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Last Chair: Yvon Chouinard

Last Chair: Yvon Chouinard

As founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard taught people how to enjoy the great outdoors. Now he's trying to teach the world how to save the planet.
By Josh Hunter
posted: 11/22/2011
Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia
Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia

Patagonia has been thriving despite the recent recession. How?

In a recession people become very conservative. They stop buying fashion. They stop buying things that they’ll throw away in a couple months, or a couple years. They don’t mind paying more for something that will last a long time, and they buy multi-functional clothes. Instead of buying a ski jacket that will sit in a closet ten months a year they’ll buy one of our shells that can be used for climbing or skiing or on top of a suit coat in a rainstorm in the city.

That’s why we make the kinds of products we make. More and more people are realizing that we’re taking the most responsibility for our product. In fact, we’re starting a campaign where were going to be asking our customers to think twice about buying that jacket from us. We’re asking them: “Do you really need it?

Telling your customers to think twice about their purchases seems counter-intuitive for a company that sells consumer products.

Maybe so, but we’ll probably end up selling more clothes than we ever have because what we’re going to end up doing is stealing business from other companies, which aren’t saying stuff like that and aren’t cleaning up their act.

Patagonia exists basically to put into practice what all the smart people are saying we have to do to save this planet. We’re trying to be as responsible as we possibly can, and in doing so, if that works, and if we’re able to make the best product, in the most responsible way, then we can lead other companies into doing something similar.

Personally, I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job. We’re influencing tons of companies; companies like Wal-Mart. That’s what I always wanted to do.

The 1% For The Planet program you started has been incredibly successful. What’s the basic philosophy behind it?

[That program is now] in 35 countries on every continent, and it represents over $20 million a year that’s being given to the environment…It’s one of the top ten givers to environmental causes, and we don’t look at it as charity. Charity is when  you’ve had a good year, you have a bunch of money in your pocket, and you give some away. We look at it as a cost of doing business, a cost of being polluters, and a cost of using up non-renewable resources. The goal has always been for this to be incorporated into a lot of other companies’ corporate mentality.

That seems to be radically different than conventional business philosophy. What is different about Patagonia that has enabled it to lead by example?

It comes from [Patagonia] wanting to be here a hundred years from now. If you are growing 10% a year, it doesn’t take long before you’re a multi-trillion dollar company, which is impossible of course. So all of these companies that are on a growth curve like that go belly up…They don’t see the big picture. They’re accountants. Accountants look backwards. They don’t look forward.

We don’t exist to get bigger and bigger and maximize profits for the shareholders, because my family and I are the shareholders.

What have you learned from past recessions that helped you navigate through the most recent downturn?

Every time I’m stumped with a business problem, it doesn’t matter what it is, the answer is always increase the quality. Always. And that’s not very common in business.

You get, “Hey our margins our down” or “Our profits are down this year” or “Sales are low so decrease the quality, make it cheaper.” That’s absolutely the wrong direction to go.

If you increase the quality you never go wrong. Whether it’s the quality of benefits for employees or the product itself. The accountants will argue that it’s just a drain on the bottom line, but quality is number one, let me tell you.

What’s your take on sustainability? Is it possible?

I hate that word sustainability. It’s really a bogus word. It’s like adventure or gourmet—it means absolutely nothing. It’s so overused, and there’s no such thing as sustainability. There is no human, economic endeavor that’s sustainable. That’s against the second law of thermodynamics.

So Patagonia isn’t sustainable?

We try to be as responsible as we can in the ways we make our products here, but we end up creating more waste than final products, so we’re polluters. If you’re going to use the word sustainable you have to put a qualifier in front of it, less or more. Less sustainable, more sustainable: you can’t just say sustainable, there’s no such thing. So, I hate that word. I like to use the words responsible and responsibility. I think that’s better.

When you think about the future of the planet, are you an optimist or a pessimist?

I’m a total pessimist. It’s all over as far as I’m concerned. Every book I read about the environment all ends the same way. They give you this doomsday scenario all the way through, but then at the end it says BUT, if we just do these things we can turn it around.

We’re not going to do those things…But the next generation, these millennium kids, they’ve got their shit together…The only hope is this younger generation who knows what all the problems, they’re scared, and they want to do something about saving this planet. So that’s the only optimism I see is in that next generation.

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