- Text by Michael Fordham
Yvon Chouinard is arguably the most successful businessman in the history of the outdoor industry. He has created in Patagonia a company that remains on the cutting edge – not only of technology and design but in the ethical values it practises and preaches.
Chouinard was always a pioneer. Born in 1938 in Maine, he moved to Southern California with his French Canadian family as an eight-year-old and became a surfer in the earliest days of that coastal sub-cult. An interest in falconry soon led him to the vertically oriented delights of climbing, and he would go on to play a vital part in the evolution of North American alpinism, inspiring a move away from the high-impact use of hand-forged iron pitons toward lightweight, removable protection. He picked up influence from Eastern philosophy, and made a killing along the way – manufacturing and marketing the products that enabled him and his contemporaries to explore the mountains in a less harmful manner.
Patagonia has pioneered sustainability as a legitimate business aim. The highly successful One Percent For The Planet initiative afforded the company something of a cult following, while a self-imposed ‘environmental audit’ cemented their commitment to using non-toxic, sustainable resources. By applying the principle of ‘do little harm’ to an otherwise hypocritically depletive industry that was (and largely still is) encouraging us all to love the planet to death, Patagonia as a brand has become somewhat iconic amongst a generation who see themselves as environmental activists.
When we meet at Patagonia HQ in Ventura, California, in the summer of 2009, the company Yvon created is about to delve wholeheartedly into the European surf market with a new line in wetsuits. The man himself, meanwhile, has been advising corporate America on how to tread a lighter environmental path – but he remains deeply pessimistic about the future of the planet.
Still, fresh from a lunchtime yoga class before sharing a wholesome meal in the corporate café, Chouinard listens carefully to my questions, answering them with a relaxed but passionate delivery.
Where does surfing fit into the broader Patagonia project?
Well, I’ve been a life-long surfer, since ’54 or ’55. It’s been a life-long passion. I like to make things that I use myself, and I wanted to diversify the company. Being dependent on mountain sports is kind of a dead end these days. You know, as I’ve been quoted saying before, it’s never going to snow again. A lot of the first descents and ice climbs I’ve done around the world no longer exist. I wouldn’t want to own a ski area! The thing with making clothing for climbing is that you need a lot of stuff. Fact is, you don’t need any of that shit for surfing. All you need is a wetsuit. You know, Kelly Slater can’t surf any better with a pair of $60 surf trunks than he can with cut-off jeans. The whole surf industry is built around caps, T-shits, sweatshirts and very expensive surf trunks, which are totally unnecessary. It’s been a dilemma for us, because we want to make authentic stuff. I don’t want to make stuff that people want but don’t need. That’s the problem with the world. Everyone’s buying stuff they don’t need. How do we break that cycle? Plus, no large company has ever broken into the surfing market, they’ve all started from scratch, you know, because otherwise you don’t have that authenticity.
Is that ‘hardcore’ authenticity still possible with a huge business like Patagonia?
Well, I’m interested in the ‘Generation Y’ effect… In a world of almost infinite lifestyle choices, Generation Y activism is about young people knowing their own inner priorities and vowing to live by them, even in the face of adversity. So Generation Y, as opposed to Generation X and the boomers before them, applies to kids born between the years 1980 and 1994. It is this generation’s consumer activism that makes them a unique challenge for marketing. Generation Y consumers don’t just want to buy brands, they want to buy into what a brand believes in. They flock towards brands like Red and Livestrong that spark movements. Some are social movements – the success of sweatshop-free and socially responsible clothing is making clothing brands like Timberland, American Apparel and Patagonia must-have items for Generation Y. So anyway, this new generation is calling bullshit on a lot of stuff that marketeers do. They don’t believe in advertising, they won’t listen to advertising. So it fits right in with us, right now we’re having the best year we’ve had in years. I personally love recessions.
That was my next question – how has the downturn affected Patagonia?
I love a recession because it kills the competition and drives people to buy things that last a long time. They stop being silly in their fashion choices. They start buying practical things, and that’s where we are. It was a good time to get into surf too, for the same reasons. That’s why I encouraged my son to build his surfboard business [Fletcher Chouinard Designs], because the only things you really need for surfing are a wetsuit and a surfboard. He’s making surfboards that are as good if not better than any in the world right now – performance-wise. And as far as durability and strength goes they are a hundred percent stronger than polyester urethane boards, and they are non-toxic into the bargain.
What’s the blank made from?
Well we make our own blanks. They’re out of a Styrofoam, but it’s a closed cell extruded Styrofoam – we’re the only ones making boards out of this stuff – then we glass them with a non-toxic epoxy. So anyway, they’re very high quality. That’s given us the authenticity required in the surf world. And now we’ve built the wetsuit too. We didn’t just want to build another wetsuit like everybody else. They’re all made in the same factory in Taiwan you know, it doesn’t matter what brand you’re buying, they’re all made out of the same materials and the same unsustainable processes. So we researched materials, did a lot of homework and came up with a better neoprene, and better wool for the inside. We put the wool throughout the whole suit too, not just on the trunk areas. So our 2mm is warmer than your normal 3mm. I think that the suit is probably the best thing we’ve ever made in this company.
