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Patagonia's Founder Seeks to Spread Environmental Gospel

Planet and profit aren't mutually exclusive, outdoor apparel maker Yvon Chouinard says.

October 09, 2005|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Yvon Chouinard has climbed a glacier on the face of Mt. Kenya, survived an avalanche on Minya Konka in Tibet and kayaked down the Yellowstone River through a treacherous rock wall canyon. He has also helped preserve millions of acres of wild lands in the U.S. and South America -- all this on top of building an outdoor apparel business with $240 million in sales.

But the founder and chairman of Ventura-based Patagonia Inc. is now facing what could be his biggest challenge: convincing corporate America that environmental awareness can be a profitable business model.

Chouinard has a new book, "Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman," which describes the pitfalls of growing a business too fast and the perils of polluting. In a nutshell, he wants people to think first about the planet.

It is, he admits, "a hard sell."

The 66-year-old Chouinard -- who backed into a career when he began making climbing tools almost 50 years ago -- isn't brimming with optimism. "I'm very pessimistic about the future," he said during a recent interview at his Ventura office. "I don't feel like we've had much impact yet."

Even his own company has a long way to go, he observed ruefully. He noted that he recently paid $2 million to install solar panels over a parking lot -- which is filled with employees' gas-guzzling SUVs.

He hopes the book, which will be released nationwide Monday, will make a difference.

In it, Chouinard describes how, after working through successes and failures, he began seeing Patagonia as a potential model for other businesses.

Environmental groups and some business leaders say it has done just that.

"Patagonia made a difference because they stood out as a leader in the apparel industry," said Todd Larsen, managing director of the environmental activist group Co-op America. "They're a true success story."

Patagonia's decision to switch to organic cotton in 1996, for example, prompted other companies to think harder about the materials they used to make clothing.

Chouinard also co-founded 1% for the Planet, an alliance of 175 small businesses that have agreed to give at least that amount of sales to environmental groups.

But business consultant Michael Kami, whom Chouinard sought out for advice more than a decade ago, holds out little hope that others are likely to follow his lead. Although corporate givers are plentiful, few businesses incorporate doing good into their business plan, Kami said. Usually, charitably inclined executives make a killing and then start handing out money.

"He's very rare," Kami said.

Observers note that a major reason Chouinard can implement his vision at Patagonia is that the company is, and always has been, privately held. With shareholders watching from the wings, it's much harder for a publicly held business to follow such a vision.

Chouinard has kept his focus on the environment "at the expense, I'm sure, of major commercial success in growing his company," said Dick Baker, chief executive of Irvine-based Ocean Pacific Apparel Corp. "He's a very different animal than virtually all public companies."

Chouinard is known for his blunt, often downbeat, assessments of the state of the planet and the shortsightedness of corporations. He describes American businesses as "lemmings" and says free trade and globalism are "absolutely killing us." As for the stock market, it's "evil," partly because shareholders get only a sliver of a company's tangible worth, he says.

So uncompromising is the 5-foot-4-inch-tall Chouinard about his principles that pal Tom Brokaw calls him the "tiny terror."

The former NBC anchor has known Chouinard for 20 years; the two have climbed Mt. Rainier and the Grand Tetons together. As Brokaw sees it, Chouinard and the outdoors are inextricably linked. "It's his whole world," Brokaw said.

Said Baker, "He is an eco-warrior in its purest sense.

"Does he piss people off? Absolutely. But he's been doing that for 30 years."

From the outset, Yvon Chouinard didn't seem destined for business success.

Born in Maine, he got his Gallic name from his father, a French Canadian from Quebec. As a child, Chouinard was bored by school, developed an "attitude" and hung out with "fellow misfits," his book says. As a young outdoorsman, he considered politicians and businessmen "greaseballs" and viewed corporations "as the source of all evil."

But he became an entrepreneur in spite of himself, to make better climbing tools.

Chouinard's father helped him build his first shop in 1957 out of an old chicken coop in the backyard of their home in Burbank, according to the book. In 1966, he moved to Ventura to be closer to the surf, setting up shop in a tin boiler room of an abandoned slaughterhouse.

In the late 1960s, Chouinard Equipment Co. added clothing to its product mix, a line that eventually was dubbed Patagonia and became a separate apparel company.

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