A Conversation with Yvon Chouinard–Land&People

"If you wear the same underwear for 70 days, you think a lot about it. And you think of ways to make it better," explains Yvon Chouinard, sportsman, craftsman, and founder of the immensely successful outdoor gear company, Patagonia. Chouinard, a legendary innovator of climbing equipment and high-performance ready-to-wear, considers himself a reluctant businessman.

It all began with pitons, the spikes driven into cracks in cliffs to secure the ropes that give climbers a hold. Chouinard, a self-taught blacksmith who has ascended the world's most challenging peaks, began by hand-forging what he called "chocks," which, unlike pitons, left the rock face unmarred and could be removed from the rock and reused. He sold them for $1.50 apiece out

of the trunk of his car along the climbing circuit. In 1964 he published his first catalogue–a single mimeographed sheet of Chouinard-designed technical equipment that advised customers not to expect speedy deliveries during climbing season.

In 1966, Chouinard moved to Ventura, California, where he rented a tin shed near the beach for a blacksmith shop. When he extended his product line in 1972 to include clothing, the shed became the Patagonia flagship store.

Patagonia's staff today numbers more than 1,000 worldwide, with sales exceeding $200 million. Millions are donated annually to grassroots environmental groups. Chouinard himself is a donor to TPL's work in Hawaii. While he acknowledges that "sustainable manufacturing is oxymoronic," Chouinard's aim is to minimize waste and damage to the environment. Many of the products in the Patagonia line are made from recycled plastic bottles, hemp, and organic cotton. Employees earn clothing credits for carpooling to work, where benefits include flex time, on-site child care, paid parental leave, and, for those so inclined, training in nonviolent civil disobedience. (Patagonia pays the bail of anyone arrested in the course of applying the training.) The Patagonia catalogue, famous for heart-stopping portraits of customers putting gear to the test, is bringing Chouinard's environmental message to millions of people.

Now 62, Chouinard has backed off mountain climbing in favor of fly-fishing and surfing, both of which frequently take him to remote locales around the globe. Having recently stepped down as Patagonia's CEO, Chouinard is pursuing what he refers to as his "MBA"–management by absence. He attributes his outlook to a long interest in Zen, a philosophy that emphasizes the process rather than the result. "Patagonia is an experiment, an attempt to prove that being ecologically responsible works," Chouinard claims. "Every time we've done the right thing it's ended up making us more money."

We spoke at Patagonia's home office, where toddlers were noisily at play in an adjacent child-care facility, and surfboards occupied the roof racks of cars in the employee parking lot.

How did you become interested in the environment?

I first became interested in the environment in the 1970s through the Ventura River. I watched a slide show given by a young guy when there were plans to fill in the river for some kind of development. Everybody was saying that it was a dead river and that it didn't matter. But this guy had photographs of all these plants and animals living in and around the river. One was a little trout, a steelhead, that was still coming up the river even though the only water in it came from a sewer drain. And that just knocked me out. I was a fisherman and living right there next to the river, and I saw that I had to become involved to try to save it. And that was my first step into environmental activism.

Do you think this kind of experience is common to people who become activists?

Well, I think it can happen for people even if they're living in Detroit, Boston, or the Bronx. A kid can stick a seed in the ground and see a plant come up, or clean up a stream and see the life come back to it. They see they can make a difference, which is pretty important. That's what I like about TPL. A lot of the lands that you're saving include people. People are part of nature. That's the spiritual part of it all. These days we're a long way from any kind of spiritual connection with the land. But that connection is not going to happen by saving pieces of land and keeping people out. It's going to have to start with a half-acre in the middle of Detroit. My thinking has become global as far as the environment goes. But it all started when I took that first step right next to my own home.

Patagonia donates one percent of your sales to environmental causes, whether or not you make a profit. Can you talk about that?

We give grants to activists who take radical and strategic steps to protect the environment. Each year we give one percent of our sales, or ten percent of pretax profits, whichever is greater, which ensures that we commit monies whether we have a good year or a bad one. Now I'm working on a project I call the "One Percent for the Planet" club, and I'm trying to get other businesses to sign on. I think of it as a kind of "earth tax" for being polluters and using up natural resources. I believe that all of our taxes should be resource taxes. We should be taxing oil at the barrel rather than at the pump. Then everything oil is used for would have been taxed before it was manufactured. My theory is there is a market advantage to companies that voluntarily give one percent of their revenues to heal the planet. I mean, given the choice, wouldn't you rather buy gas from a company that gave one percent of its earnings back to the environment?

What difference do you think Patagonia's millions in contributions have made?

I always say that there's no difference between a pessimist who says, "Oh, it's hopeless, so don't bother doing anything," and an optimist who says, "Don't bother doing anything, it's going to turn our fine anyway." Either way, nothing happens. I'm a super-pessimist, but I'm going to do what I can in the meantime because it makes me feel good. About 30 years ago we started making small grants to grassroots groups. And every one of those people tells us how a $5,000 grant from us made all the difference in the world. We also teach environmental activism workshops on how to run an effective activist organization. So often these folks are fighting against some big corporation, trying to stop pollution or clearcutting or some huge development. Sometimes they're ostracized in their communities. And they're thinking, "Is it worth it?" Or "Maybe we just ought to move out of here." And then they come to our workshop and they find out that other people are facing the same problems. And all of sudden they see: "I'm part of a greater whole." It makes a huge difference in their lives.

