Kris Tompkins on leadership and conservation: “We’re past the moment where inaction is acceptable.”

Kris Tompkins has dedicated her life to business and the planet. As CEO of Patagonia, she helped build a company that was both financially successful and a leader on environmental causes. As president of Tompkins Conservation, she used her private sector expertise—with support from our colleagues—to help Chile create one of the largest protected areas on the planet.

On the heels of our new sustainability commitments and the launch of McKinsey Sustainability—we invited Kris to speak to our colleagues and share some lessons she has learned throughout her long career in both the private sector and as a nonprofit leader.

In the edited interview below, conducted by Tony Hansen, director of McKinsey’s Global Infrastructure Initiative and a leader in our Nature Analytics service line, Kris shares her story and talks about climate change, biodiversity loss, and how calls for action—ranging from decarbonization to net zero commitments to conserving vast swathes of nature—continue to grow.

What brought about your epiphany to preserve and rewild vast swathes of land, and what gave you the courage to act?

Like everything in life, it was an organic process. You notice something, then you get more involved. You meet people you wouldn’t have met before.

I grew up in a milieu of serious adventurers. I met Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) when I was 15. My late husband, Doug Tompkins (co-founder, North Face, Esprit), was a climber and a world-class kayaker. In the early years, we didn’t really understand was happening to the natural world. But by the early ’80s, it became clear that it was really coming under attack.

After Doug left the business world, he had the idea of buying up large tracts of land and just protecting them. When I left Patagonia, we moved to a remote area in south Chile and used our finances to get started. At first, we didn’t have this grand plan to create national parks. But not long after that, we decided that this was something we could do.

It changed our lives forever. It changed a lot of people’s lives forever.

Kris and Doug Tompkins
Kris and her late husband, the businessman and conservationist Doug Tompkins.
Kris and Doug Tompkins

Through Tompkins Conservation, you collectively helped protect 14.5 million acres of land and coastal areas. How did your private sector experience help prepare you for that chapter?

First of all, I was working with Yvon Chouinard and married to Doug Tompkins, two truly entrepreneurial and visionary people. They taught me two important things. The first is that nothing is impossible. And the second is that, if you’re going to go for something, you have to commit—then you figure it out. If you never commit to something until you have it all dialed in, and you can see how it’s all going to unfold, you’ll never start.

Next to those two, I was sort of the boring one. I made the trains run on time and thought about the budgets. But there was an alchemy there. Between their visionary style and my results-oriented brain, we really had something that was special.

Tompkins Conservation coined the phrase “rewilding.” How does your strategy for reintroducing animals into the wild fit in with your conservation?

About 15 years ago, we realized that we had some conservation projects in which a lot of keystone species were missing. And we had to ask ourselves what we were going to do about that. As someone once said, “Landscape without wildlife is just scenery.” We couldn’t just protect the land and walk away, because what would we be leaving behind? What’s two million acres of wetlands with no jaguars, no pumas?

Now, we’ve worked on rewilding about 13 species. We have jaguars back in their southern-most territory in Argentina for the first time in 90 years. We have red-shouldered macaws flying in the same region for the first time in 100 years. You need these animals for conservation to have its full impact on local, regional, and national communities.

Rewilding territory and rewilding species is a highly complex goal, but a necessary one. We also need to rewild ourselves. Communities are forever linked to the goodness and health of the nature around them.

How do you view the state of conservation today?

Only a very small percentage of philanthropic dollars goes towards conservation. Imagine what could be done if more individuals and, more importantly, more institutions took the long view of the planet and their place in it.

Businesses have a big role to play. There are a lot of good companies out there. But so what? Today, companies need to be great to stand out. They have to up the bar on themselves. Who wants to work for a company that doesn’t want to be great? We know too much about the state of the environment to settle for less.


McKinsey Sustainability

Innovating to net zero

What do you think the private sector can do differently on conservation?

That’s a big question. I’ve only worked for one company my entire life. But I know that the great limiting factor in any business or institution is a lack of bravery. Instead of just looking at all the pitfalls that can happen—if it’s controversial, or it may be unpopular—eventually you need to put that to the side and just do it.

What’s the worst that can happen? If you’re successful in leading on this issue, you’re going to change our global future. If you’re not—this stuff is fun. This isn’t drudgery. People want to work for companies who care and where they can do something they believe in. If it’s a gas working at your day job, and part of your day job is changing the world… who wouldn’t go for that?

So if I were running a company still today, I wouldn’t hesitate to stick my paw out there and get involved in this. You have to try to change the end of this story. Only then will you be a company that’s never forgotten. 

Do you have any advice or inspiration to leave us with?

Take the tools you’re given, take the talent you have, and use them for something. You may think you don’t know what to do, or how to contribute. But I think you do. We’re past the moment where inaction is acceptable. That’s not me preaching. That’s just where we are. That’s it.

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