Yvon Chouinard

In many circles — especially the ones created by the women and men featured in this magazine — Yvon Chouinard needs no introduction. His rise from a feral big-wall climber living off dented cans of cat food to internationally acclaimed founder of Patagonia outdoor equipment company has etched a permanent record in the lore of environmentalism. Along the way, he reinvented business as we know it, consistently producing high-quality gear and apparel with green provenances while taking care of his employees and achieving financial prosperity.

An avid outdoorsman who initially resisted his transformation into a successful businessman, Chouinard, 74, now considers his position of influence with a Zen-like appreciation of the here and now. These days, he says, that means more innovation across the board, from recent advances in wetsuit fabrication and big-wave survival gear to leading a coalition of companies educating consumers about the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the things they buy every day.

Tin Shed, Ventura CA, February 2010 - Photo: Tim Davis

Tin Shed, Ventura CA, February 2010 – Photo: Tim Davis

 

Interview by: Keith Hamm

For the following Q&A, Prolific Magazine caught up with Chouinard via landline at his seaside home in Ventura, California, to talk about justified pessimism, revolutionary sustainability, and life lessons in roadkill.

From a company standpoint, what are you most passionate about right now?

We’ve got some pretty exciting things going on. In fact, we’ve got some top-secret things I can’t even tell you about. We’re going more and more into technical products. Bigger packs, heavier down jackets, more hardcore stuff than sportswear stuff. I started a new research-and-development center [at Patagonia headquarters in Ventura] that we call The Forge, and we’re working on some far-out products.

We’re also excited about this salmon processing plant we’ve got. We’re coming out with cold-smoked and hot-smoked salmon and salmon jerky. It’s up in Canada and it uses fish that we know exactly where they came from. There’s no incidental catch, there’s no fishing for endangered runs of any kind. They’re all caught by the natives in the rivers above any tributaries that have any endangered runs. It’s as sustainable as we can get. It’ll be under Patagonia Provisions.

Do you feel conflicted as your company expands its product base?

We have a lot of products, and I don’t recommend that anybody buy a lot of products. In fact, I tell people to think twice before buying anything, including our stuff. But if you really need it, we’re making the best quality technical stuff you can buy.

When we decided to make wetsuits or my son decided to start making surfboards, we just had to make the absolute best. We weren’t interested in copying what everyone else was doing and making them in the same factory, out of the same materials. So we’re keeping with that tradition.

What else is on the horizon?

The Sustainability Coalition is about 50 companies that we’ve gathered together to produce a sustainability index for clothing. That’s sort of like organic standards for food. It means that at some point in the near future, a customer will be able to go into a store and there will be 10 brands of T-shirts or whatever and they can zap the barcode and it’ll tell you which brands are made the most sustainably. And the products will have grades. If you’re interested in buying the greenest products possible, you’ll be able to make an intelligent decision because you’ll have the information. We have over 30 percent of the entire apparel and footwear sales in the world represented in this coalition, and we’re leading this thing.

Left: Yvon Chouinard forging as Tom Frost supervises, circa 1960’s
Right: Yvon Chouinard, guest speaker at Wal-Mart’s Milestone Meeting, October, 2008
Photos Courtesy: Patagonia Archives

 

What’s the greatest impact humans have on the natural world?

Well, I think the biggest problem is that we all know that we’re destroying the natural world but we’re not pointing the finger at ourselves. It’s always, “Oh, those Latin Americans down there are having eight kids, and it’s, you know, the multinational corporations despoiling the earth and it’s governments that are irresponsible.” The real problem is us. We’re the end-users of all that stuff. We’re consumers. We’re not citizens. We’re consumers. Which means we use up, we destroy. So until we point the finger at ourselves, and change our lifestyle, then nothing’s going to happen. And nothing is happening. Which is unfortunate. Right now, we’re using up the resources of one and a half planets. Western countries, like the United States are using up the resources of seven planets. So it’s totally unsustainable. There’s no such thing as sustainability. We have to cut back on consuming and discarding endlessly.

We’re Americans; we do it for pleasure. We’re bored, so we have to go to the mall and buy something. It’s totally unnecessary. The Europeans consume only 25 percent as much as Americans do and they have a higher standard of living.

Unfortunately, when people decide to consume less, maybe buy [fewer, higher-quality products], the economy is going to crash. So that’s why every president tells everybody that the economy will turn around as soon as we start consuming more. Unfortunately, we’re committing suicide by doing that. So there has to be a different form of capitalism, a different economy that’s not based on endlessly consuming and discarding. I don’t know what it’s going to be.

