10 lessons on working within the world climate emergency from Patagonia’s Mihela Hladin Wolfe

Role Models
Nov 10 · 5 min read

Sometimes a role model can be a company as well as a person. That’s the case for Patagonia, a company that is constantly asking itself and its customers: If we have 10 years left, how are we going to spend our time and money?

Patagonia’s Director of Environmental Initiatives, Mihela Hladin Wolfe, doesn’t have a perfect answer to that question and neither does the company. In fact, Patagonia gives away 1% of its annual revenue to other businesses who are working for positive futures because they acknowledge they’re no experts. What Mihela and Patagonia can and will do though, is hold up a mirror in front of us all to empower better climate-centric decisions.

Here’s 10 things we learned from Mihela on how she’s navigating the world’s climate emergency with Patagonia.

The fear of not doing enough has always kept her awake at night

“I think the climate situation we’re in has been keeping me awake for many years already” Mihela told us. “People think I have THE dream job and I do, but there’s a lot of responsibility and every morning when I get to work I ask myself: “is this all enough? Is it having an effect? Is it making an impact?””

The root of her job is in examining the company’s own business decisions

For a longtime, humans have been waiting and thinking it’s not that bad, yet. But now, the experts tell us we have maximum a decade left to make a change, possibly a lot less. As Mihela points out though, many of us in Europe have really good lives so the idea that it will get worse is just an idea that we’re still hoping will just work itself out. “I speak to so many businesses and organisations every day and I’m always amazed at how quickly the climate question is put to one side” Mihela says. “They tell me: “yeah, that’s important but let’s talk about other things.”” In contrast, Patagonia takes a leading role in cleaning up after itself and questioning its business by investing in solutions needed to get the world where it should be.

“In business to save our home planet”

Patagonia’s previous mission statement was “No unnecessary harm” but “that’s not good enough any more” Mihela told us. “We need to look at how we can regenerate the planet and society” so now we’re in business to save our home planet.

Unfortunately, a lot of people and businesses just lack imagination…

“Imagine if every business today had a mission to be in business to save our home planet, imagine the difference!” Miheala exclaims. “After we changed our mission statement to exactly this it really helped focus the whole company from product, to design, to marketing, to finance. People all over were suddenly thinking: “what are we doing today that is living up to our mission?” I think that’s very powerful.”

Leadership is about providing access to the information people need

“What kind of access do your employees have to the vital information?” Mihela asks. Big pdfs and powerpoints about sustainability are all well and good but oversimplification through numbers, KPIs and targets creates a dumbing down that soon gets boring and people lose interest.

Instead, think of other ways. “We’ve never been very good at telling our employees what to do” she says, “so we create practises where our doors are open for environmental groups and thought leaders (even if they don’t share our point of view) to come to our office and give lunch talks where our employees then have the opportunity to ask questions and make up their own minds”.

On becoming a billion dollar company

It’s simple Mihela says: “We pushed to become a billion dollar company so that we could stand next to the giants and say “no, if we can do it, so can you!””

The way we mobilise individuals has changed…

“We asked our customers what would make them act with a list of 10 suggestions and ‘I want it to be easy’ was one of the options people selected the least” Mihela points out. Instead people said they either “want to have a meaningful impact” or “want to help locally”.

Mobilisation is such a key piece of the conversation today. It’s not just about appealing to 5% of our individual time or income, these individual narratives are out of touch and have been around for too long. “Instead, you have to reframe that collectively and say: if we have 10 years, how am I going to spend my time and money to make this world a better place? And you have to prompt that tough conversation on a daily basis — that’s so much bigger than the individual actions.”

…and so has the way we mobilise activism

“For years, we were funding different climate groups but not being vocal about it” Mihela says, “we just decided it was our ‘earth tax’ to pay.” After the Trump election though, Patagonia saw the need for clearer action and launched its 2016 Black Friday Don’t buy this jacket campaign to challenge senseless consumerism.

The success of this campaign, Mihela says, made Patagonia realise that you can help facilitate meaningful action and be effective so the company decided to connect all the groups it was funding together in one grassroots customer community.

On staying sane when depressed about the future

“There won’t be many times that humanity works directly on something at the scale we are today” Mihela points out, “so if you get stuck in a dark place then just look out for all the good changes being made, with renewables for example. When you look for positive trends you’ll see that things are actually moving, which helps if you’re feeling down.

Being in a dark place may not be such a bad thing though…

“I think we learn the most when we’re not in a great place. I love going out and partying and being with friends and having fun, but when my father was dying, that was a year when I probably learned more than all the other times put together.”

It’s also a place that enables CHANGE. So on that note, Mihela recommends you talk to your colleagues and raise your voice as a community at your workplace. Ask leadership where the sustainability targets are; ask them to bring in specialists for a wider conversation; ask them to open their doors and have a conversation with you…. The time is now.

Role Models hosts candid conversations with inspiring women and is a bi-weekly podcast and event series motivating the next generation of global leaders.

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2016’s ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ campaign
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