Yvon Chouinard Wins Environmental Good Guy Award

We've recently been asking for your thoughts on Honorary TreeHuggers. One respondent cryptically left the nomination "Yvon Chouinard" without any explanation. For those familiar with the name, none is required. But if it's not one you recognise, let's fill in that gap. Because he just won the inaugural award of OutDoor Celebrity of the Year. The jurors said he is renown for his "visionary business strategy and high degree of environmental awareness," stating he is "an outstanding figure above all because of his contributions to environmental protection." Yvon is best known as the founder and owner of Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company, with over $240 million USD in annual sales. Yvon committed his company to only using organic cotton 10 years ago, even when there was no reliable supply. They had to build the infrastructure to obtain the fabrics they needed. He was also the first to convert his line of fleece jackets to using recycled PET bottles as feedstock. We reported earlier how Patagonia are now recycling their polyester performance underwear into new clothes. These are the well known examples of how Yvon Chouinard, now in his mid 60's, continues to put his money where his heart is, but there are many others that we'll touch on after the fold.• Concerned about the damage being done to rockclimbs by the bashing in and out of the very metal pitons that his business Chouinard Equipment was making, he shifted production to passive protection that left no trace of the climber's passage. He, and then business partner Tom Frost, devoted large chunks of their catalog to this new equipment and an accompanying enlightened way of thinking, effectively starting a revolution that became known as 'clean climbing.' This was in way back in 1972, when thinking about the environment from a business point of view was virtually unheard of. (That business is now Black Diamond Equipment.)

• Yvon committed Patagonia to an independent environmental audit to determine which of the core fabrics they used had the most environmental impact. This precipitated the above mentioned move to organic cotton and recycled polyester.

• The company once selected a supplier in Portugal for their flannel shirts who was the most downstream of similar businesses, and worked with this supplier to ensure that their waste production water was cleaner than that they'd extracted from the river. Thus they were cleaning the polluted upstream water, before re-releasing into the river.

• The luggage line of Patagonia was once made from tough PVC, but on learning of the problems with dioxins, they moved to alternative materials.

• To reduce packaging waste, they moved through the old plastic vs paper thing, until they arrived at rubber bands. When they implemented these for their underwear line, they stopped 12 tons of material from going to landfill, saved $150,000 USD in packaging costs, and saw sales rise 25%. Over the years they've experimented with swing tags made of paper derived from the likes of lettuce, algae and hemp.

• Through the enthusiasm of Yvon's wife Malinda, Patagonia was one of the early American businesses to build and run their own onsite day-care facility, so working parents could be near their children.

• They also put in a staff cafeteria, serving organic food.

• Since 1985 Patagonia, Inc. has given away more than $25 million in cash and in-kind donations to more than 1,000 organizations globally. They've funded this from 10% of their pre-tax profits or 1% of sales, which ever was the greater.

• Patagonia was a co-founder of The Conservation Alliance in 1989, a network of outdoor industry companies that donate money to environmental organizations. Now 70 members strong, the Alliance has donated almost $4 million in grants.

• Then in 1993, the Patagonia Employee Internship Program was created. Through this program, over 350 Patagonia staff have been fully paid for two months while working with the environmental group of their choice throughout the world.

• During 1995 Yvon gave a presentation to staff about what path he and the Chouinard family saw their companies treading for the next 100 years. An 49kb PDF excerpt of that talk can be found here. Yvon suggested, "A million or ten million dollars a year won't go far toward solving the world's problems; however, if you want to change government, change the corporations, and government will follow. If you want to change corporations, change consumers. Perhaps the real good that Patagonia could do was to use the company as a tool for social change as a model to show other companies that a company can do well by taking the long view and doing the right thing."

• With his son, Fletcher, set up Point Blanks, 'round about 1996, to make a stronger, more durable surfboard from less toxic materials than standard. (In an interview about Patagonia's deeper foray into aquatic sports surfer Chris Malloy made this observation, following a surf trip he'd just been on, "I don't know how much Yvon is worth, but he flies coach, rides in the back of the pickup truck, and he wore the same pair of pants for ten days. On that trip he said something about how he wants to die with nothing. He wants to make sure he gives it all away before he dies.")

• 1997 saw Yvon and Malinda able to move into a new house they'd built, that used salvaged sidewalks for its walls and rescued slate for the floor, with solar energy employed for the heating and most electricity. A composting toilet was set up for contractors to use during construction. Only reused wood was utilised throughout the house, which the architect observed (9kb PDF) was so energy efficient, it exceeded Californian standards by 30%.

• In 1998, Patagonia became the first Californian company to buy all their electricity from newly constructed renewable energy plants. The Denver store is wind powered, while the Reno store has photovoltaic panels. The Reno distribution warehouse has recycled content steel, insulation and glass. A stormwater filtration system. 100% recycled polyester carpet, 100% recycled plastic restroom counter tops and numerous other fixtures and fittings contain recycled content. Compressed field straw and reclaimed timber are also used. Shop fitouts subscribe to a similar regime of non-toxic, environmentally benign standards.

• In 2001, with Craig Mathews, Yvon establish the organisation One Percent for the Planet, to provide a simple platform for other businesses to participate in responsible business philanthropy. In the past 5 years, they have signed up 374 members from the US, Canada, Europe and Japan, and donated over USD $10 Million to environment groups.

• Last year he published a book Let My People Go Surfing, with the subtitle of "The Education of a Reluctant Businessman". Excerpts can be read online in Outside magazine. You might also be interested in a Q&A; he did with Grist.

• That ain't everything, but you get the picture. And we are just talking about the environmental initiatives that Yvon Chouinard has basically funded from his own pocket. (Patagonia remains a privately owned business.) We haven't discussed his prowess in pursuits like alpine and rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, surfing, fly fishing, backcountry skiing, etc. Nor the very significant design contributions he's made to the evolution of these human scale, natural environment-based activities.

So yeh, there seems to be a reasonable body of evidence to indicate why Yvon Chouinard should be the first recipient of the 'OutDoor Celebrity of the Year' award. A shame he missed the cut for our Honorary TreeHugger, though.

Read our previous Patagonia posts here.

But let's give Yvon the last word: 'Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible. It will never make a totally sustainable, nondamaging product. But it is committed to trying. We simply don't have any other choice. As the late environmentalist David Brower once put it, "There's no business to be done on a dead planet." '