Jelle Mul, senior marketing manager EMEA at Patagonia and alumnus of Johan Cruyff Academy, explains how the strategy and value proposition of the company has evolved from building the best product to using business to save our home planet
Patagonia runs its business with a strong focus on protecting and preserving the environment. Jelle Mul is a former professional cyclist, alumnus of Johan Cruyff Academy and senior marketing manager EMEA (Europa, Middle East and Africa) at the company. He explains in this interview how the strategy and value proposition of the company has evolved “from building the best product to being in business to save our home planet”. We also spoke with Jelle about his passion for surfing and cycling, and as a photographer he shows his involvement with the world through beautiful photography.
Patagonia’s business operations go further than sustainability. The values of this American company, which was founded in the 1970s and specializes in outdoor clothing, are rooted in the love for the outdoors and the knowledge that causing harm can be part of doing business, so it tries to make conscious choices to reduce its environmental impact. For example, one of the company’s basic principles is to encourage customers to reconsider potential new purchases and restore previously purchased products rather than throw them away, in order to reduce the environmental impact.
Patagonia is a Certified B Corporation and meets the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal liability to balance profit and purpose. Next to Adidas and Reebok, Patagonia scores high points in Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index on topics such as fair trade, well-being, fair wages, empowerment, gender equality, business accountability, sustainable livelihoods, good working conditions, environmental sustainability, human rights policy, commitments and results, and suppliers.
Can you elaborate on the mission of the company?
The company core values were “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to protect nature” for over 25 years, until in October 2018 the owner of Patagonia decided that this was not sharp enough. The mission is now: “We’re in business to save our home planet.” Patagonia is a mission-driven company and this is reflected in all aspects of its business operations. From the grassroots environmental organizations that are supported by the “1% for the planet” principle, to the way the products are made and the origin of all the materials used, to the protection of the places where the outdoor sports Patagonia promotes are practiced. I do not attend a single meeting where this mission is not quoted, and in our business operations it serves as a yardstick for every decision.
Patagonia is an American company. How do you—being European—notice that in their approach?
Besides being an American company, it is mainly a rather disruptive company. I encourage everyone to read the book Let My People Go Surfing written by the founder. But there is certainly an American way in the way we work. Where employees in Dutch companies often take their own ‘cheese sandwich’ to work, we have ‘lunch talks’ with amazing lunches and in-house yoga classes in a special gym at our offices. Colleagues also understand if you prefer to work outside the office or do some exercise during your lunch hour, or just before or after work.
What does the business model of an environmentally-driven retail company look like?
When a product is used for eight to nine months longer, it has on average about 20 to 30% less impact on the environment. Step one is therefore the quality of the products, so that they last as long as possible. If a product is broken, repair it, and if you are tired of it, sell it second-hand. For example, the company created the Worn Wear campaign. Two vans and a trailer drive through Europe to give customers the opportunity to repair their products for free. The Patagonia stores regularly have Worn Wear evenings, where customers can have their broken clothes repaired, so that the life of the product is extended. This ranges from t-shirts to hi-tech Gore-Tex jackets for climbing or snowboarding. Furthermore, it is supported by an ironclad guarantee. Clothing that comes back under this guarantee is washed and repaired. Every once in a while we sell these products through Worn Wear pop-up shops, as we did in Milan for example. Revenues from this are then donated to organizations that are committed to a cleaner world, so that the entire story goes full circle. Unfortunately, every product has an end date, so when it is reached, the motto applies: buy a product that lasts a long time.
If ‘repairing goes before sales’, what does that mean for the marketing strategy?
