Patagonia founder and green-living pioneer Yvon Chouinard, along with colleague Vincent Stanley, penned The Responsible Company, a show-and-tell account of how to run a successful business and be good to planet earth. To mark the book's May release, Chouinard sheds light on lessons learned.
FC: This is part Patagonia history, part manifesto. How can a company become responsible?
Chouinard: A lot of the damage caused by businesses happens unintentionally, when companies don't ask questions and don't follow their supply chain through to the end. There is a checklist of good behaviors in the back of the book to remind businesses what they should be doing. Even at Patagonia, which is touted as one of the greenest companies around, I bet we can't do 20% of the checklist. But what's important is being aware.
So how does Patagonia lead by example?
We have about 40 products that we follow all the way to the end of the supply chain. We calculate the amount of water used in our clothing, but we can't stop there. There's all kinds of water—if it comes from irrigation where a dam displaces people, that's not good water. Or if it's coming from wells where it can never be replenished, that's not good water. Until we educate ourselves about our sources, we don't know what the hell we're doing.
You write about the ideal of a "postconsumerist society." What is that?
We're not citizens anymore; we're consumers. The government views us as consumers, and our economy is based on us consuming and discarding. That behavior is destroying the planet. How can we use the power of consuming to do some good? I introduced the concept of the sustainability index, and Patagonia is working with 40 clothing companies, including Walmart, to implement it. In the future, customers will be able to zap their iPhone and find out just how a clothing article was made. The index will give a grade, and suddenly the consumer is armed with information. Some jeans, for example, will have a score of 10, some a score of 2. I think it's going to be the start of getting away from consuming as recreation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.