Planet Earth is our most important stakeholder

Climate crisis, economic crises, hyperinflation – especially today we need companies that are role models who lead the way and actively tackle problems. Where are the companies that make their entire value chain sustainable, that treat all stakeholders (and not only the shareholders) with respect and like to cooperate on an equal footing? Where are those who are constantly trying to contribute to a better world (Club of Rome), for whom the EDGs are a guiding star in their economy?

Claudia Wintersteiger interviews visionary entrepreneurs for whom sustainability is neither “greenwashing” nor a new growth driver. She talks to people who take their responsibility seriously and who sometimes take radical new ways to change the (economic) world sustainably.

Today’s interview: Mathijs Visch, General Manager EMEA, Patagonia

Just recently, the former extreme climber and founder of outdoor outfitter Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, virtually donated his company to climate protection and now described the earth as the company’s “only shareholder.” In turn, his GM for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Mathijs Visch, sees the blue planet as the fashion brand’s “most important stakeholder,” greed as the trigger for the climate crisis, and the end of “extractive capitalism” to come.

In an interview with Claudia Wintersteiger, Partner at Trainconsulting and former Nike manager he talks about Austrian glaciers, why people should wait a little longer for their new jackets. And why they might not even need new ones at all.

„In principle, it’s about treating all stakeholders in a respectful and positive way. This includes the owners, but also the employees, the other partners in the value chain from production to distribution, the communities and, of course, planet Earth, which you basically often use as a resource base“, …

… says Visch, explaining his idea of how organisations should take responsibility for society and ecology.

Patagonia follows the mission statement “We’re in business to save the home planet” not only by financially supporting environmental organisations, but also by making sustainable business decisions from the use of raw materials to the compensation of workers to the design of supply chains, he says.    

“One practical example is whether we ship some products from Asia by air or in a more environmentally friendly way using traditional transportation, making the trade-off that customers have to accept delays,” Visch said. In addition, Patagonia is “incredibly committed” to creating product lines with long life cycles” unlike traditional companies that release a new collection every three to six months, or even every two weeks in the fast fashion industry.

Responsible garment design and innovative production reduce the footprint,” is his formula.

According to Visch, innovation also determines the choice of materials used, from regenerated organic cotton to recycled polyester. “A few years ago, for example, it was brought to our attention by Vier Pfoten that our down production was not animal-friendly. We then worked with that organisation to try to change that, until ultimately, we moved away from down at all for a very important part of our product and went to a synthetic solution,” says the GM, describing the company’s willingness to work with and learn from nonprofit organisations:

„It’s just important not to deny mistakes, but to admit and fix them openly and transparently.“

Addressing potential failures is a necessity that Patagonia also sees in the context of living wages along the entire supply chain: “Many factories work with different people and different brands, so they don’t always necessarily do what an individual brand would like them to do.

But we track very closely for each factory whether living wages are being paid and, if necessary, create conversion plans if they are not,” Visch explains, hoping for a directive from the EU Commission to hold organisations and companies accountable for the well-being of their value chain.

“I am convinced that we are approaching the end of so-called extractive capitalism, which is operated at the expense of society, nature and other people for the benefit of the strongest,” Visch is convinced. Either consumers would no longer accept the exploitation of the value chains of which they themselves are a part of, or legislation would take care of it. “Ultimately, this could actually become a competitive advantage for us as well.”

Visch sees legal requirements for reducing the footprint as imperative if only because “companies will not regulate themselves.” Of course, he says, there are already numerous positive examples, “but in many cases the focus is only on two questions: Where do I buy my electricity, and what about my buildings and my travel plans?”

sozial - ökologisch - ökonomisch

But for 85 to 90 percent of consumer good companies, from clothing to ice cream, the actual footprint is in the product itself, “and that’s where many companies don’t take responsibility on the grounds that it’s produced somewhere else at a different point in the value chain.”

However, in the fight against the climate crisis, which he believes is ultimately driven by “greed and unlimited consumerism behavior”, Visch wants to hold not only industry and politics but also consumers accountable.

Visiting Patagonia

There are companies everyone wants to learn from. One of these companies that is a pioneer of environmental and social responsibility is Patagonia.

“It’s about making people aware that they don’t need four jackets or ten pairs of shoes,” says the GM, explaining the background to Patagonia’s legendary slogan “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” “We actually ask consumers to think twice about repairing an existing garment, which is why we offer a lifetime warranty on our products and repair them for free … and there are some pieces in there that have been around for 30 years.”

Asked about the current challenges, Visch sees a close connection between, for example, the climate crisis, poverty and refugee issues, “and here we need governments to force industry to behave differently. If you were to ask a purely profit-oriented company from our industry about the biggest challenges of the present, they would probably talk about supply problems, staff shortages and price increases, but these can probably be managed. Not that those things are not important. Compared to the bigger issues they seem to be easier to solve.

Quite a bit of effort Patagonia has apparently put into protecting an Austrian glacier as well. “Four or five years ago, we started trying to prevent the construction of a cable car (Pitztal/Sölden, note) and even made our own film for it.

In addition, we supported the local NGOs, and a few weeks ago the construction was actually definitely stopped,” says Visch with satisfaction.

„It’s all not rocket science“,

as the GM likes to emphasise.

For more background on Patagonia’s sustainability strategy, listen to this podcast interview with Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert. Or check out my Learning Journey report from 2021: »We re in business to save our home planet«.

Claudia Wintersteiger schreibt auf einem Flipchart

Claudia Wintersteiger

Accompanies organisations through profound transformation processes and supports them in designing business models, developing new strategies and implementing them.
+43 664 4312926