A Man and His Planet : He surfs, climbs rocks, paddles a kayak and runs a company that caters to ‘dirt bags.’ But Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has made saving the Earth his <i> real</i> passion.
Yvon Chouinard walks the floors of his company headquarters dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt and tennis shoes. No aura of power. No hovering assistants. No outward sign whatsoever that the founder and owner of Patagonia is something of a guru to sports enthusiasts, green capitalists and environmental activists.
The reverence was hard-won. Chouinard made seemingly impossible climbs up and over rocks, mountains and glaciers. He built a very successful clothing business from scratch. He gave away money to environmental groups--and still does. Yet, and perhaps most important in the eyes of his admirers, he seems like a regular guy.
On this sunny morning, a light breeze moves off the Pacific. A dozen preschoolers laugh as they race around the company’s on-site day-care playground. And a new surfboard is stashed near the front door, on the slim chance a weak northwest swell will pick up in the afternoon. But Chouinard isn’t feeling very good about himself--or the rest of us.
“You want the truth?” he asks matter of factly. “It’s hopeless. It’s completely hopeless. Civilization is out of control, growing way beyond its resources, and it will destroy itself. Anyone who really thinks we’re in charge, that we can honestly change the course we’re on--well, they’re mistaken.”
The doomsday scenario plays frequently in Chouinard’s mind these days. He is a man obsessed--not with making and selling more of Patagonia’s warm and fuzzy outdoor wear, but with using his position as a podium from which he might persuade corporate America to change.
“I can sit down one on one with the president of any company, any time, anywhere, and convince them that growth is evil,” he says.
Chouinard, 55, grew up in a time--1950s Burbank--when growth was considered a good thing. The son of a French-Canadian plumber and a homemaker, he was a somewhat reclusive kid who took to climbing the Tehachapi Mountains in his early teens. After checking out a book on blacksmithing from the local library, he also began making and selling climbing gear.
In the emptier days after high school graduation, Chouinard would often surf one of his favorite breaks along Highway 1--from Rincon to Killer Dana--in the morning, hammer out a few pitons in the afternoon, then scrounge for soda bottles to redeem for gas money. Surfing has always been Chouinard’s favorite sport, he says, “because you can’t cheat at it.”
By the mid-'60s, though, Chouinard had become a rising star in the then-obscure sport of rock climbing. He and three friends were the first to scale El Capitan’s North American Wall, in Yosemite National Park. On a later expedition in Tibet, an avalanche trapped his group, shoving them 1,500 feet downhill. One friend was killed. Another broke his back. In the aftermath, Chouinard became a Buddhist.
“I died on the way down the mountain,” he says. “But I came back. And now I have absolutely no fear of death . . . when it comes time for me to eat it, I’ll go.”
Today, with only a weathered face to hint at his age, Chouinard is arguably one of the world’s preeminent outdoorsman: a kayaker, fisherman, skier, surfer and climber. Of team sports, he says: “I love Super Bowl Sunday because I can surf Rincon without the crowd.”
In the past few months, Chouinard has traveled to Japan and Christmas Island, and he spends many weeks each year with his wife and two children at his second home in Moose, Wyo., between the Tetons and the Snake River.
No wonder he’s a mentor to people whose work simulates play.
“He defined this kind of ‘Fun Hog’ mentality, which meant he was really into all kinds of non-motorized outdoor sports and did it with a certain environmental consciousness. He puts himself in the middle of these really heavy situations, then pulls it off without leaving anything behind,” says Steve Casimiro, editor of Powder magazine.
What some view as tremendous sporting achievements, Chouinard shrugs off as restlessness.
“I’m kind of an 80% guy. I get really into something for a while, then when it comes down to where you have to get really weird, really anal, about getting to the last stage--that’s when I back off. I think it’s bad to go that last bit. You become a bore.”
After 10 years of making hardware for hard-core climbers in a rented corrugated tin shed behind the Hobson Meat Packing plant in Ventura, Chouinard and a partner started Patagonia in 1974. The shed is still there, virtually unchanged. The plant has been converted into Patagonia headquarters, which, like its founder, seems to straddle two worlds. The entrance faces downtown Ventura and, beyond, the creeping sprawl of Los Angeles County. Behind the building lie the quiet, undeveloped hills of Ventura.
Patagonia’s original line of mountain-inspired clothing was designed to be limited, functional, high-quality and expensive, for the genuine outdoorsman (or “dirt bag,” in company parlance). The business grew slowly and comfortably in the late ‘70s, then exploded in the ‘80s. In 1992, sales reached $112 million.
Today, the company has 15 direct retail outlets and about 1,200 dealers worldwide. Its 112-page fall/winter mail-order catalogue features everything from long underwear to one-piece mountaineering suits--displayed amid evocative pictures of the great outdoors. A kind of tree-hugger’s Playboy, printed, of course, on recycled paper.
Chouinard has often watched Patagonia’s development from a distance, spending six to eight months a year field-testing in the world’s highest mountains, fastest rivers and best surf. He calls this time away from the office work. “It’s research, it’s studying lifestyles. . . . I’m the outside man. I can’t do my job sitting at a desk.”