We never run campaigns just to sell products, it always has an education aspect to it, such as educating people about fair trade, recycled content, natural rubber, etc., and one of my most important tasks is to create core sport communities that are based on a love for the environment and how we can best achieve this. On a product level, you can think for example of showing that our wetsuits are made from natural rubber, called Yulex, instead of fossil fuel-based material. But also campaigns to emphasize that the surf-line is fair-trade certified, or the fact that the shell jackets are made from recycled material. To raise awareness about the environment and to strengthen the community that supports it, we often make films such as Artifishal that exposes the problem of open-net salmon farms, Treelines on the importance of our forests, made using beautiful ski and snowboard images, and the beautiful surf film Never Town that addresses the problems of oil drilling in coastal areas. In addition, we organize various events with our ambassadors, such as mountain climbers who discuss the sporting part of their projects and the environmental issues in the mountains, or the trail run event that we have organized in Chamonix in France, at which we also highlight the problems with air pollution.
How is a marketing campaign created?
As a marketing manager I go to the global marketing meeting twice a year. Here we discuss the marketing category leads: trail run, climbing, mountain biking, surfing, snow sports and fly fishing. We then create an activation calendar for each category for the coming three seasons in the field of films, the importance of the various products, up to the larger environmental campaigns and the necessities for them. I do this together with two other marketers from Europe. This activation calendar is the guideline from which I — together with the team I manage — set up specific campaigns for Europe in a detailed ‘Go-to-market’ calendar, which in turn is part of the worldwide ‘Go-to-market’ plan.
Your working area is huge. What does that mean for your day-to-day work?
I do indeed travel a lot if that’s what you mean. I try to limit traveling to the absolute minimum. I go on trips with the press, especially if they are sports related, because it gives me the opportunity to practice surfing or snowboarding myself and balance that with building powerful media relationships. I also go to launch events of the larger campaigns, every now and then I visit places in Europe, and twice a year I participate in the global marketing meeting, which is in California. I also visit NGO partners and other partners that we work with. So, I think the best way to describe my work is: in the planning phase I spend a lot of my time behind a desk, and during the implementation phase I do a lot of traveling.
Which campaign stood out for you personally?
We did an environmental campaign that had a lot of impact. It was called Save the Blue Heart of Europe, which we launched in March 2018. This campaign supports environmental organizations in their fight against the dams that are planned on rivers in the Balkan. Although dams are often labeled as renewable energy, that is absolutely not true. We presented this problem using all kinds of marketing tools, and through films and a large campaign. The campaign focused on the large international banks, which often provide loans to small hydro projects in the region, without asking questions. After months of campaigning and lobbying through the press, the film was finally shown in the European Parliament, which eventually led one of the largest and most important international banks, the EBRD, to take action. A number of projects were canceled as a result of the campaign, such as a dam near a village in Bosnia, where placing a dam would mean that an entire community would be without drinking water. It was very special to get that done through our work.
Do the principles of Patagonia also apply to you?
I cannot ignore that. Sometimes I drive my girlfriend crazy when she has been shopping at the supermarket and I complain about all the products she has bought. I used to do it less when I was younger. When I started cycling, I was relatively unconcerned about ‘being the best’ but I always loved outdoor adventures. I don’t know if that’s why I didn’t become a famous cyclist, but although it may have been a bad trait for my sporting results, my love for outdoor sports is the best trait imaginable for my current work at Patagonia. So I wouldn’t have had it any differently! Cycling made me who I am and I cherish the great friendships I have made from it. I have worked for companies with an aggressive sales strategy in the past. I can certainly do that, but I felt less at home there. The great thing about Patagonia is that its business model proves that you can make a profit while respecting the planet and its resources, so that future generations can enjoy them as much as we do doing sport, and in general. Other brands should also take on this viewpoint and implement it in their business operations.
What did you learn at Johan Cruyff Academy that is useful in your work?
First, sport gives you a good basis for dealing with problems. I notice that practicing sport at such a high level made me enormously flexible and much more pressure resistant than most people. And if it gets too much, I still jump on my bike. During my studies at Johan Cruyff Academy, I worked together with athletes who were active in all kinds of other sports. In this way, I learned not only how other sports work, but also about our common denominator, our passion for sport. The first classes on Mondays were always amazing. The first half-hour was mainly about all sport results and who had been on Studio Sport, the national sport television show. That passion for sport, and also the attitude and commitment of the teachers, is something I will never forget. But the most important thing for me was the way of teaching and the way the classes were given. By combining your sport with your studies, you learn to plan very well. By dealing effectively with sport and study time, and by fitting in the exams, you learn at a young age how you can get your priorities straight.
