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Patt Morrison Asks

Yvon Chouinard: Capitalist cat

The founder of Patagonia Inc. climbed from a hardscrabble childhood in the Maine backwoods to become a legendary outdoorsman, philanthropist, environmentalist and pioneering businessman.

March 12, 2011|Patt Morrison

What's with the kitty?

Yvon Chouinard invented better, eco-friendly rock-climbing gear in his own smithy. He climbed from a hardscrabble childhood in the Maine backwoods to become a legendary outdoorsman, philanthropist, environmentalist and pioneering businessman, the founder of Patagonia Inc. There probably isn't a major mountain range in the world he hasn't climbed, but it's the slippery slope of global eco-business where he's registered his reputation for blazing trails. In short, Chouinard has made his own luck. But that cat statue, an Asian symbol of good fortune and luck, still sits atop his desk at Patagonia's headquarters in Ventura.

Chouinard can sound alternately deeply dispirited and occasionally hopeful about the planet and the humans who overrun it. But what's really irked him just now is seeing that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, pretty much the antithesis of Chouinard's personal ethos, poses on the cover of his new memoir -- wearing a Patagonia vest.

When you have to fill out "occupation" on a form, what do you put down?

I traveled to China about 30 years ago; you had to put down your occupation, so I just decided to put down "capitalist," and they would look at that and say, "Capitalist. You must be very rich," and I'd say, "Yes I am!" You could hear them [he sucks in air between his teeth]. Already 30 years ago it was glorious to be rich in China. I hate that word "executive."

What's wrong with "executive"?

To me it's those guys in airplane magazines, in all those executive ads. It denotes that you play golf!

Footprint Chronicles, on the Patagonia website, is a kind of corporate sustainability report, one article of clothing at a time. How does it differ from an ordinary corporate annual report?

Public corporations talk about all the good things they're doing, but none of them talks about all the evil they're doing. That got me kind of angry, so we decided to do one and put it in a format that it was readable by our customers and by other companies. I've heard other companies are now using it as a model.

What we're trying to do is to get companies to be more transparent in the good that they're doing but also all the bad, because if you don't face up to the fact, we're never going to do anything about it.

How about your 1% for the Planet program?

It has 1,400 member [businesses] in 35 countries, and it's growing one a day. Whether you're profitable or not, you have to [give] 1% [of sales]. We don't look at it as charity; we look at it as the cost of doing business, because charity is: you've had a good year and you've got extra profits and you give a few hundred bucks to the symphony or something. We look at it as, we're using up nonrenewable resources, we're polluters, [so] we try to be as responsible as we can.

There's no such thing as sustainability in any human endeavor, so we just feel like this is the cost of doing business that we include in everything we do. It [has been mostly] real mom-and-pop operations, but we're getting more midsized companies joining now, which is what I was hoping would happen. Parts of public companies [are joining], but there's no public company entirely that's a member.

Patagonia isn't a public company?

No, my wife and my kids and I own [it] all. If [it] was a public company, we wouldn't be able to give money to, say, Planned Parenthood, because a stockholder would go nuts. We're able to be much freer.

What would happen if yours were the nation's corporate model?

You'd see more responsible companies, and you'd see companies grow a lot slower. Public companies demand 15% growth every year until they hit a size that is unsustainable and they go belly up. They're all heading toward suicide. You can't grow 15% every single year. Then you exceed your market, and you throw lots of people out of work. I think small, family-owned companies is the way to go.

You believed in sustainability once; do you now?

I think that word has gotten overused, like "gourmet" or "adventure" or "green." You hear it all the time: sustainable this, sustainable that. And it's not. Any economic endeavor is going to cause waste and heat and pollution. It's just consuming and discarding, and the whole economic system is based on that. It's a finite world, but you won't find any economists who will tell you that. We're in a recession, and the government tells us to buy more, and that's the reason we're in trouble.

We have to get away from a system solely based on consuming. You can imagine what will happen if we do -- there's going to be a rough glitch for a while.

Rough to wean ourselves off consumerism?

Yes, absolutely.

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