to us about his mountaineering life, his company's environmental causes... and Trump

Rick Ridgeway is a pioneer in more ways than one. Not only does he have a number of mountaineering records to his name, including the first U.S. ascent of K2, but over the years he’s also been one of the most prominent and innovative businessmen in the outdoor industry.

Since 2005 he’s been VP of Environmental Affairs at Patagonia where he’s been the driving force behind some of their groundbreaking campaigns, including that famous advert that said: ‘Don’t Buy this Jacket’, and also Worn Wear, which he established to encourage people to repair their kit rather than replace it.

At the time of writing, Patagonia have just sent a big message to President Trump following his decision to slash the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments in Utah. In large white writing against a black backdrop on the homepage of their website are the words: ‘The President Stole Our Land’. There are reports that they’re planning on suing him.

On the basis of what Ridgeway had to say to us back in October at Kendal Mountain Festival, this reaction from Patagonia comes as no surprise. He talked to us about his early years as a mountaineer, what he considers his greatest achievement in business, what direction he wants to take Patagonia and of course, how he feels about Trump.

The Mountaineer

“K2, in terms of the tenacity required, was my hardest climb. At the end of the two-month period on the peak, we were out of just about all our supplies and up on the high camp, on that last ditch push to the top, if there was any food left it was literally crumbs in the wrappers of the candy bars that remained – without exaggeration. I remember getting back down to the second highest camp, and rummaging through the garbage.

Rick Ridgeway (right) with Doug Scott (left) at Kendal Mountain Festival

“We were above 8000m for five days and five nights without oxygen. It was a lot of exposure to hypoxic conditions. It was hard, but nobody died – we all got back.

“Looking back on it, the commitment to a climb for that long, I can see how I brought down from the mountain an understanding of what I could do if I stuck at it. I gained a kind of visceral understanding of what tenacity is all about. It informed not just my climbing, but everything I’ve done, including my business life. Coming down from an experience like that you realise that you can use what you’ve learnt to any arena you pick.

“And through my career as a mountaineer I’ve been able to witness some of the wildest places on earth and get them into my bones, and I increasingly became familiar with the degradation of those wild places. Through that awareness grew a commitment to conservation that’s become a real passion – a passion to protect what remains of the wild parts of our planet and the wildlife that’s there. That, more than anything, has informed who I am and what I’m about.

The Patagonian Mission

“What I want to do with Patagonia is in our mission statement from the early 90s: to build the best product we can and to cause no unnecessary harm in building that product, and to use the business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. It’s a complex mission but it’s a complex world with complex problems, and it can result in often counterintuitive commitments and decisions and initiatives, like Worn Wear where we asked people to repair stuff that’s broken, and asked them to reuse more.

And we’ve asked them to simply not buy with the campaign ‘Do Not Buy This Jacket’. How do you get a company to run a full page advert in the New York Times on Black Friday asking people not to buy your products? You hold up the mission statement, and use that to reinforce your argument. We use that mission statement religiously.

“With it, we’ve created a company that is as close to a not-for-profit as a for-profit company can possibly be; a company that is genuinely in business to be a tool, an agent for protection of the environment.

Patagonia held its hands up to its environmental failings by running this ad in 2011

The Road Ahead

“In recent years, we haven’t seen a complete change of attitudes to the environment but what we are seeing is that they are beginning to shift a little bit. Myself and my colleagues at Patagonia continue to be frustrated by the slow progress and numbers of people still in big business who seem to be there just for increasing quarterly returns and their own personal earnings, but they’re doing what they do because that’s the way the system is set up. It rewards them and incentivises them to create organisations and businesses solely to return wealth.

The number of people who are seeing this in context, understanding the issue and making commitments, that’s increasing. And they’re primarily young people.”

Tackling Trump

“The U.S. president isn’t standing in the way of what we’re trying to achieve, but he’s keeping the fire under people’s feet so they’re doing more. He’s prodding everyone into even more fervent environmental action and into taking even more risks. That’s absolutely true of our CEO, she’s out there every day asking people to get even more radical, get more committed and to take more risks. And these aren’t just business risks, they’re risks to our safety, because we’re out there pushing the envelope in societies where increasingly there are a lot of people who are armed and dangerous and ready to go back to fascism if that’s what it takes.

“We’ve never been more committed to activism and supporting activists than we are now. In our entire history. The company is getting more radical by the day.”

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