But your core market is still the outdoor market. Do you think the two, surfing and ‘outdoors’, are becoming the same thing?
Well, it’s interesting. We took a trip to Chile a few years ago, with Gerry Lopez, the Malloys and Jack Johnson. Out of this trip came an article for Surfer magazine. In the article there was this photo of Gerry wearing one of our silver down jackets. Suddenly that became a surf item, and every surfer wanted to buy a Patagonia down jacket in silver. I realised at that point that a down jacket is actually a surf product, especially in November in Scotland or something, when you get out of the water and there’s three inches of snow on the ground, and your hands are so cold you can’t even put your key in your lock, you want to wear something warm. And so I realised I didn’t have to make T-shirts, sweatshirts and caps – I realised I could get into the surf industry by selling multifunctional clothing. I’m not interested in the fourteen-year-old girl or the seventeen-year-old boy. I’m more interested in the one-percenters who are serious surfers and who don’t follow fashion and don’t want to buy something that they only wear one percent of the time, but something that they can wear all the time.
So in this search for an authentic aesthetic and authentic products – is this where people like the Malloys, Lopez and Wayne Lynch come in?
Yeah. We call them the ambassadors rather than sponsored surfers. I wanted to work with people that symbolise the soul of the sport. I don’t like the idea of professional surfing, or professional climbing for that matter. Professionalism doesn’t belong in those sports as far as I’m concerned, and I look at who the professionals are and I have a hard time respecting them. I mean, there’s a few that are really good guys and stuff, but the real soul of the sport are the Rastas [Dave Rastovich], who doesn’t compete and, you know, he should, he’s worth way more to Billabong than any of their competitive surfers, because he’s where surfing is going with Generation Y. This generation have all had courses in environmental stuff starting in grammar school, and they’re very aware that we’re destroying the planet and these people, these people who represent surfing’s soul, are their heroes.
Do you think that surfers will ever evolve into a group of custodians for the environment that they exploit and enjoy?
Well I mean, that’s the ideal, I’m not sure whether these guys actually live it out in their lives. They talk a good story, but I haven’t seen any effect of what they’re actually doing. I hate to say that. Ninety percent of the American people consider themselves environmentalists. But, you ask them how that translates into their everyday lives and it all falls apart. Have you changed your light bulbs? Do you volunteer? Have you changed your life at all? Do you do anything? I mean, you are what you do, not what you say. And that’s the state of environmentalism these days.
Do you think the people Patagonia welcomes into its fold can make a difference too?
Well Chris Malloy can have a big influence in his films – a really big influence. I mean, maybe he doesn’t change his life too much, but maybe he can really influence a lot of kids through his films. All it takes to make a big impact on a kid is to have Kelly Slater walking down the beach picking up a piece of paper and sticking it in a trash can. You don’t say anything, it just shows something positive. Right now you go along surfing beaches the day after a swell and there’s just trash everywhere. That’s all it would take. These guys can wield a big influence. We get hit up to sponsor surfers all the time. But we don’t sponsor people in the same way as a conventional surf company. Dan Malloy gives us a lot of feedback on clothing. He’s got a really good eye. He’s got a good sense of how design works with the designers here and he helps them come out with the right product. These guys test our wetsuits and give us feedback on that so to be sponsored by us means you have to do some work. And Gerry, we published his book and sent him around to do book tours – he’s become a good speaker. He was terrible at first, but we helped him put together a slide show and it sold a lot of books.
How do you stay motivated to do business when you could easily just take off forever and climb, surf and fish?
Well, I enjoy it. You can’t travel all the time. You’d burn out, plus you’ll end up in karmic hell. I’m a real pessimist about the future of the planet. I mean there’s absolutely no reason to be hopeful at all. But, I feel a responsibility to do what I can about it, and doing what I can means using this business as a resource with which to influence other companies. That’s why I stay in business. I don’t need any more money, I mean Christ, if you look at my car, the way I live my life, you’ll know the way we live is very simple. Money is not a motivator at all. In fact I give most of my money away. What motivates me is pessimism about the world. I love the natural world, and I want to protect it. I mean it sounds corny, but that’s the reason I stay in business.
I know you’ve been influenced by Zen Buddhism and the nothingness at the centre of the Zen philosophy. What happens when you go? What is your ambition ‘post-Chouinard’ for Patagonia?
I’ve told my family to basically sell it when I go – get out of it. And it may be that our work will be finished when I’m gone. The world doesn’t need a clothing company. And if we can be successful and influence large companies to get greener then our work will be done. We’re working with Wal Mart right now, the world’s second largest company. They are the eleventh largest economy in the world. It’s hard to get your head around but there are only ten countries on the planet whose economy is larger than the annual turnover of Wal Mart. We’ve been influencing them a lot. Right now, we’re working with them to create a manual for how to make and market environmentally and ethically responsible clothing. We’re working with them to communicate how to identify all the fibres – which ones truly are green, and which ones aren’t. It’s going to include methods of computing your carbon footprint when making clothing, calculating water usage, the impact of various dyes etc. It’s crazy, but nothing like that exists at the moment. In the process of creating this user manual and them aiming to work closely to it, Wal Mart are truly trying to become a greener company. We’re constantly sharing information because we constantly have to educate ourselves. And you know, it’s working as far as our mission statement goes: one, make the best clothing possible; two, cause no unnecessary harm; three, use business to influence other companies.
