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Exclusive: Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard talks about the sustainability myth, the problem with Amazon—and why it’s not too late to save the planet

Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard set the standard for how a business can mitigate the ravages of capitalism on earth’s environment. At 81 years old, he’s just getting started.

Exclusive: Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard talks about the sustainability myth, the problem with Amazon—and why it’s not too late to save the planet
[Photo: Ian Allen]

“You want the truth? It’s hopeless. It’s completely hopeless.” That’s what Patagonia founder and chairman Yvon Chouinard told the L.A. Times about the plight of the earth amid climate change. In 1994. Regardless, Chouinard and his company have spent decades—and millions of dollars—fighting for environmental causes around the world while investing in more sustainable business practices. What’s more, Patagonia has embraced and promoted the B Corporation movement, while Choui­nard led such efforts as 1% for the Planet, a collective of companies that pledged to donate 1% of sales to environmental groups and has raised more than $225 million since 2002. Meanwhile, over the past 46 years, Patagonia has become a billion-dollar global brand, making it the ultimate do-good-and-do-well company.

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But Chouinard remains unsatisfied. The 81-year-old is more focused than ever on demonstrating, by Patagonia’s example, the lengths a company can go to protect the planet. During a break from fishing near his Wyoming home, Chouinard is both passionate and wry in discussing his business philosophy, what we get wrong about sustainability, why he’s so excited about regenerative agriculture, and Patagonia’s rising political machine.

Fast Company: How do we cope with the idea that to be in business means we are polluters and hurting the planet?

Yvon Chouinard: Everything man does creates more harm than good. We have to accept that fact and not delude ourselves into thinking something is sustainable. Then you can try to achieve a situation where you’re causing the least amount of harm possible. That’s the spin we put on it. It’s a never-ending summit. You’re just climbing forever. You’ll never get to the top, but it’s the journey.

FC: About eight months ago, you wrote a new mission statement for the company: “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.” What impact has that had so far?

YC: It’s affected every single person’s job. Some more than others, but it’s got everybody thinking. We’ve made a commitment to be fossil-fuel-free by 2025. We’re invested in companies that are working on growing synthetic fibers, stuff made from plants rather than petroleum. We’re not just cleaning up our act in our own buildings and stuff; we’re going around to our suppliers and convincing them to use cleaner energy. Then we’re continuing to work on saving large areas of the planet that capture a lot of carbon. I’m personally working on a new state park down at the tip of South America, about 800,000 acres of peat bogs and swamps and 200,000 acres of sea, that sequesters more carbon than almost anywhere in the world.

FC: Ten years ago, you started getting into the food space, launching Patagonia Provisions and working on regenerative agriculture. Now you’ve been bringing those regenerative principles to your cotton supply chain. Did you always see that as the ultimate path?

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YC: This is all pretty new. Scientists are just discovering how important agriculture is to climate change, both negatively and positively. [Environmentalist and entrepreneur] Paul Hawken has a book that lists 100 things that we can do to combat climate change [Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming]. Out of those 100, the most important that applied to us was agriculture, so we’re doubling down on regenerative organic agriculture. We’re working on a new certification that goes beyond organic. We’ve been using organically grown cotton for years, but all it does is cause a little bit less harm. So we decided to start growing it regeneratively and organically. We started with 150 farmers in India, small-scale farmers. We talked them into growing cotton with a minimum amount of tilling. Even with cotton now, we’re sequestering carbon. This is a big deal. Regenerative agriculture can’t be done on a large scale. It just can’t. These people are getting rid of their bugs by squashing them with their fingers. They’re stringing up lights to attract the insects at night and using natural methods. Then they’re using cover crops—chickpeas and turmeric, for which there is a big demand. And they’re using compost. We’re paying them an extra 10%, so [between that and the cover-crop revenue] they’ve almost doubled their income. Next year, we’ve got 580 small farmers who will grow cotton this way.

