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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.

Patagonia’s Founder on Why There’s “No Such Thing as Sustainability”
A passion for outdoor activities, fishing in Tierra del Fuego | Photograph by Doug Tompkins A passion for outdoor activities, fishing in Tierra del Fuego | Photograph by Doug Tompkins

“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.”

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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?

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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.

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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.