Patagonia has always been a different kind of company. And its founder is far from a traditional CEO.
Yvon Chouinard had an unusual journey. Most leaders of global clothing companies don’t start out selling homemade climbing equipment from a van in Yosemite, Calif. But Chouinard learned lessons that have informed his innovative approach to business.
Chouinard moved with his French-speaking family from a declining mill town in Maine to Southern California when he was a child. He discovered his calling as a climber on Yosemite’s big walls. Building and selling climbing equipment led to the founding of Patagonia in 1973. He soon moved from climbing equipment to clothing for skiers, surfers, climbers and fishermen.
Today Patagonia is often lauded as one the most progressive and environmentally responsible big companies in North America, with products and policies designed to be sustainable.
Its sales are approaching $1 billion annually.
Chouinard was always an environmental leader. He is a founder of One Percent for the Planet, an organization whose corporate members donate one per cent of their total sales or 10 per cent of their profit, whichever is more, to environmental groups. Since 1985 Patagonia has donated $46 million in cash and in-kind donations.
Patagonia is also a B Corp, an accreditation that means it meets standards for social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.
Beyond that, Patagonia is also not afraid to take a political stand on issues that most businesses shy away from.
That kind of leadership is often difficult for most global companies. So how does Patagonia balance social and environmental responsibility with the economic realities of running a big clothing brand?
Chouinard says there’s no choice.
He recently published an updated version of Let My People Go Surfing, a book that covered his story as a “reluctant businessman.”
In the new edition, Chouinard explains how his business and environmental views have evolved in a decade marked by global recession and intensifying environmental crisis, yet during which he saw new levels of success for his company.
While more companies are slowly embracing elements of Chouinard’s once radical approach to business, he sees the challenges facing the planet becoming more pressing, particularly when it comes to climate change.
For Chouinard, it is not about just stopping the damage, but reversing it.
“All the work we do at Patagonia to be a more responsible company is for naught unless we can be part of the solution to this problem,” Chouinard writes in his updated book.
While others argue about the nature of the problem, Chouinard is bringing forward a solution.
He sees it as a new vision for agriculture.
Patagonia is investing in regenerative agriculture, a type of organic farming designed to improve soil health.
Chouinard says that producing food and sourcing natural fibres in this way can actually begin to reverse the damage humans have caused to the planet, since regenerative practices can reduce carbon in the atmosphere.
That agriculture-based approach is central to the company’s business model in recent years. It has introduced plant-based wetsuits, launched a startup food business, introduced new standards to improve the lives of workers in its global supply chain, and also launched a venture fund designed to support like-minded startups.
It’s an ambitious change, one seldom seen in large businesses usually constrained by the necessity of profitable quarterly results.
But Chouinard is playing the long game, for his company and the planet.
As Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein writes in the new foreword of the book, “This is the story of an attempt to do more than change a single corporation – it is an attempt to challenge the culture of consumption that is at the heart of the global ecological crisis.”