FC: What do you think of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk pursuing interplanetary travel and Mars and moon colonies because they don’t seem to believe that we can save our home planet?

YC: [Laughs] I think it’s pretty silly. And not just silly, but it’s really a shame. The monies that are going to space exploration should be used to save our own planet right now. We’re in a triage situation. Things are so grim. It’s World War III. I lived through World War II, and I remember what the country had to do to mobilize. You couldn’t buy sugar. You couldn’t buy meat. Being French Canadians, we were lucky in that we got horsemeat. [Laughs] That’s what has to happen with this global warming business. Here we’re just wasting this money going to Mars. I want to start doing some T-shirts that just have a rainbow trout on it, the T-shirt, and it says, there’s no rainbow trout on Mars, or screw Mars. We gotta do that.

[Photo: Ian Allen]
FC: You’ve been pretty clear about your pessimism around the fate of the planet while remaining committed to trying to fix it. When we spoke back in 2017, you said something to the effect of “What’s the alternative, just sitting on my ass?” To what do you attribute your ability not to be nihilistic and to keep working toward that never-ending summit?

YC: The solution to depression is action, and I’ve got a clear idea what I need to do. A lot of people want to do something about global warming, but they don’t know where to start. It’s a lack of introspection and imagination. A guy in our fabric lab went to one of our suppliers in Japan and he said, “Hey, I see you’re buying your energy from coal-fired power plants. Why don’t you switch over to green power?” This is a giant Japanese factory. He said, “I hadn’t thought about that.” They looked into it, switched over to green energy, and it only cost them $7,000 more a year. So there you go. The guy never thought about it, but it sounded like a good idea. There is a lot of that low-hanging fruit around.

FC: What role has your Buddhism played in finding that approach?

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YC: You can approach Zen in different ways. One way is you can sit there and contemplate your navel all day long. I just approached it through action, whether it’s sport or business.

FC: In the face of news like the Amazon rain forest burning or the current administration’s efforts to open up logging in Alaska, how do you stay motivated? Is it simply more action?

YC: Yeah, it is. We came out with a film that’s against offshore, penned fish farms and hatcheries, Artifishal. It has had a huge effect, particularly in Europe. Because of that film, a lot of the schoolchildren in Sweden are no longer fed farmed salmon. I just heard yesterday that Denmark is going to stop licensing any more offshore fish farms. Francis Mallmann, the chef, the barbecue king in Argentina, has taken salmon out of 19 of his restaurants worldwide. You see little victories like that, and it all adds up.

FC: That’s where your motivation comes from?

YC: Yes. It’s not like we’re sitting here all depressed. [Laughs] And Trump, we’re doing a big backsliding with this whole Trump administration, but they’ll be gone in another year or so. I’m convinced of that. Then we can get rid of all the stuff that he did, start over again.

FC: The Business Roundtable recently issued a statement expanding its definition of the purpose of a corporation from solely making money for shareholders to seeking to benefit all stakeholders, including employees, communities, and the environment. What did you think when you heard that?

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YC: It’s a good first step. The ones that actually do it are going to be pretty pleasantly surprised that it leads to good business. The consumer, especially with consumer products, is expecting that from companies, and if you’re not doing it, you’re going to lose out.

FC: You’ve said in the past that you could convince anyone one-on-one that chasing growth for growth’s sake is bad and that embracing the ideals of sustainability, or responsibility, only makes you more profitable. If you were in that Business Roundtable, what would you say to the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase or Apple?

YC: If I had enough time, I would just give them example after example of how doing the right thing ended up making us more money. And the additional motivation was just believing in karma. It comes back every single time.

FC: Patagonia is a private company. Would it help your argument to more regularly disclose financials?

YC: It probably would. [Laughs] But I don’t know. Let’s say you’re a gasoline company, selling gas at the pump. There’s a gas station on every corner, basically. Would you go out of your way to go to the one that was a member of 1% for the Planet, and on your receipt it said, “Thank you for spending $40 on gasoline. Forty cents of that is going to go to planting trees, saving the planet”? I mean, be very specific about where it’s going to go.