Left: Yvon Chouinard selling Chouinard climbing hardware circa 1960’s location, Camp 4 Yosemite, CA
Right: The “natural man” with his rack of Hexentrics and Stopper clean climbing shocks, Yosemite, circa 1972 – Photos Courtesy Patagonia Archives

 

So what’s the best thing a person can do?

Cut back on consuming, whether it’s gasoline or meat or whatever. We know there are things that we consume that cause problems. You don’t have to be a genius to figure it out. We just have to do less. And you know, it won’t take long before you figure out that happiness is not based on owning more and more. In the ’60s and ’70s, they used to say that he who dies with the most toys wins. That’s absolutely wrong. It’s the opposite. The more you know, the less you need.

How has your perception of what it means to be an environmentalist changed over the years?

In the ’60s, I was clueless about any sense of responsibility. I was just a climber. But I was making steel pitons that I woke up to one day, realizing, “Gee, the putting in and taking out of these pitons is destroying the rock.” And so I felt a responsibility to do something about it. So we got out of that business and got into the business of making chocks that don’t harm the rock.

 

Left: “My second shop in Burbank was just some open metal sheds, but I was beginning to get into assembly-line production.”
Right: The Ventura shop employees in 1966 – Photos Courtesy Patagonia Archives

 

We’ve been destroying nature for a long long time. It probably started with the Industrial Revolution, when we started using fossil fuels. But it’s only now that we’re really starting to see the results of that. Not just with global warming but also with coal mining and the pollution from getting oil and cutting down forests. We’re just starting to see the results of it all and it’s happening very, very quickly.

So, yes, my attitude has changed quite a bit. I’m becoming more and more pessimistic. Nobody can give me a reason to be optimistic. We’re losing.

Talk about a defining moment in your life.

When we went into making clothing, we had no idea what we were doing. We’d just call a fabric supplier, and he’d come by with a bunch of fabric, and we’d chose some fabric, and we’d make a pattern and send it off to a sewing factory. That’s what everybody else was doing. Then one day, we opened this store in Boston. We had retrofitted this old building and we opened and within three days our employees started complaining that they were getting headaches. We closed the store and brought in an environmental engineer and he said, “Your ventilation system is recycling the same air and you’re poisoning your employees.” And I said, “With what?” And he said, “Formaldehyde. It’s in all your clothing.” It was being used to prevent shrinkage and wrinkling and all of that. All-cotton clothing was just full of formaldehyde. So any other clothing company would have just fixed the ventilation system.

Or just gave the employees some aspirin and told them to get back to work.

Yeah. So, that’s when we realized that we didn’t know how to make clothing. And we started asking questions. Asking one question lead to finding out all about industrial-grown cotton. Then, well, our dyes are toxic. Shoot, we didn’t know that. We didn’t have to deal with dyes. We just ordered fabric that was already dyed. So we had to look into that. And then, how much water use goes into making this stuff? And where is that water from? It is fossil water from an aquifer that’s being drained? Irrigation water from dams that have screwed up rivers? And there were no books that told us any of this stuff. It put us on the path of finding out what are we doing.

I’m convinced that most of the damage to the environment is caused unintentionally by true ignorance. And so once we decide that we were polluters and that we were causing a lot of damage by not leading an examined life, we decided to change that. That’s the reason why my company exists, is to be an example for other companies and to show that it’s good business.

 

Chouinard climbing the Sespe Wall. Ventura County, CA December 2010
Photo: Jeff Johnson

 

Did your early imaginations about your future in any way foretell the life you have now?

No, not really. In the early days I was just interested in making climbing gear for myself and a few friends. I never wanted to be a businessman at all. Even when I was making clothing, I didn’t have much interest in the business of it. I was just interested in making really cool clothes for myself and my friends. And now, I’m interested in the business part of it because this is the resource that I have. It’s a powerful resource that I can use to affect change around the world.

Surely you must have had some aspirations of what you wanted to be when you got older.

I never thought about that. I had no idea what I wanted to be. I just enjoyed making products and working with my hands. And what was going to happen, I had no idea. I really don’t live for the future. I don’t live for the past. I’m pretty grounded right in the moment. That’s been my life. That’s been the Zen influence on me.

 

Reflections
Left: Yvon portrait at the Ranch., March 2011 – Photo: Jeff Johnson
Right: Yvon making “bongs.” Ventura California – Photo: Tony Jessen

 

How does that play a part in your business decisions?

Zen philosophy is a way of living and a way of thinking. And in business you can focus on the process so hard that you lose track of all the things you should be doing, and in the end, you don’t make any more profit. For me, if you ask me how much money [Patagonia] made last year, I have no idea. I heard it one time, and I forgot it. And if you ask me how much we’re going to make this year, I have no idea. I just know that everything is going good.