Which Patagonia-backed project means the most to you?

A few years back, I was steelhead fishing in British Columbia. I was walking out of the river with my waders on, and here comes this big, burly guy wearing a plaid shirt and suspenders and a beard. And he says, "You're Yvon Chouinard, aren't you?" And I'm starting to look around, thinking, how can I outrun this guy with my waders on? Well, he turns out to be an ex- logger turned avid environmentalist. He said, "How would you like to protect the largest uncut temperate rain forest left in North America?" And he told me about a place called Kitlope. He said the Indians that live there don't want it logged, and if we don't do something it's just going to get cut down.

So the next day we hired a helicopter and flew over some of the most beautiful country you've ever seen. And that started the whole thing. We put up the largest grant we've ever given to anybody–$150,000–and worked with local organizations and indigenous people to try to save the forest from being clearcut. Other funders jumped in, and in the end we saved a million acres. The government has created a park, which the Indians manage. And since the native people have gotten their lands back, it's turning the village around. All of a sudden the young people are interested in going there in the summer. The elders are taking them in and teaching them some of the old ways. They're rediscovering their culture.

How do you define success?

In business? Well, you know in business everybody looks at the bottom line. But if you ask me how much money we made last year, I couldn't tell you and I couldn't care less. I believe in the process and not the end result. It's like climbing mountains. People climbing Everest these days are so focused on the goal that they're willing to compromise to get there. There are hundreds of ladders, thousands of feet of fixed ropes. The guides practically carry them up the mountain, make their beds, maybe put a little mint on their pillow. It's an absolute joke. They try to bring the mountain down to their level. In climbing and in business, for me it's all in the how, in the process. I determine success by how much we've influenced other companies to do something similar.

When you first started with your Patagonia mission of environmental sustainability, other companies ridiculed you. How has Patagonia responded to that criticism?

Well, we're healthy and we thrive in a recession. Where every other company goes up and down with the economy, we don't. When a recession happens, our customers stop buying fashion goods and instead buy practical, high-quality things that they know will last. They become more responsible consumers. And the first thing they buy is Patagonia.

What are some of the things Patagonia is doing to promote environmental responsibility to other businesses?

We're trying to show businesses that it's possible to be a profitable enterprise while doing right by the environment. For the past several years we've taken representatives from other clothing manufacturers to California's Central Valley to see how cotton is grown using conventional methods. We see farmworkers covered from head to toe in protective clothing, pesticides being sprayed from airplanes. Then we take them to farms where organic cotton is grown. We see healthy plants, rich soils, people wearing ordinary work clothes. It's quite an eye opener. It gives these companies more information about the choices they have in the materials they buy.

Do you think your outlook about the environment has contributed to your success?

Probably not. I think we could be a huge company right now if we grew at the rate we could have. But you know, I never wanted to be a businessman in the first place. I'm kind of a craftsman that just happened to become successful. Once I realized that I was a businessman and kind of doomed to be one, I felt a certain freedom to try anything. That's the fun part. We break all the rules. You look around this place, you'll see half the people barefoot. There's at least one little baby stashed underneath somebody's desk in a cardboard box. We have a rule here that's called Let My People Go Surfing. When the surf comes up, you go surfing. You don't plan to go surfing next Tuesday at two o'clock because you may go out there next Tuesday and find that the water is flat. So anytime the surf comes up, people just clear out and go surfing. But then they're back here at eight o'clock at night or working on the weekend. I really don't care when they work as long as the work gets done and it doesn't screw up the people depending on them. I just leave people alone and they're totally responsible. No one takes advantage of us.

Do your employees share your passion for the environment?

Well, for those that do we have an internship program where any employee can take two months off and go to work for a nonprofit, and we continue to pay their salary. For instance, some employees in our Reno warehouse took an interest in creating more wilderness areas in Nevada. It seems that no one had ever done an inventory of potential wilderness there. So they went out hiking and backpacking every weekend and identified nearly 10 million acres that could qualify. Patagonia provided an office for them at the warehouse and made a small grant to the local groups working on the project. They went to Washington, D.C., lobbied Congress, and got a bill passed to create the 750,000-acre Black Rock Wilderness. I say that was a good investment.

What would you like to say to your customers?

Consume less. Consume better. There's nothing wrong with owning a few really fine things. We consume and discard so much because we're buying cheap junk.

What are you most guilty of consuming?

Well, we're probably all going to hell for our consumptive lifestyles. My own little hot spot in hell will be because of all the jet fuel I've burned. And surfboards. But my son makes them, so…

You get a deal?

I get a deal. There's nothing better than knowing you've got a surfboard coming in the mail. That's just the best.

What about fly rods?

Oh, I own a million fly rods. Yeah. I guess you got me there. But you know, they're all quality.

Susan Ives is TPL's vice president for communications and editor of Land&People.