Patagonia began to take an environmental stand while in its infancy, providing a little money, a work station and encouragement to a young activist bent on protecting the Ventura River. In 1985, the company began pledging 10% of the its pretax profits (changed in 1992 to 1% of total sales) to environmental groups. Most of the largess is parceled out in relatively small amounts ($1,000 to $20,000) to grass-roots organizations, because they “can take $1,000 and make it seem like $1 million,” says Libby Ellis, director of the company’s cash grants program.
Some of the donations have been controversial. The eco-gangbangers Earth First!--protectors of old-growth redwoods--received $10,000 in 1989 and cost the company sales in the Northwest. Ongoing support for Planned Parenthood (the logic being that environmental healing begins with population control) landed it on the Christian Action Council’s boycott list.
“Patagonia supports the whole spectrum of environmental groups, from moderate to radical,” says recipient Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which targets illegal whaling vessels and poachers around the world. “Yvon Chouinard is a businessman who hasn’t lost touch with the spirit of the ‘60s, and he’s putting back more than he’s taking out, which is very, very rare these days.”
Although cynics point out that the $3.6 million in Patagonia handouts over the past seven years has paid off in a lot of free publicity--in the form of mostly fawning newspaper and magazine articles--it has also cleaned up beaches and protected habitats, with a minimum of hassle.
“I’m sitting here writing a grant proposal to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is a very cumbersome process,” says Tom Murdoch, executive director of the Adopt-a-Stream Foundation in Washington state. “Patagonia just asked for a single-page letter. They wanted to know what we were doing and how much we needed. That’s it. Check was in the mail.”
Patagonia has also been praised for an employee benefits package that is among the most progressive in the country, featuring an on-site day-care center, flex time and a pro bono program whereby employees work for up to a month for a nonprofit group at full pay.
Throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s, Chouinard and company seemed at once shrewd and organic, achieving a special elan in corporate America. But in 1991, with the recession beating down, the company stalled. Inventory was dumped into the market at below cost, and 120 employees, 20% of its work force, were laid off. One-third of the clothing line was cut. Sales went flat.
“Lost in Patagonia,” an August, 1992, Inc. magazine article, alternately depicted Chouinard as distant and meddlesome, demanding and out-of-touch, insular and egocentric. It looked upon Patagonia’s New Age-dappled operation with a barely disguised smirk: “A company tour leads from the expansive day-care facility to the subsidized cafeteria, where employees, fresh from a noontime game of volleyball, load up on gourmet pizza, salad and yogurt.” The article concluded: “Yvon Chouinard touts his company as a model for the future, when, in fact, its time may already have passed.”
Chouinard claims 1993 was a boom year and, just for a moment, he sounds like a CEO from the Carnegie school: “This is the healthiest company in the industry right now. Look, I’m doing things my way, and making more money today than I’ve ever made before.”
But the struggles of 1991-'92 seem to have pushed Chouinard further out on the corporate fringe. Patagonia’s year-old, in-house Environmental Assessment Project, for example, aims to catalogue the company’s impact on the environment, as well as that of its contractors and suppliers.
“It’s not enough to make money and give it away,” Kris McDivitt, chief executive of Patagonia, recently told Footprints magazine. “It’s now time to change the very thing you do.”
Toward that end, the company last year introduced PCR Synchilla, a fabric made from 80% recycled plastic, in many of its garments. “People really respond to that,” says Brad Gantt, a salesman at Adventure 16 in West Los Angeles. “To have a kind of physical manifestation, a jacket or something where people can hold it in their hands--that’s recycling right in your face.”
The company’s biggest change for the ‘90s, though, is its “no-growth” policy. “It’s absurd to think the economy can grow forever; it’s absurd and it’s arrogant. But that’s part of the fabric of this country,” Chouinard says.
His master plan is to sell Patagonia’s no-growth policy directly to consumers, who will force other companies to change the way they do business. “I have to show corporations that they can make more money being responsible and efficient,” he says. Although some observers suggest that Chouinard is merely taking a recession-born lemon and making environmentally sound lemonade, he can’t seem to get the Earth’s problems off his conscience.
“A few years ago, I was driving myself crazy with all of this. There are no final victories. They want to dam up your favorite river, you fight it and win, but you never stop the dam completely. You stall ‘em, and they’re back at you in five or 10 years. And I really like to see things done. . . .
“So I used to look over all the (petitions for funds) we’d get, and see all the giant problems these little organizations were taking on, and I was getting depressed. I was bumming out my wife. I’d start talking about this or that project and my kids would leave the room. I’d get in the car and go surfing and think, ‘Oh, Christ, here I am, by myself, driving around, burning all this fuel.’ ”
Then Chouinard came to the realization that even if the world is doomed, he may have pushed back the final reckoning--at least a little bit.
“I’m not finished, but I’m doing enough,” he says. “And because of that, it’s a lot easier to say, ‘Screw it, I’m going surfing.’ ”
Yvon Chouinard, on Work
“I’m the outside man. I can’t do my job sitting at a desk.”
“Look, I’m doing things my way, and making more money today than I’ve ever made before.”
. . . on Play
“I love Super Bowl Sunday because I can surf Rincon without the crowd.”
“I’m kind of an 80% guy. I get really into something for a while, then when it comes down to where you have to get really weird . . . about getting to the last stage--that’s when I back off.”
. . . on the Environment
“Civilization is out of control, growing way beyond its resources, and it will destroy itself.”
“There are no final victories. They want to dam up your favorite river, you fight it and win, but you never stop the dam completely. You stall ‘em.”