The co-founder and head of Patagonia Provisions explains why the outdoorsy apparel brand wants to change the way we eat
Over the past few years, previously uncool and markedly dorky technical gear emerged from the tent and trail-ran into the mainstream. Hiking boots, well-insulated fleeces, and sweat-wicking shorts have since been seen on even the most fashionable and disdainful of athletics, and eventually, the trend was given a name: gorpcore, the clothes you wear when you’re roughing it in nature. Or, well, not.
The explosion of gorpcore in street style proved to be fortuitous for Patagonia, the climate-conscious apparel and gear company that’s been making technical clothes and outdoorsy gear since 1973. With the arrival of gorpcore, Patagonia’s branded “Baggies” shorts were praised widely for both their versatility and vibey-ness, and fleece zip-ups in every color of the rainbow became improbably cool.
Though not as widely available as its fleeces and shorts, Patagonia’s tins of smoked mackerel, dried mango, and breadfruit crackers — produced under the name Patagonia Provisions — have also begun to show up more on grocery store shelves nationwide. Though it launched 10 years ago, Patagonia Provisions has been able to use the popularity of hiking gear in the mainstream to boost an arm of the business that focuses on sustainability in our pantries.
In the spirit of Patagonia’s mission to “use business to protect nature,” Provisions started as a way to get sustainably farmed tinned fish, buffalo jerky, and camping snacks into the hands of its outdoorsy audience. But it quickly grew to something much bigger and more ambitious, establishing official certifications for regenerative organic agriculture and collaborating with sustainability nonprofits to help farmers transition to practices that were better for the environment. Provisions now sells 46 products with a range as wide as venison links, red bean chili, biodynamic baby food, and sake; sources a patented perennial grain called Kernza for its pasta, beers, and crackers; and is expanding rapidly into thousands of grocery stores across the U.S.
But why would an apparel company get into the grocery game?
Eater spoke with Birgit Cameron, the co-founder and head of Patagonia Provisions, alongside Patagonia’s original founder Yvon Chouinard, about why a clothing company would want to sell grocery provisions, what accessibility means when food costs are at an all-time high, and why emphasizing sustainability in the face of climate disaster still means selling meat and seafood, even with calls for vegan diets to protect the future of our planet.
Eater: What is the long-term mission of Patagonia Provisions? How did it come to be?
Birgit Cameron: I’m the co-founder of Patagonia provisions, and I’ve led it for the past 10 years. I wrote the business plan and built out what it is today with Yvon Chouinard, [founder of Patagonia]. The task that was really given to me was, “What would a food company look like for Patagonia?” And so I built out this problem, solution, and product model, which is really all about discovering the biggest things in the food industry that are contributors to the climate issues and other environmental problems we’re facing today. So what are those things? What is out there in terms of science, consulting, and alternative paths forward that really consider people and the planet? Not everything that we can do is really the right thing to do, in terms of making our food. We’ve gone down the road of a lot of bad chemical agriculture that is really detrimental. So we are working with scientists and nonprofit entities to determine a better path, substantiated by science, and then making products that showcase the solutions.
What are some of the product examples of the results of that effort?
We created a buffalo jerky because there are no natural predators [for buffalo] anymore. [Farmers] need to cull the herd, keep that healthy, keep the prairie recovering. And so therefore, we created a product as a byproduct of that conservation effort.
Our wild salmon is really about making sure that we use selective harvesting rather than overfishing, so that wild salmon can be in our future. With our other tinned fish, that’s about eating the bait — taking pressure off of tuna and these other things we default to that are bigger and eating more abundant species.
We know that less meat is the better way to go, but we also know that that’s going to be an evolutionary process, that there’s always going to be people who are eating these kinds of things. Can we show the better and more humane way of dealing with that side of our plate?
A lot of people who are thinking about the climate are thinking, “Well, isn’t the best thing to go vegan? Isn’t that the diet that we should all be pursuing right now?” Is the inevitable goal for the company to reduce the number of meat products and seafood that it’s selling?
I think it’s [about] a “re-architecting” at the plate. Helping people discover that plant proteins, plants, grains, and beans can become complete proteins, that’s first and foremost. What we’d like to see is more of that on the plate and that if people are going to eat animal proteins, they are — like Michael Pollan says — eat[ing] less. Have [meat] as a side, so you are kind of revers[ing] it. If you’re going to eat meat or animal protein, really understand what that supply chain is about. There’s so many detrimental things happening in the way that the world has moved to just this abundance and treating animals like a commodity. It’s terrifying what’s happened.
It’s bringing people along to be more considerate and thoughtful of where things come from, and then re-emphasizing the idea that you can find the proteins and the nutrients that you need in other ways. We’ve put together our chilis and our lentil soup and these wonderful protein-packed, nutrient-filled meals so that you don’t miss having that other side of things.
What was the first product that you launched with and how did it align with these values?
The salmon was the very first product. We worked with the Wild Fish Conservancy and we created a peer-reviewed and published criteria that said if you’re going to harvest wild salmon, this criteria will ensure that there can be wild salmon in the future. It was really an effort to highlight what changes could happen in the fishing industry to take pressure off of these wild salmon that are just being decimated by net-pen farms and horrifying disease.
