An unofficial qualification to become chief executive of Patagonia seems to be an interest in extreme sports, a strong meditation practice, or both. The previous CEO practiced Tibetan Buddhism. The one before that was a ski bum who liked to meditate. Yvon Chouinard, the eccentric founder of the company, was a mountaineering Zen Buddhist.
So when Ryan Gellert was named CEO of Patagonia in September 2020, his lineage was not surprising. Mr. Gellert is an avid mountaineer and skier who has spent his career working at outdoor retail stores, including Black Diamond. While not a Buddhist, he has a decades-long track record of social and environmental activism, making him well-suited to leading one of the most politically engaged companies in the country. And with a business degree from the Florida Institute of Technology and a law degree from the University of Utah, he rose to become chief of Patagonia’s operations in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
Mr Gellert took over in a moment of turmoil. Patagonia was one of the first US retailers to close its stores at the start of the pandemic, leading to major vacation days and some layoffs at the company, which prides itself on taking care of its employees. Rose Marcario, the company’s CEO, abruptly resigned last summer without naming a successor. And amid a global health crisis that shut down so much of the world, Patagonia’s environmental activism sputtered.
Now, more than a year into his tenure, Mr. Gellert appears to be settling into his role as the leader of a private company with a large public profile. Patagonia’s company has recovered from the shutdown, although it now faces supply chain issues, and annual sales are on track to exceed $1 billion. The company, which donates 1 percent of its sales to environmental groups, has ramped up its activism, going so far as to source its products from a mountain resort where a fund-raising campaign was being held for a conservative group. And Mr Gellert has started calling other companies and saying there is “a special place in hell” for those not fighting climate change.
While all of that may be a distraction at other companies, it’s signs that, at least for Patagonia, things are getting back to normal.
This interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
Many people in this industry find their way there from the mountains. Did you grow up outdoors, climbing or skiing?
That’s my story too, but it starts on the beach and not on the mountains. I grew up in Cocoa Beach, Florida, so it’s not exactly a small mountain town in the hills. And I grew up in an era that in some ways feels like a forgotten past, when you were always outdoors as a kid. There was an ocean across the street and a river on the other, with dolphins and manatees and everything. So I grew up surfing, playing on the beach, camping on islands.
So many people in Cocoa Beach build their lives around surfing, and I was super inspired that some of those people became professional surfers. I didn’t share that passion, but I always thought that as I got older, I wanted to figure out how to find something I really love. Right after college, I moved west to Salt Lake to become a ski bum. Then I went rock climbing once, and that was it. That was the point I knew, “Oh, I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.” And it’s been defining everything about my life for 25 years now.
Did you study business administration at school?
I studied finance because I had no idea what I wanted to do. So it was a pretty uninspired choice. I did an MBA and then went to law school. But I never took the bar and never practiced law.
Then why study law?
It had nothing to do with being a lawyer. It was about social work. I volunteered with the homeless in Salt Lake City and assisted lawyers, and did some work in the prison systems. I was really oriented towards these social issues.
When I returned to Black Diamond after law school, I began advocating for the protection of Utah wilderness areas because Black Diamond is a Salt Lake City-based company and has a long tradition of working on those topics.
As an environmental activist, how do you reconcile the tension between conservation and capitalism?
We’re a consumer goods company that makes clothes that people might want and that people might like. But we don’t make things that people need to survive. Let’s be brutally honest with ourselves about that. Let’s also be brutally honest about the fact that everything we do as humans has some impact on the planet. You have to constantly struggle with that. And on behalf of Patagonia, I’m really trying to challenge ourselves in terms of growth.
Can you foresee a moment when Patagonia will stop growing? What would it look like if a company intentionally stopped growing?
There is the philosophical dimension to this, and there is the operational dimension. What does it look like to stop growing or regress? It’s really complicated. Keeping a business flat is arguably the greatest magic trick in business. I don’t know of any instance where that has ever been done intentionally and successfully. I am not anti-growth. But I’m very committed to making sure we move at a pace that we believe is appropriate. We moved away from distribution that was quite meaningful because we just didn’t feel like we could have an impact.
“It’s absolutely right and important that people approach what they hear from business with a high level of cynicism.” — Ryan Gellert
What makes you walk away from a distribution deal?
There are places where we say, this just isn’t right for us. Let’s get very honest with ourselves. Why are we here? And if the only answer is commercial, it’s probably time to pack up and move on.
How do you make sure all the activism that Patagonia is doing isn’t just marketing? Why isn’t it “greenwashing”?
It is absolutely right and important that people approach what they hear from business with a high level of cynicism. And if you do about what you hear from us, great. That’s a healthy attitude.
If you really want to understand a company and its intentions, look at the body of work and make your own decision. I am comfortable with the imperfect but consistently devoted body of work Patagonia has delivered. We try to be relentlessly transparent about our work and shortcomings both internally and externally.
I am convinced that our greatest contribution has not been the money we have given away. They are not individual issues that we have argued for. It’s not scaling grassroots environmentalism through different levels of support. Operating from the heart of business, it proves that companies can exist to do more than maximize the wealth of their owners, really consistently proving that in ways big and small over decades.
Many companies today get involved in political disputes. Is there anything different about Coca-Cola’s advocacy of voting rights versus Patagonia’s free-flowing river campaign?
We have a clear sense of mission. That grounds us. We do not sell carbonated drinks. Our mission statement is: “We do business to save our home planet.” That gives us a clear mission.
I always hate when people say, “We can’t do it as a publicly traded company.” You mentioned voices, and I think it really shows how far we as Americans have fallen into this polarization trap, that that’s a controversial topic. I think it’s insane that we are questioning the idea of access to and participation in the vote.
Do you ever consider how the political stances you take, which are largely in line with Democratic priorities, might affect Republicans’ willingness to buy products from Patagonia?
I come from a fairly conservative family and generally respect different points of view. And nothing bothers me more than when people think Patagonia is anti-conservative or, conversely, an extension of the Democratic Party, because neither is true. What we are is a company with a set of values that believes in being radical and consistently committed to these values, and being transparent about the decisions we make – good, bad or otherwise. I hate that it’s so deeply woven into this political environment. But we must move forward and advocate for the issues that we believe are most important.
Are you confident that governments and big business will be able to stop runaway climate change?
Do I have faith? No, not me. The problems we’ve created are big enough and complex enough that all three levers of society work in sync to solve them. We need a government that does what I would say they were made to do, which is to solve the biggest problems we face collectively, and I think the government has consistently failed to do that. We need individuals who make decisions in their lives that can have an impact and who also appear as part of civil society to do the same. And we need companies that are emerging. Some companies are starting to say the right things, but I think there’s a huge delta between what they say and what they do. So I’m not optimistic.
The two major existential threats that we as humans not only face but have created are the climate and environmental crisis and polarization. And polarization compromises our ability to deal with the former. So I’m very pessimistic about that.
But we, as humans, have created this set of challenges, and if nature has to solve them, it won’t be pretty. I think we should just show up and do the work. I am not a particularly depressed person. I like to have a good time, and I just keep showing up. But you know, if you really got me under the truth serum and say, you know, how sure am I? I mean, I have two young children. They will inherit a world infinitely worse off than the one I grew up in.
How are the disruptions in places like Vietnam and the wider supply chain issues impacting the business?
The laws of economic gravity apply to Patagonia as they do to others. We feel the consequences. They are uncomfortable. They are clumsy. But we navigated through it. I’m much more concerned about the people in South Vietnam, where vaccination rates are just beginning to scale, than about it.