What do you learn from working for an environmentally-driven company?
In general, I think that nobody can ignore environmental issues anymore. It has become part of everyone’s life. When people do not come into contact with environmental organizations through their jobs, they’ll think about it because of their choice of products, their mobility or how they deal with the environment in general. Within Patagonia, this awareness has only become stronger with the new mission. The organization is trying to be completely CO2-neutral in 2025, right up to all the suppliers as well. There is a huge amount of education within the company around environmental issues. We have lunch talks, events and an Earth University. Patagonia publishes books that are an important part of our training. In my daily work I constantly come into contact with organizations and people who open my eyes to the environmental problems that we have to face. This ranges from mountain climbers who are seeing how the mountains are changing and skiers who are seeing how the ski season is changing, to scientists who are doing research on this. If you want to work for a company like Patagonia, one of the first questions you will usually be asked is what you yourself contribute to the environment. Then it usually happens that people who work for Patagonia, or the athletes who seek the support of the company, are already doing this in their own way. It is tremendously diverse and that leads to good conversations. In the end, nobody is perfect, but everyone does make their contribution.
You are also a photographer and as such involved in ‘Like Water’. Can you tell us about that?
I visit a lot of beautiful places and have always had a passion for photography. Because of my regular income thanks to my job, photography has become a hobby and a means for me to give something back. When I organize exhibitions or publish photos for which I get money, it always goes to small charities. I did this already before I started working at Patagonia. Photography is my own ‘creative’ outlet, where nobody tells me what to do and I’m not under any pressure. The places I visit for work—and the sports it allows me to practice—ensure that I can combine my work and photography. Especially when I’m on a trip and meet the best surfers or snowboarders in the world. Then I often grab my camera for a while. And because as a marketer I also work with content and images, I have been working with photographers now for many years. This has given me a certain perspective and I usually understand their way of working quickly. Like Water is an organization that uses ‘surfing as a lifestyle’ for social change. It was founded by Easkey Britton after she had been to Iran to surf. Because surfing is not really seen as a sport there, it is socially accepted that women can do it. I have been to Baluchistan twice, close to the Pakistan border and once described by the New York Times as “the scariest corner on earth”. It is very impressive to see what the “freedom” of water can do to people. The goal is not at all to convince people of what is right or wrong, but mainly to experience a feeling of freedom through water and surfing. The hijab is mandatory for women in Iran, which does not make surfing any easier, but it is really impressive to see the change that some women can undergo in a short time—women who have never been in the water, even though they live one kilometer from the sea and who lie on a surfboard in the sea at the end of the week and never want anything else. The organization now focuses more on women closer to home, but water and surfing are used in the same way.
What does ‘surfing as a lifestyle’ mean to you personally?
I think this basically applies to every sport. After I stopped cycling I discovered surfing and I became really addicted to it. When the waves are good, I get pretty nervous when I can’t go in. In that respect, it has become a lifestyle. With split boarding I experience exactly the same, but lately I have returned to cycling again and mountain biking and gravel trips abroad have pretty much the same effect on me.
What does the figure of Johan Cruyff inspire you?
Football has never appealed to me, but it was at Johan Cruyff Academy where I first became aware of Johan Cruyff and I learned a lot about him and how he used his fame to contribute to society. That’s something that inspires me a lot. You can still be such a big name in sport, but if you do nothing with it, you will ultimately become a caricature of yourself. Johan was the opposite. He used his career as an athlete to ultimately make a difference in the world through his actions: his school and his foundation. Many famous people and athletes can take him as a huge example. I have nothing but respect for him. “You have to shoot otherwise you can’t score” is perhaps Johan’s statement that most applies to me. So simple, but so true and something that many people often forget. Things do not come naturally, only through hard work you can get where you want to be. Years of hard work on the bike and later with all kinds of sports brands made me who I am today and that’s how I ‘scored’ my job at Patagonia.
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