FC: Probably, yes.

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YC: Gasoline is gasoline, right? You can’t sell your gasoline on [the idea] that yours is superior to someone else’s.

FC: Though they try, but yeah.

YC: We all know it’s the same stuff. [Laughs] Yet they spend millions in advertising themselves. For what? It’s ridiculous. It’s not based on anything tangible. But this would be a great marketing ploy.

FC: In the past, you consulted with folks at large companies, such as Walmart, and came away not so convinced of their actual ability to pursue sustainability. If we’re looking to create a better version of capitalism, what do you think should be done with publicly traded companies?

YC: You’ve got to reinvent capitalism altogether. It leads to a whole bunch of poor people and a few extremely rich people. Ultimately, capitalism is going to lose its customers. There won’t be anybody to buy the product because everybody is going to be so poor. The whole thing is going to crash before the next election, probably. We’re going to get another huge recession, and everybody’s going to lose out on their stocks. There we go again. It’s a system that’s got to change. The whole stock thing is dependent on growth. Look at Amazon. Amazon doesn’t make a profit. They don’t pay any taxes. Nothing. But they’re growing like crazy. It’s all growth, growth, growth—and that’s what’s destroying the planet. I’m dealing with that myself. We’re a billion-dollar company, over a billion, and I don’t want a billion-dollar company. The day they announced it to me, I hung my head and said, “Oh God, I knew it would come to this.” I’m trying to figure out how to make Patagonia act like a small company again.

FC: How do you stop growth?

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YC: There is a book from the Henokiens, an organization of companies that have been in business for 200 years minimum. Of course there are hardly any American companies; they are either Japanese or European. How are they able to stay in business for 200 years? Well, they couldn’t grow 15% a year for 200 years, let me tell you that. [Laughs] They were able to diversify, and they’re not the same company as when they started. Some of them started out as a blacksmith’s shop, like I did. But they have purposely held back on growth for the sake of longevity.

FC: What do you make of proposals like the Green New Deal? Is that encouraging?

YC: It is, absolutely. I’m an avowed socialist. I’m proud of it. That was a dirty word just a few years ago until Bernie Sanders brought it up. It was equated with communism and that whole thing. Yet the countries around the world that are most squared away are all socialistic countries like those in Scandinavia. I’m not talking about Venezuela, which is a disaster. That’s not a socialistic country. That’s a . . . I don’t know what.

FC: What role can businesses like Patagonia play in advocating for that national mobilization effort to save the planet and change how we work in the process?

YC: We’re keeping quiet in the primary election, but for the national presidential election, we’re going to be very, very active. We’re going to spend a lot of money and basically say, vote the climate deniers out. Anyone who is a climate denier or even on the fence, vote them out because they are evil. They are out to destroy our planet, and we’re not going to stand for it. We got involved in the last election and we helped elect a couple of senators in Montana and Nevada. I had no idea how much power we really have.

FC: That was the first time Patagonia pushed for and supported individual candidates. What were the lessons out of that experience?

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YC: They were going to be close races, and I’ve heard from them both that we made the difference. When we have that amount of power, let’s use it. Because the opposition is using it. You’ve got the Koch family and the fossil-fuel companies: They’re going to be influencing the elections. We’ve got to do the same thing.

FC: You mentioned Artifishal. Even with Patagonia’s smaller, shorter films—I liked [surfer] Dave Rastovich’s Saving Martha, on Tasmanian fish farms—there’s an aspect of fun with them, whether it’s surfing or climbing, combined with activism for the causes you believe in. Over the last number of years, you’ve invested more in that kind of storytelling to get these issues across to people in a way that’s engaging. I don’t want to call it marketing, but has this become a much bigger part of the company?