Quality is such a huge thing as well — high-quality ingredients that are loaded with all the nutrients and polyphenols and enzymes and things that we should be ingesting, but we haven’t because the industrial chemical way of doing things has just reduced them. It’s almost like a ghost of a strawberry — yes, it looks like a strawberry, but it’s void of what it would have had if it were grown in an ecosystem that it was meant to be grown in. I think this is an amazing moment in time to where we know enough about the science around the soil health. It’s hard, once you know that information, to then accept chemical agriculture.
One of the recent initiatives you’ve been promoting is Kernza, a wheat-adjacent, low-gluten grain that shows up in your beer, pasta, and crackers. How did you develop those products? How did you figure out that was an ingredient you wanted to source?
It started with Yvon putting a bag of Kernza on my desk. He had been a longtime supporter of the Land Institute [the nonprofit organization that patented the grain] and he said, “Go talk to Wes [Jackson, the founder]. I did and I learned all about these giant roots that this perennial Kernza has because it can stay in the ground year after year. It helps hold onto nitrogen that would otherwise flow into the rivers, causing dead zones. It draws down carbon, it helps restore the soil. So there are so many benefits to growing it.
[But Wes said], “I think we’re 20 years out from growing it.” And I said, “Can you show me how much seed you have?” He took me down to his storage area and the walls were lined with Kernza. I said, “Wes, I think you’re ready. Let’s do this. Let’s get it into the ground.” You’ve got to tease out the science that people think is going to be 20 years down the road, but we don’t have a whole lot of time to be making maneuvers [when there are] planet-saving ingredients coming in and ways of thinking that are better for the planet. It was time for us to make an effort. So we had to put together infrastructure, find farmers who were willing to take a flyer and grow it, and we actually subsidized it and set incentives. We currently have a nationally distributed beer with Dogfish Head called Kernza Pils and that’s creating really nice market pull for it. That’s incentivizing farmers to realize there’s a market for it and they will grow it.
Have the pandemic, supply chain issues, or labor shortages affected the possibility of doing that work?
The inflation is going to affect everybody. I’ve heard everything from a 6 percent to 20 percent rise in costs. And so we’re going to see that impact on food across the board. Has it affected us? Absolutely. We are having to definitely revisit what that looks like for each and every product, each and every ingredient, manufacturing costs, supply chain issues. We’ve had containers full of food just sitting on the water waiting to come into port for six months.
It’s really important to make sure that we cannot increase [prices] too much. I think we’re going to see that that’s going to happen for us and everybody else. But being mindful of accessibility, that’s important.
Something the food industry really struggles with is wanting people to have access to organic products that are made with regenerative agriculture, but those things are more expensive to produce. Is this a consideration that comes up in your work?
All the time. Our dream is absolute price accessibility. We have moments where we discount and try to pass on savings to be able to introduce people to [our products]. The problem really stems, though, from subsidizing the wrong thing. The cost of food right now is not really the true cost of food. That’s why you can get a bag of chips for a third of what it really, truly costs. But we have to go with the real price with those things, so the system has to change. We are working with policy, we’re working with organizations that are helping to bring light to these issues within governmental entities that end up providing those kinds of subsidies. But that’s a slow road. It’s an evolutionary process — the more people who adopt organic, the more it’s readily available, the more the price will go down.
It’s really a shame. That’s where I think these other governmental entities could come in and say, “We support organic. If you’re an organic farmer and you’re not polluting the waterways and the air by using chemicals, we will provide incentives.”
Patagonia has historically been a brand that appeals to an outdoorsy person, but in a lot of ways it has more recently evolved to be a brand for everyone. Is that also the goal with Provisions? For these products to be staples in kitchens, not just to be taken on camping trips?
Patagonia is known as an outdoor company, so it’s a natural place for people to say, well, then it must be outdoor food. But it’s so much more than that. We need good, nutritious food. We need to feed our families in the healthiest way possible. We really wanted to make sure that the impact could be there by having a wider offering because food agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to the climate issues we’re facing today.
In the past couple of years, tinned fish has become a really trendy food. There’s a new cookbook that’s coming out about it, there are all kinds of boutiques that are selling it. Tinned fish is a huge part of Provisions’ products. How is the trend impacting that?
It was never really [our intention] to [sell it] because it’s a trend, but more because we are saying, “Eat the bait; eat the smaller, more abundant fish.” Why do we always default to tuna? There are these amazing, yummy, delicious mackerel and Spanish white anchovies and mussels. Mussels have a lower footprint than a lot of vegan foods. We add things like lemons and capers and garlic and sofrito.
How do you develop these recipes? Are you working with chefs? Is there an in-house test kitchen?
We have an in-house test kitchen. We have chefs. One of the Patagonia chefs, Tracy On, she’s involved a lot. I myself am directing and bringing different aspects to the development of the product. Yvon [Chouinard, founder of Patagonia] has always been very vocal how things could taste and what we could do here or there. He loves to cook; he’s an amazing cook himself. And then we have food science involved, and then we work with facilities that are really good at what they do as well. So it’s this collaborative effort — from chefs to founders to myself to others in the organization that really create the final product. It’s fun!
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.