Rick Ridgeway: ‘There is no business on a dead planet’

Patagonia’s VP of Public Engagement, 67, adventurer, environmentalist, on business purpose and corporate growth. 


Rick is one of the world’s foremost mountaineers.  With three companions he was the first American to summit K2, considered the hardest of the world’s high-altitude mountain to climb. Rick also participated in the first big wall climb in Antarctica.  


We want to use our company as an agent for environmental and social justice protection. Our mission is to make the best product with no unnecessary harm. The 3rd part of that mission is to use our business success to implement solutions to the environmental crisis. That's why we're in business. 


Businesses that misuse the word purpose do us all a disservice. We have to define purpose. It starts with acknowledging that the definition of purpose must be more than just a return to shareholders as it has to include responsibility to stakeholders. Fundamentally, that what purpose is. 


Commitment to environmental responsibility is a commitment to business value. Because every investment into environmental protection Patagonia has made, has improved our business performance. 


Purpose means we get to pick the best people coming out of business schools. Recruitment and retention are the top benefits of staying true to your purpose. 


You can go surfing anytime you want, just don't let your co-workers down. That’s how Patagonia employees work. We’ve been at forefront of figuring out how to bring professional and personal lives together as seamlessly as possible. We’ve established a day care centre, which, arguably, became the most innovative thing that Patagonia’s done. And that has become one of the main reasons of having highest employee retention. 


There is no business on a dead planet. Why the planet isn't a KPI for a business? Every business KPI should be related to the health of the planet. 


Don't buy our jackets if you do not need them! There is a tension between selling more jackets and saving the planet. Patagonia’s board, which Rick admits is rather small, made a decision to take their bestselling jacket line down as it does a lot of harm to the environment. Why? Because it’s crucial to run all your business decisions against your mission. Rationalising business growth is a tough process. Not everybody at the company gets it, but that’s what Patagonia stands for. 


Transparency is the willingness to tell the world what we're doing well but also the willingness to share what we're doing is not so good. That’s the only true definition of transparency. We found out that our third tier suppliers used forced labour in dye mills in Taiwan. We made it public and engaged mills and the dye houses, employee brokers and the governments, so the solutions are underway. We don’t think that could have done it better without staying true to our statement of transparency.   


Acting sustainably shouldn't be a separate issue for business, so why should it be a separate department? One of the most sustainable companies in the world – Patagonia – doesn’t have a sustainability department.  


Rick represents and promotes the company’s core values with external stakeholders including NGO’s, trade organisations, academics and universities, and government agencies. He serves on the boards of Conservacion Patagonica and the Turtle Conservancy, and is on the Advisory Boards of World Wildlife Fund, Unilever USA, and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.


He was founding chairman of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. During his 12-year tenure at the company he has developed and launched environmental and sustainability initiatives including Freedom to Roam, the Footprint Chronicles, the Responsible Economy Campaign and Worn Wear.  


Rick lives with his wife Jennifer in California, they have been married for 33 years, and they have three grown children.


Elina Yumasheva is head of content at The Crowd. 

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