YC: Well, that’s for sure. We’ve got a propaganda machine going. After we were involved in this film 180 Degrees South [a 2010 documentary retracing Chouinard’s 1968 journey from Ventura, California, to Patagonia, Chile] and then DamNation [Patagonia’s 2014 movie about the damage dams can do], we realized the power that we have in film. I had no idea. With DamNation, we got the whole Obama administration to rethink hydropower. They no longer considered it green energy. Now it’s back, of course, with Trump, but that was it; they said hydropower is not green energy, and that was as a result of our film. We recognize that people make decisions based on emotion, and the best way to elicit emotion is through film. It’s not through books or catalogs or speeches. So we’re in the film business. We’re working on 10 films at a time these days. Some of them don’t make a cent. But that’s not the purpose.

FC: A lot of people look at you as an inspirational figure, but who inspires you? Who is Yvon Chouinard’s Yvon Chouinard?

YC: [Laughs] Well, I think . . . I don’t know. There are a few people around the world who are doing really great stuff. Huey Johnson, who has a nonprofit in Marin County, in San Francisco, has been around a long time. He started Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, and he’s got an organization called Resource Renewal Institute. The guy never gives up. He is an optimist. I’m a pessimist. He’s been an inspiration. [Environmentalist] David Brower. [Oceanographer] Sylvia Earle. Jane Goodall is trying to save her chimpanzees, and they’re on their way out. It’s like Friends of the Polar Bear. Forget about trying to save the polar bear; you gotta save the planet to save the polar bear. That’s depressing stuff, but they hang in there. Goodall is on the road 360-something days a year. It kills me to spend just a few days. I just got back from Labrador and oh my God, I mean . . .

FC: That’s far from Wyoming.

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YC: Getting back from Labrador to Jackson Hole was an effort. I ran from one end of the Boston airport to the other, because my plane from Halifax was late. I passed 36 gates, and they weren’t in a row. They were in different terminals. I practically had a heart attack. [Laughs] And get this: I get to the gate, and they’ve shut it down. The plane is ready to take off. There’s a guy there who says, “Hey, I know who you are. I told them to keep the gate open for just a couple minutes more. I knew you were gonna be coming.” And they did, and they got me on. The guy says, “Hey, I’m a cinematographer. I know all about all the films you make. Keep up the good work.” And he walked away. I thought, Jesus, this guy is an angel. [Laughs] That’s the karmic kickback I’m talking about.

The secret to fighting climate change

Patagonia is helping to lead the shift to regenerative agriculture, which sequesters carbon rather than producing it. Here’s how it works.

[Illustration: Srdja Dragovic]
1. Create healthy soil

During photosynthesis, plants use solar energy to extract carbohydrate molecules, or sugar, from carbon dioxide. Those carbon-based sugars are extruded from the plant’s roots, feeding bacteria and fungi into the nearby soil. Those microorganisms turn soil minerals into nutrients that feed plants and fight disease.

[Illustration: Srdja Dragovic]
2. Avoid pesticides

To keep the soil as healthy as possible, growers eschew chemicals (akin to organic farming), relying instead on natural methods—from hanging lights at night to physically removing and killing insects by hand.

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[Illustration: Srdja Dragovic]
3. Plant cover crops

In between seasons of growing cash crops such as cotton, farmers cultivate cover crops such as turmeric and chickpeas, which make the soil hardier by protecting it against nutrient loss and erosion, as well as helping to control pests. The farmers then have an additional crop to sell to supplement their income.

[Illustration: Srdja Dragovic]
4. Use low-till farming

Tilling churns and disturbs roots—where most plants store a significant amount of their carbon—and other rich organic matter in the soil, making it less robust and productive. Even worse, it releases carbon into the atmosphere. By contrast, low- or no-till growing lets the carbon remain sequestered in the soil. Even when the roots decay, the CO2 emissions take a long time to reach the earth’s surface and atmosphere.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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