If you focus on the process correctly, the profits will happen. It’s like climbing Mt. Everest. If you’re so focused on getting to the top, you’ll compromise the process. Forget about getting to the summit, just concentrate on getting there in a really good style.

I lead a pretty simple life. So to me, by the end of the year, success is defined by how much good my company has done. Not how much money we’ve made. It sounds kind of corny but that’s the truth.

Aside from the formaldehyde situation, were there any other discoveries that changed the way you did business?

When we first started thinking about what sort of fabrics we ought to be making our clothing out of, at first we thought that synthetics would be the worst. That cotton would be the best. But it turned out that 100-percent industrial-grown cotton was the worst. That was a really big surprise. And that’s when we decided to get away from that and go with organically grown cotton.

Solace at the Rivermouth
Photo: Thompkins

 

Sounds risky.

I would say my biggest risk was taking 25 percent of our sales in cotton products and giving the company 18 months to never again use industrial-grown cotton. That freaked everybody out. But what it did was mobilize the whole company. I’ve never seen a company do such good work. There was hardly any organic cotton around. We had to work with farmers, cosigning their loans so that they could plant their crops because the banks wouldn’t lend them money if they didn’t use chemicals. It was wild. Then we had to go to the spinners, and they wouldn’t spin our fiber because it was coming out sticky because it was full of aphids. And then we found one spinner in Thailand who figured out to put the fiber in a cold room and kind of freeze it before he spins it, and that worked out. And it went on and on and on. And we did it all in 18 months. We haven’t used a piece of non-organically grown cotton since. What seemed to be risky turned out to be a good business decision because it immediately put us in a different league than everybody else. And that’s what the customer wants. They want something special and they want to feel good about buying something. They don’t want to feel guilty.

Any risks that didn’t turn out so good?

No big ones. Lots of small ones. When we first switch over to using recycled polyester from using virgin polyester, the quality wasn’t as good. That really bothered us. So it took two or three years to [increase] the quality.
When it comes down to making a decision to make a green product at the expense of quality, we would rather make the quality and compromise the green part. Quality is absolutely number one. If you don’t have the quality, people won’t buy it. So what have you accomplished? But by in large, nine out of 10 times, we find that [creating a high-quality, green product] goes hand in hand.

What advice would you give somebody trying to become successful in a similar fashion?

I don’t know how to answer that. It all depends on what they’re trying to do. It was a lot easier to start a business when I was starting out building climbing gear. Because there was so much less competition. Can you imagine starting a little climbing company now, competing against Petzl and Black Diamond? It’s really tough. But you can still do it. I still tell kids to see if they can make a business out of their passion. Because that’s the secret to happiness, to be working at what you love to do. But it could also mean that you come up with a product but you don’t start a company around it. You go to another company and sell it to them.

 

Chouinard checking the late evening rises on the Upper Gros Ventre River. Jackson, Wyoming
Photo: Tim Davis

 

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

I’m kinda blown away by how much influence my company has on business. My book [Let My People Go Surfing], which was really a simple little book written mainly for my own employees to give them a sense of what our philosophy is all about, it’s in 13 languages now. I never thought it would go that far, and I never thought I would be leading an alliance of 50 companies. Some of these are multinational, multibillion-dollar companies asking [Patagonia] to lead in this sustainability index thing. It’s going to be a revolution, just like organic standards for food has changed the way a lot of people eat and the way we farm. This index that we’re creating can be used for buying cloths, shoes, lawnmowers, anything. This sustainability index encompasses everything that goes into making that product. What’s going to happen is that the consumers are going to start voting with their dollars, which will force corporations to change, and if corporations change, the government is going to have to follow. There’s a little Zen lesson for you, right there.

Beyond an education in business, what have you tried to teach your children?

I think that one of the best lessons that I’ve ever given my kids was one day I was [at our log cabin in Jackson Hole] with them, and my wife drove up and said, “Hey, somebody just hit a prairie chicken down the way.” So I stuffed my kids in the car and off we went, and we picked up this roadkill and brought it home. And I showed them how to skin it and how to clean it. We cooked it. We ate it. We took the feathers, tied some flies, and we went out and caught some fish. They’ve been hunter-gatherers ever since. They won’t waste any food. And they’ll eat everything that they gather or kill. They’re pretty self-sufficient in that respect. And I feel like when the shit hits the fan, they’re still going to be eating.

 

Tin Shed talk
Photo: Tim Davis

 

 


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