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A passion for outdoor activities, fishing in Tierra del Fuego | Photograph by Doug Tompkins

Patagonia’s Founder on Why There’s "No Such Thing as Sustainability"

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard may be pessimistic about the earth's future, but he's determined to keep fighting. An exclusive interview.

"I'm kind of like a samurai," says Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor-apparel maker Patagonia. "They say if you want to be a samurai, you can't be afraid of dying, and as soon as you flinch, you get your head cut off. I'm not afraid of losing this business."

He may actually mean that. Ever since Chouinard began forging mountain-climbing pitons in 1957 and selling them out of his car, he has defined his business's bottom line as something other than pure profit. At first, it was a way to fund his "dirtbag" climbing lifestyle and equip himself and his friends with gear. As Patagonia grew, so did a realization that everything his business did had an effect — mostly negative — on the environment. Today, Chouinard, 70, defines the company's mission in purely eco-driven terms: "to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."

Since 1985, Patagonia has given at least 1% of its sales to environmental charities, and in 2001, Chouinard cofounded One Percent for the Planet, an alliance of mostly small companies that pledge to do the same. One Percent recently notched its 1,000th member; in total, its members have given $42 million to more than 1,700 groups.

Built like a fireplug but quiet in demeanor, Chouinard recently talked to Fast Company about his life, his work, and corporate responsibility.

FC: How has traveling influenced the way you run Patagonia?

Traveling is my form of self-education. Every stream I fish now is not as good as it used to be. If you keep your eyes open as you travel around, you realize we are destroying this planet. I'm very pessimistic about it. I've created this business that I don't really need. I never wanted to be a businessman; I was a craftsman and good at working with my hands. At some point, I decided that this company is my best resource. Patagonia now exists to put into practice all the things that smart people are saying we have to do not only to save the planet but to save the economy.

Such as?

In the broadest sense, working on causes rather than symptoms. If you get down to the real causes, a lot of our society's biggest problems are happening because we're destroying the planet. As we cut down the forests in the Congo, diseases start jumping over to humans. The Pentagon says new wars are going to be resource wars. We're a long way from having a sustain-able society. That's why One Percent for the Planet gives strictly to environmental causes. You can give money all day long to symptomatic things and you're not going to solve the problems.

How do you convince companies that eco-philanthropy is worthwhile?

You have to get away from the idea that it's philanthropy. I look at it as a cost of doing business. Every business should say, We're polluters, we're using our nonrenewable resources, and therefore we should tax ourselves. Being part of One Percent is also good for business. The six largest companies in One Percent, including Patagonia, are all reporting that we're now having our best years ever. Think of it as a marketing cost. We'll tell a winery, "Okay, your wines are selling for $10. Charge $10.10. Nobody is not going to buy your wine because it's 10 cents more a bottle. In fact, you can add only 6 cents, because you can write off 40% of your donation on taxes." If you're a gas station and your receipt says, thank you for your purchase; 6 cents will go to the environment, I'll bet a lot of people would go out of their way to buy that gas.

Only three members of One Percent are parts of major public corporations (Sony, Diageo, and Volcom). Is that because of quarterly pressure?

I believe the accepted model of capitalism that demands endless growth deserves the blame for the destruction of nature, and it should be displaced. Failing that, I try to work with those companies and help them change the way they think about our resources.

You've been helping Wal-Mart.

We're working very closely with it on establishing criteria for sustainable clothing. Wal-Mart is dead serious about this. It asked me what's the single most important thing that it could do, and I said, "Take responsibility for your product from birth till birth." It's trying to do organic-cotton clothing, and there's not enough organic cotton in the world to ever supply Wal-Mart. There never will be. So it's going to have to get into making, say, work clothes out of 100% recyclable polyester and then when customers are done with it, recycling it back into its original polymer, and making more work clothes. We have to stop the idea of consuming-discarding.

Are you doing all that at Patagonia?

We're switching all our nylon to something called Nylon 6, which can be recycled infinitely. We're recycling cotton; we're recycling wool. We send polyester back to Japan, where it gets melted down into its original polymer. Of course, the best thing to do is make clothing so it never wears out, right?

You've also talked to car companies.

Ford came to us once and wanted to use the Patagonia brand on a hybrid SUV. Well, the last thing we want is a Ford SUV with Patagonia on it. But we said, What the hell? If Ford Motor Co. joins One Percent, we'll do it. Everybody's got a price, you know? [A Ford spokesman denies the company approached Patagonia but confirms there were internal discussions about doing so.] I think there are no absolutes. There's no such thing as sustainability. It's just kind of a path you get on and try — each day try to make it better.

A passion for outdoor activities, fishing in Tierra del Fuego | Photograph by Doug Tompkins

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8 Comments

  • Brandon Hensinger

    Thank you for this article. As the founder of an adventure travel company, I look to Yvon Chouinard for inspiration and love when I find new articles on him such as this. I love that he is trying to help Wal-Mart...thank you for Yvon for helping!

  • David Adams

    What a somber article! A man who has created one of the most "sustainable" feeling brands recognizes the paradox of sustainable consumerism. It boils down to the need to "inspire" a change in consumer tastes, and marketers have a part in this, but being part of a 1% tax wont do it. Consumer facing, it could inspire as much damage as good. Still, God bless his pragmatism and ambition, for being a leader and aligning his organization to a huge challenge. I hope they succeed and tip the ratio and turn Patagonia into a company that has a net neutral or + on the environment, if there is such a thing. I know I face the same paradox as an individual, and fail almost everyday.

  • Fabian Pattberg

    This is a great article, Thanks for sharing.

    The only thing I am not sure about is the negativity by the founder. I believe it is of the highest importance to stay positive and make what is possible to change our ways, force companies to be more responsible and drive a sustainable economy. Then we can succeed I believe.

  • Vlad Polishchuk

    Really good article.
    I also travel a lot and see huge difference in eco-impact in cities and outside of it: we create a lot of eco-destroying stuff in cities: garbage, energy consumption. cars in jams...
    BUT WE DO NOT FEEL THAT!
    Why?
    - we live there constantly and just get used to things going this way.
    - there's an army of cleaners and waste disposal companies that take all the waste .... somewhere. How may people thinl where?
    - we are just too busy with our other-very-important-things, like jobs, meetings, presentations, home improvements, personal beauty improvements and so on

    but when i go rural, that is the place where everything is becoming clear...

    guys, we have a problem on Earth here... it's a way to self-and-other-spices-elimination!!!

  • Anna Ghosh

    Very much appreciated this article but the headline is misleading. Yvon said "we're a long way from having a sustain-able society," not that there's no such thing as sustainability. Two very different things.

  • Stacy Holtmann

    "to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."
    What a great way to look at business! As a recent graduate from a business school and as a passionate environmentalist I have been trying to find the perfect way to fuse the two together. My dilemma came from the fact that the business model is based on increasing amounts of consumerism, which is a disturbing thought. It is companies like Patagonia that keep me positive even if the future of our environment leaves mostly pessimism.

  • Manjit Syven Birk

    This article reinforced my existing beliefs, which for me is really good, for I think we are too consumed with what's new and what's innovative. Just trying stuff out and operating in an authentic but value creating manner can only be IMHO as true as we know we personally are; for it is so easy to get caught up in the lasso of our own expressions and then find out that we are tethered to expectations of the past rather than self-discovery for a smarter present. The biggest thing we trade today are our own ego's, so I will go further than Chouinard here, that success here requires even more than reframing towards a market or commercial or price/value attitude, it should also serve to elucidate an executive leaders legacy. M.