What is corporate responsibility? Why is it important? Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, Inc shares his story about how a young French Canadian boy, an avid outdoorsman, became a mountain climber, a blacksmith, and the founder of Patagonia, Inc. Yvon co-created the program, 1% for the Planet as a payment for the use of resources in his clothing. Hear the story of Patagonia's success and the philosophy of the man who built the company.
Yvon Chouinard was born in Maine and spoke French Canadian until his family moved to Los Angeles and he started school. In his teens, his interest in falconry led him to rappel down mountains to view their nests; and his connection to the wilds and mountains has never diminished. In 1966, Yvon co-founded Chouinard Equipment/Great Pacific Iron Works in Ventura, California with fellow climber Tom Frost. By the end of the 1970s, the company was selling climbing clothes as well, starting with imported rugby shirts from England. In 1984 Patagonia, Inc. was incorporated as subsidiary of the Lost Arrow Corporation.
Yvon Chouinard is famous for saying that he’s never gotten a good idea sitting at his desk, and he lives by this motto. His ideas have often come while on a mountain, or while surfing, fishing, or a number of other activities he spent decades enjoying. His outdoor feats were also ways to test the durability of gear and wearability of Patagonia’s colorful clothes.
Both he and his wife, Lost Arrow co-owner, Malinda Chouinard, committed long ago to ensure that their clothing is produced in the least destructive way for all concerned. That kind of integrity and commitment has made Patagonia successful. To give back, he co-created One Percent for the Planet with an alliance of businesses, and in 2012 Patagonia became a B Corp, in part to use the company to inspire and implement solutions. The “B” stands for benefiting– workers, the community and the environment. He authored the book, Let my People go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman.
Yvon and Malinda live in Ventura, California and Moose, Wyoming. They have two children and one grandchild.
Yvon Chouinard: Climbing mountains teaches you that there’s nothing up there, it’s how you climb them is what’s important. And if you compromise the process, then you get nothing out of it.
Yvon Chouinard: It’s Yvon Chouinard.
Huey Johnson: Yvon.
Yvon Chouinard: Yvon Chouinard, aka Yvon Chouinard.
Yvon Chouinard: I was a little French Canadian kid, born in Maine, moved to California when I was 7 years old, couldn’t speak English. Shortest kid in school and promptly ran away from school after a few days, but it kind of put me on a different path. Instead of, you know, going to the high school prom, I was down on the banks at the L.A. River gigging frogs. So yeah, I lived near Griffith Park in Burbank and I’d spend all my time there. I made myself a bow and arrow, and hunting rabbits and catching crawdads and frogs, and always with a view to eating off the… off the land. And from there I went into a love of falconry, training hawks and falcons. That led to climbing to hawks’ nests and that led to mountain climbing; so I had quite a career in climbing all over the world in every continent.
I had to figure out something to do to make some money, so I became a blacksmith with a view towards making climbing equipment. Because I’m kind of an innovator, in that everything I look at I say, Gee, I can make that better, you know, whether it’s a fork or knife or whatever. And so when I was climbing, I’d look at all the climbing equipment and I thought, you know, this is pretty crude, I can make a better version of it. I’d get all my good ideas outside. I’ve been really lucky in being able to be around on the golden age of all of these outdoor sports: kayaking, whitewater kayaking, telemark skiing, climbing, surfing, spear fishing… I mean, I’ve done all of those sports when they were just starting in America. And it was the most exciting time to be doing those sports, because every time you’d go out, you come back with a new idea on how to improve the gear or a different technique of doing something, and it’s the most exciting time in any sport.
When I was making all the climbing gear it was a labor of love. I wasn’t making hardly any money at it. But I was climbing one year in the winter in Scotland, and coming back to Edinburgh I saw a rugby shirt in a sports shop and I thought this would make a great shirt for climbing. It was real rugged, had rubber buttons, everything was reinforced so it wouldn’t rip. I started wearing this climbing and everybody came up to me and said “Wow, that’s a great looking shirt”. And you know, you’ve got to remember in those days active sportswear was basically grey sweatshirts and sweatpants. Men did not wear anything colorful at all. So you know I thought, wow, everybody’s pretty excited about this, maybe I ought to import a few and see if I can sell some. And I did and they sold like crazy, of course. And that led to, you know, making a few more pieces of clothing for climbing, all with the idea of starting with the principles of industrial design rather than fashion design. You know, fashion design, you start with a mannequin, you wrap some cloth around it, you pin it here and there and you come up with this creation. Industrial design you come up with a functional need that you have to solve; and so that’s the way we’ve always approached making clothing. So that’s been the secret of our success really, I think.
