Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard is a self-declared “reluctant businessman,” who has always seen his business as a means to spending more free time outdoors. Chouinard got his start as a teenager selling homemade pitons out of the back of his car to fellow climbers. In the 1970s, his nascent Chouinard Equipment evolved into Patagonia. He has since turned the company into one of the most successful in the history of the outdoor industry by continually defying conventional practices. In addition to encouraging employees to spend extended amounts of time exploring the outdoors and volunteering for humanitarian causes, Chouinard has always set a strong example of environmental stewardship. From his use of sustainable materials to his campaigns for wildlife preservation, Chouinard has stayed above the fray of greenwashed commercialization and proven that a genuine desire to do the right thing can be a successful business model. Still active at 71, Chouinard chatted with us at his Ventura office after his morning surf session.
Has mainstream environmental awareness been encouraging to you?
a: In this country we see the planet as 19th or 20th on people’s priority list. Conservation was invented in this country. We have around 30,000 environmental nonprofits. There are hardly any in Europe, because they don’t need them. Their governments are stepping up and doing what needs to be done to protect the planet.
So how does Patagonia stay above the fray?
a:We do our own thing, and we stay very visible. Our job at Patagonia is to keep proving that if you do the right thing you’ll be more successful. The world is aware of us, and the fact that what we do is working. In this economy we’re having the best year we’ve ever had for the second year in a row.
How do you explain that?
a: We have loyal customers. Plus, in a bad economy people get concerned and stop buying fashion stuff. They don’t mind paying more for a high-quality product that will last a long time and be multi-functional. We’ve also been controlling our growth for a long time, so we’re basically debt free. We’re in the right position because we’ve been doing the right thing for a long time.
Your Footprints Chronicles campaign shows a product’s life from start to finish. Is it hard to let people see the bad with the good?
a: Not at all. We put the bad things up front and admit our shortcomings. Right now the biggest thing we are working on is water use. The world is not only at peak oil—it’s at peak water. We may have to give u organic cotton, because cotton grown any way uses too much water. With people starving around the world, it may not make sense to make t-shirts in the future.
Can outdoor products be sustainable?
a: There’s no such thing as sustainability in anything humans do. We have to close the circle on products so they get recycled into like products. That’s what we’re trying to do, but it’s not easy. Right now oil is so cheap, it doesn’t make sense to recycle. If I were a dictator in this country, I would impose huge taxes on nonrenewable resources. Every time people go buy something there would be a huge 20 percent tax on it, so they would think twice about consuming. Right now, 80 percent of our economy is based on consuming and discarding.
What advice would you give other reluctant business people, who want to do the right thing but are scared of the bottom line?
a:The next generation, Generation Y, is very concerned about the planet. They’re the new consumers, and they’re very open-minded. New businesses better be green businesses that make high-quality stuff. These people will be consuming less and consuming better. There will be no room for half-ass companies. It’s time for more people to make better stuff in a more responsible way. •