Rose Marcario on the Outdoor Industry’s Environmentalism: ‘We’re Being Too Nice’
When it comes to meaningful environmental action, former Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario believes most outdoor businesses are woefully ineffective
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Rose Marcario doesn’t work in the outdoor industry anymore, but her influence hasn’t waned—a testament to her vision and farsighted leadership.
The former chief executive, who ran Patagonia for seven years until her departure in 2020, shepherded the legendary brand through the beginning stages of a pandemic and the entirety of a chaotic presidency. Many say she left the company in far better shape than she found it.
“I accomplished everything I set out to do at Patagonia,” Marcario says. “I left the company with a strong balance sheet and a strong brand. The company’s values were clearer than ever. [I moved on because] I wanted to work more directly on solutions to the climate crisis. I’ve only got so much time remaining on this planet.”
In the nearly two years since her departure, Marcario has been busy. She serves on the boards of multiple early-stage companies, among them plant-based protein brand Meati and electric car maker Rivian. She’s a partner at ReGen Ventures, a venture capital firm that funds forward-thinking, environmentally conscious startups. She’s also more convinced than ever that the outdoor industry hasn’t followed the example she tried to set at Patagonia by honoring the company’s ethical convictions above all else.
Now that Marcario has settled into the next stage of her career, we sat down to get her honest thoughts about the industry she still loves—what we’re doing right, what we’re not, and why seismic change in our business practices is more crucial than ever.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Where does the outdoor industry fall short on environmental initiatives?
Three areas: action, advocacy, and philanthropy. The industry’s business actions, political demands, and charitable giving simply don’t match the urgency and magnitude of the climate crisis. We should be the loudest advocates for protecting 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030, but we’re not. We have this incredible economic might, we create more jobs than the oil and gas industry, and yet outdoor companies and affiliate groups have been largely mute on the climate crisis and hesitant to push on local, state, and federal governments. The time for backdoor diplomacy is over. We have this giant stick— our economic might—and we act like we’re carrying a toothpick.
What about advocacy groups like Outdoor Industry Association, which lobbies directly in Washington?
Personally, I don’t see them pushing as hard as they could. The oil and gas industry gets $20 billion in subsidies a year from the government. I think we’re being too nice.
Why do you think businesses are afraid to take the kind of bold action you’re talking about?
I think it’s fear of reprisal from customers. These companies say all the right things on their websites, but when the Trump administration slashed three million acres of public lands with a pen stroke, for example, we at Patagonia couldn’t get any commercial companies to join us in pushing back in a significant way. How sad is that? To me, that was a low point in our industry.
What enables Patagonia to take a firm stance when other’s won’t?
Leadership from all sides—from Yvon [Chouinard], the board, and the management team. Our leadership understands that when you’re on the right side of history, you have nothing to fear in speaking out. Who cares if you’re a lone voice in the wilderness if what you’re saying is true?
Patagonia has always been a leader in environmental initiatives, but some say it has struggled with issues of diversity and inclusion. Why do you think that is?
Without a doubt, the legacy companies that make up the bulk of our industry’s economic might, Patagonia included, have had significant structural issues for a long time. They were built by white men in most cases, and as a result, there’s a lot of institutional racism the industry is coming to terms with. In Patagonia’s case, we have really low employee turnover, so it isn’t easy to achieve speedy change. Still, the truth is, we have a long way to go. We need to see better representation on boards and executive teams across the industry. Although we completely changed our recruiting methods to better reach the BIPOC community during my tenure at Patagonia, as well as expanded our philanthropy to social justice causes, we still have a lot of work to do.
How do you see your current work as an extension of your efforts in the outdoor industry?
For me, it’s all about using business as a part of the climate solution. I spent much of the last decade as a retail CEO, but I don’t believe in just selling stuff anymore—at least not for its own sake. We have enough stuff in the world. Unless that stuff makes the world measurably better and eradicates outdated, polluting systems, what’s the point? These new efforts I’m involved with are, like Patagonia, using business as a force for good. They’re scaling solutions that are on the right side of history.
The future looks increasingly bleak. What keeps you up at night?
I’m deeply disturbed by the idea that we’ve hit a point at which we can watch the crisis unfold before our eyes in real time. The unknown, cascading impacts of the environmental tragedies we’re witnessing also frighten me. My wife and I live in British Columbia and we had lots of flooding last year. Because of that, farmers here say some of the topsoil has been destroyed. That topsoil destruction will have downstream environmental consequences, which themselves will have cascading effects. Those long-term unknowns keep me up at night.
Yet some people seem to remain apathetic in the face of impending catastrophe. Why do you think that is?
I’m going to separate this out into two kinds of people—those who have data and knowledge at their disposal and choose to do nothing, and those who are simply uninformed or overwhelmed. The first category includes a lot of people in boardrooms. Those individuals, by their apathy, inaction, and fear, are complicit in the destruction of our natural world and we should take them to task for it. The people who are simply overwhelmed, it may be that they just need to be taught how to have an impact. At Patagonia, we heard all the time from customers that they don’t know what to do, and we built ways to connect them with causes.
What gives you hope?
Mentoring incredible entrepreneurs who are risking everything to build a better world absolutely gives me hope. For instance, look at what Rivian just did—the biggest initial public offering of 2021. They put 1 percent of their equity into a fund to protect wilderness and inhibit climate change. That is a big deal. That represents about $1 billion in impact that will grow as the company grows. No public company has made that out-of-the-gate commitment before. We saw a few other IPOs in 2021 from companies that say they care about the climate crisis, but none of them have put their money or their stock where their mouth is. That’s a big one, but it’s not the end of the list. Building a nature-positive global economy—that’s also exciting and hopeful to me. Conservation led by Indigenous wisdom: hopeful. Accelerating our shift to renewable energy: hopeful. Food systems that work with nature and don’t pollute with poisons and destroy pollinators: hopeful. There are quite a few. We’re in dire straits right now, but the situation is not completely without hope.