They’ve made a commitment to look at all their suppliers and do an environmental and social assessment of each company they work with, and the companies that don’t come up to their standards they’re not going to buy from. That’s the first step. The second step is to look at every single product that they sell in Wal Mart stores and assess the ones that are of toxic ingredients. If there is an alternative, then they will buy from the alternative. I mean that’s a huge commitment and they could truly change the world by doing this. I made the keynote address when they announced this new policy to their 1,200 buyers in Arkansas, and they announced at that time each buyer would have to work in this way and if they did it there would be reward – because it’s a lot more work for a buyer – and if they didn’t want to do it, they said, ‘I’m sure you can find a job somewhere else’. So it is a serious commitment.
So where do governments come into this? Have you had a sit-down with Obama yet?
No, I haven’t had a sit-down with the President. But we can’t save the world without the government, that’s for sure. Over the last eight years, we couldn’t do anything really, so we just gave up on government, just went around them. But Obama’s administration gets it. The big question today is, okay, if we go to a green economy, is it going to bankrupt the world? Is it going to crash the whole economic system, because it’s all been based on cheap energy and oil for the last 150 years. Now we’re saying we have to get away from that and we have to get away from the idea of consuming and discarding endlessly. So what’s going to happen? What we’re saying is, ‘Look, if you turn your business green, you’ll make more profit than you ever have, like we are right now’. At the top of this One Percent For The Planet organisation that we helped create, there’s well over a thousand members now. I was just looking at the figures recently and the top six companies on the program are all having the best year they’ve had in ages. And that’s the lesson that business has to learn. We have a big role in society right now, to prove that green business is good business, and in fact if you don’t do it, you end up like General Motors and Ford, these stupid-ass big companies that resisted every change that came along.
If you’re so pessimistic about the baby boomers and Generation X doing anything about emissions and climate change, what do you make of nuclear power as a potential source of relatively clean energy?
It’s awful. Economically, nuclear power makes no sense whatsoever. It has to be heavily subsidised by governments, even insurance companies won’t touch it, so the government has to insure the businesses in case the planet blows up. So that’s a huge risk to take. The government have to guarantee loans to create the infrastructure to create the power, because no bank is going to lend them money. And there’s very little uranium left in the world, so we have to trade with unstable and suspect regimes. And there’s nothing you can do with the toxic waste. You could save a tremendous amount of energy just through conservation, and you can replace all that fossil fuel-generated energy with wind, sun, waves and tidal power. I mean the city of San Francisco figures that it could power the entire city with tidal power at the mouth of the bay. And they don’t even have big tides. Look at places in the UK and France, they have fifteen-foot tides all year round. Then there’s wave power. Chile for example, could power the whole country with wave power. In the north they have sun 365 days a year; in the south they have high, high winds, and the potential for wave power is phenomenal. Nuclear energy just represents a lack of will and imagination. We’re still subsidising coal, we’re subsidising oil. Get rid of those subsidies and then you’ll see people start recycling, and it makes sense to recycle, and it makes sense to go to alternate energy. You don’t even need to subsidise this alternate energy, I don’t think. But you’ve got to get rid of the other subsidies.
The problem is, though, that we won’t get to play in our cars, jump on our airplanes and enjoy the environment that we love.
You know what? There won’t be planes in the air twenty years from now. To keep those things from falling to earth, there’s no known technology that will keep them up there without petroleum. They’re not going to be running on hydrogen, I can tell you that. They won’t be running on electrical power. America has put all its subsidies into airplanes and automobiles and roads. We should have a high-speed train from San Diego to Vancouver, Canada – it’s a straight shot. Our passenger trains are going slower than they did in the eighteenth century!
But you know what’s going to happen, is that we’re not going to get in an airplane and go to Tavarua in the future – we’re going to have to live with the break that’s close by, which means we’re going to have to protect it. If somebody goes to destroy that surf break there are going to be a lot of surfers that go crazy. They’re not going to allow that, because that is all we have, because we can’t fly to Tavarua anymore. It’s the same thing with a little local stream that’s polluted – if I want to fish, I’m going to have to clean this stream up. I mean, people talk about eating locally as being vital, but it’s not just eating locally that’s important. We’re going to have to do our sports locally, we really are. Everybody thinks there’s going to be some technology that emerges that’s going to transport us all over the world with no carbon emissions. That’s not going to happen. And you know what? You’ll get used to it. I think I need somebody to tell me to stop travelling. If someone was to tell me, ‘No you can’t do that, because there isn’t any oil left and you’re destroying the environment,’ I’ll say, ‘Okay’.