I was running the company just like a normal company, growing by adding more wholesale accounts, more retail stores, more products without thinking about the environmental ramifications of what we were doing. And one time we opened a store in Boston and put all the clothes in and opened the doors and within three days the employees were complaining that they were getting headaches. So I closed the place down, brought in a chemical engineer and he said, “Oh,” he says, “You’re poisoning your employees.” I said “What?” He said, “Yeah, they’ve got formaldehyde poisoning, because your ventilation system is recycling the same air, its not working properly.” So any other company would have said fix the ventilation system, don’t tell me about where the poison’s coming from. So I said, “What’s the poison?” He said, “Well, it’s formaldehyde, which is put on all cotton clothes to make it stay-pressed, to minimize the shrinkage and wrinkling.” I said “Well, geez, I don’t want to make clothing with poison on them.” That’s when I started thinking about, maybe we better think about what we’re doing here. We’re just blindly going on, making clothing without knowing what we’re doing. So what other chemicals and stuff are used to make clothing that’s really toxic? That’s when we started asking questions. Over the years we’ve asked enough questions so that we’ve pretty much cleaned up our whole supply chain. It’s more expensive to do that, but as it turns out, our customers really appreciate that. They appreciate the fact that we’re doing all the work for them and sorting out what is the least harmful way to dress. So it’s another reason for our success.
My livelihood is based on people going into the outdoors. I feel like I have more responsibility than the average person in protecting those outdoors; and so we’ve always taken 10% of our profits and given that away to environmental causes. And now we take 1% of our sales, which is very often the same thing as 10% of profit, but 1% of sales means that even if we have a non profitable year, we still have to give the money away. I don’t look at it as philanthropy; it’s a cost of doing business, period. It’s a cost of using up nonrenewable resources. It’s a cost for living on this planet and so we just build it into our price structure. I mean, I have everything I need. I don’t need any more money, I’m very happy with my old Toyota out there. I have a very simple life and I’m not in business to grow a larger business. I’m not in business to get richer or be a big shot or anything.
I’m very pessimistic about the fate of the planet and I use business to try to influence other companies into being more responsible. If I were to sell out, especially – or become public– then I couldn’t do nearly the things that I’m doing now. I couldn’t take the risk, you know, like when we switched over to organically grown cotton. That was 20% of our business at risk, because no one else was doing organic cotton. People had tried it, dabbled in it a little bit and failed. And so it was up to us to absolutely prove that it was the right way to go. But as a public company, you’re really limited on what you can do; so that’s why we don’t sell out and we don’t intend to sell out. Although we’ve become a B-Corp now, which means we have more control over who we can sell to. We don’t have to sell to the highest bidder, which would be going public, of course. We could sell to another bunch of individuals like ourselves who say, “Look, we’re going to limit our growth”. We’re going to make the very, very best product and we’re going to cause the least amount of harm in doing so.
I mean we’re sitting here in the Tetons here, and I’ve been coming here since 1956. When I first came out here I was pretty hungry all the time. I just – I could only afford to eat oatmeal. I bought a case of cat food from a store in San Francisco that sold damaged cans. I think it was a nickel a can or something, And I never– I didn’t own a tent until I was 40 years old; so I always knew which kind of tree–like an alpine fir, you can get…crawl underneath an alpine fir and you’ll never get a drop of water on you. There used to be a CCC Camp here, Civilian Conservation Corps, and they left an old cement incinerator. And so I cleaned that thing out and that was my tent for the summer.
So you know, I’ve always had a real simple life, you know, I’ve… all my life I’ve drank out of every trout stream I fish in, no matter what, and I’ve developed a pretty good immunity to everything. And so I can go to bazaars in Afghanistan and eat off the streets, and the guys around me that try to do that get pretty sick.
Huey Johnson: Boy, I’ll bet!
Yvon Chouinard: So I’ve always kind of prepared myself for Armageddon, really. In the ‘70s, we used to say, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Wrong, it’s the opposite of that. In my own life I’m trying to simplify my life as much as I can, and I’ve learned that in sport. But when you become a really great climber, you don’t need a rope, you don’t need any Gore-Tex, you don’t need anything, you just solo. In fact you can solo it barefoot probably. You know, I think it was Thoreau that maybe said that the more you know, the less you need. And I’ve learned doing these sports that as you become more proficient at them, you use less and less stuff. I’m simplifying my fishing to where I’m using a pole now with a line on the end, no reel, and I’m catching more fish than I’ve ever caught in my life. I’ve done a whitewater river here one time without a paddle. I just had a wild hair and I went down with no paddle and I did a perfect line. From that day on was when I really learned to kayak.
In my own philosophy I’ve always felt that evil is stronger than good, because if you don’t stand up to evil, it wins. If you do absolutely nothing, evil wins every time. To do good, you have to do good, you have to do something. Everybody complains about how the corporations are destroying the planet. Well, the corporations are making stuff that we consume and discard and consume and discard endlessly. We’re the ones that are asking them to make that stuff. So I think not much is going to happen with saving this planet or doing anything about global warming until we accept the fact that we are the problem. Once you accept that you are the problem, you’re also the solution.