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Rose Marcario
From Pivot Magazine

The difference maker

Former Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario is putting her business experience to work in a race toward ensuring environmental regeneration

Rose MarcarioRose Marcario joined outdoor gear and apparel company Patagonia in 2008 as its CFO and eventually became the CEO (Photograph by Brandon Harmon)

As the daughter of a single mother growing up in the 1970s, Rose Marcario witnessed firsthand the financial pressures that society can place on people who are already struggling. So, she decided that a career in business and finance would provide her with the most economic stability—“it was all about survival.” Marcario absorbed the lessons of business and combined them with a desire to achieve societal and environmental good. She joined outdoor gear and apparel company Patagonia in 2008 as their CFO, then COO and eventually became the company’s CEO.

Her experience at Patagonia emboldened her to achieve more in the area of sustainability. Marcario left in 2020 to work with upstart companies Meati, Rivian, Spun and ReGen Ventures; each led by founders also seeking to make a positive impact on the planet. There is still much work to do, but she maintains her optimism. “Capitalism must evolve to include people and the planet if we are going to have a livable future,” she says.

Rose Marcario in factory Rose Marcario believes the most successful brands of the future will have responsibility and sustainability built into their business models (Photograph by Peter Bohler)

What drew you to Patagonia and, during your tenure as CEO, how do you feel that you helped shape the company?
It was in some ways a very conventional type of company retailing apparel, but it was unconventional in its commitment to environmental causes, its culture, its willingness to speak out on issues and its model of corporate philanthropy. As I got deeper into the company it represented to me a fully human way of doing business and was aligned with my values.

It also gave me a chance to work with Yvonne Chouinard [Patagonia’s founder], which was a real education. I learned from him how to build philanthropy into the corporate model, which I think we’re seeing a lot of companies do now. We championed the Benefit Corporation movement, which is a great example of using business as a positive force.

I set simple goals for myself when I became CEO: Leave the company in better shape than I found it. Do work that would endure and be built upon. Train the next generation. Be an example of love in action leadership and work my way out of a job.

I think I brought a bolder vision to Patagonia’s business and advocacy; I brought my skills in building out a profitable, global multi-channel business committed to the brand values. The company grew to well over $1 billion in revenue when I was CEO, which was really a by-product of doubling down on the brand values.

How does your experience in private equity and tech help with your current work in sustainability?
Without question the work needed on sustainability is enabled by capital sharply focused on scaling the transition toward a livable future. I would argue at this point we need to go beyond sustainability to regeneration and restoration of our beautiful living planet because we have done so much damage. We need innovation to solve the climate crisis, to build responsible and resilient supply chains; to adapt to a changing world.

When you look at the big systems changes needed—energy, food, means of production, healthcare—all of them can become more renewable, restorative and regenerative with the right kind of technology and innovation applied. Technology can even help people change their behaviours to be more planet and people positive. I think it’s one of the most important tools we have, it’s a key to the great transition we need to make away from harmful broken systems which are now threatening life on Earth.

“The biggest challenge for any company is having a strong culture built on a meaningful purpose that goes beyond profit”

What were some hurdles you faced as an up-and-coming leader in business?
When I was coming up, I was very often the only woman executive in the room. It was not common back then, and so all the informal networks male leaders leverage were closed to me. The boy’s club is a real thing. But those experiences made me more resilient and adept at dealing with challenging situations. In most executive jobs pay equity was an issue to contend with.

Of course, coming out as a lesbian in the late 1990s in corporate America was not easy, it came with its challenges and trade-offs. I was a public company CFO at the time and I worried it could ruin my career, but I just couldn’t hide myself anymore. So, it’s good to see progress now, but still it feels very incremental. There’s a lot of work to do.

With your consistent appearances in Fast Company’s Queer 50 annual list, you’ve become an example of LGBTQ representation and influence in business. What do you see as the biggest hurdles still facing members of the LGBTQ community in leadership and business?
Representation matters—it inspires, it soothes, it opens minds and hearts. There are many challenges we face, not the least of which is the rise in forces that seek to erase LGBTQ people and turn back the societal progress we’ve seen in the last 50 years. There are still places with repressive laws and we are seeing more repressive bills introduced every day around the USA. LGBTQ employees who work in companies or live in areas where they feel unwelcome or discriminated against are less likely to thrive. Work is where the self meets the world, and people do their best work when they are their full selves. We need everyone thriving to make the big societal transitions we are faced with.

I also think it is very important for LGBTQ people to see themselves reflected in business, culture and the arts. This is one of the reasons I personally made the choice to represent out and proud leadership. If I can be a role model for someone coming up, show them that it’s possible to find and build companies that will welcome you, that will invest in your success, you can become a CEO or whatever it is you want. 

Through Meati Foods, Spun, Rivian and ReGen Ventures, you are working in a variety of different sectors. What drew you to these companies?
When I left Patagonia, I wanted to be as much use as I could be toward this great transition we need to make as a society. Meati is making high quality plant-based protein from mycelium, a renewable resource, with a mission to feed the world. Rivian is a leader in a clean mobility revolution and made nature one of its shareholders at its IPO by creating a fund for nature and biodiversity. SPUN is an NGO started by a brilliant evolutionary biologist, Toby Kiers, who’s mapping the worldwide mycorrhizal fungal networks by mobilizing scientists and democratizing the data to help restore and regenerate the planet. ReGen is an early-stage venture fund which I am partner in. The kinds of technologies we’re funding enable regenerative agriculture, climate resilience, food security, plant-based food alternatives, and new production inputs that come from regenerative resources. So, in all cases the work is for a better future.

With all these ambitious environmental goals, what do you feel is the end game? And how long until it is within reach?
I think the end game is renewable energy systems including grid, power management, mobility, regenerative food systems. All things that lead to clean air, safe water to drink, healthy topsoil, healthy communities, thriving biodiversity—a better world.

2030 is a very important inflection point for us. If we can keep global temperature rise below 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, we will have made incredible progress for humanity. If we don’t manage to do that, we are conscripting future generations to an apocalyptic future filled with extreme weather events, mass migrations, ecosystem collapse, food insecurity, resource scarcity, and more.

And we have the tools: we have capital, we have a motivated workforce who cares about these issues. We have most of the technology right now to significantly reduce emissions and move us toward the end state I describe, but many governments are still subsidizing the harmful status quo, or actively squashing innovation.

We need courageous leadership, collaboration and vision.

What are the challenges facing businesses that are looking to be both profitable and sustainable? Is it possible to prioritize both?
I think it’s a false choice. I believe the most successful brands of the future will have responsibility and sustainability built into their business models. The customer is changing, there is less desire for rampant consumerism. The public want companies to be part of the solution—not the problem.

The biggest challenge for any company is having a strong culture built on a meaningful purpose that goes beyond profit. Many of the initiatives Patagonia became most known for were not all cost trade-offs, they were challenges with a positive purpose that caused our colleagues to come up with brilliant ideas, or work in optimistic collaboration with suppliers to solve problems. Still, our customers rewarded us and voted with their dollars when it came to making purchases because they could see we were working with transparency, talking equally about our failures and success, but always working toward a more livable future.


Read about how CPA Carter Wilson is helping build capacity within First Nations communities.

Explore CPA Canada’s extensive sustainability resources, including our overview of the first two sustainability disclosure standards. And learn why Indigenous knowledge and practices are essential to ESG.