The TH Interview: Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia (Part One)



The founder of Patagonia started out when he was little more than a teenager, selling his home-forged climbing hardware to "dirtbagger" mountaineers like himself. Although all he really wanted to do was travel and climb, he had a knack for innovation and invention, and Chouinard Equipment Co. evolved into Patagonia, arguably the most successful outdoor clothing company in history. In his fifty-something years of experimentation, Yvon Chouinard has racked up a list of industry firsts that defies enumeration, yet he describes himself as a reluctant entrepreneur who really just loves to climb, surf, and kayak the wilds of the world, and hopefully save them along the way. ::TreeHugger Radio

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just listen/right-click to download.

Check out part two here.
Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: On TreeHugger Radio, the theme of growth in green businesses is always something recurring. Is Patagonia growing? Is growth central to your company's philosophy?

Yvon Chouinard: Well, no. Growth isn't central at all, because I'm trying to run this company as if it's going to be here a hundred years from now. And if you take where we are today and add 15% growth, like public companies need to have for their stock to stay up in value, I'd be a multi-trillion-dollar company in 40 years. Which is impossible, of course.

So all of these companies that are going for the big growth, if it continues for any length of time, will outlast their resources and outlast their customers and go belly-up. And that's why these huge companies have massive layoffs all the time.

Since I'm trying to run this company like it's going to be around a hundred years from now, we have to limit our growth and keep it to what we call "natural growth." In other words, I don't advertise on billboards in inner cities so that kids buy our black down jackets instead of The North Face's. In fact, we hardly advertise at all.

In other words, I don't advertise on billboards in inner cities so that kids buy our black down jackets instead of The North Face's. In fact, we hardly advertise at all.

We grow by letting the customer tell us. So when the customer tells us that they're frustrated, that they just got their catalogue and we're already out of a product they wanted, then it tells me that we're not making enough. We let the customer tell us instead of creating an artificial demand for our products. Any time you're making products that people don't need, you're at the mercy of the economy, you're at the mercy of whatever is going on. So we tried to avoid that situation.

So, yeah, we grow. We grow between three and sometimes seven or eight percent a year. But we pretty much control it.


TH: I'm fascinated by the idea of what Patagonia will look like a hundred years from now, especially considering the sort of grim ecological future we've got ahead of us. What do you see in your mind when you think of Patagonia a century from now?

YC: Well, I don't. I live for the moment. I'm basically a Buddhist-type person. I'm just here right now, and I don't think about what's going to happen a hundred years from now. I try to concentrate on what's going on right now.

But I'm really trying to run this company like it is going to be here a hundred years from now. That's what's important.

I don't think society is going to be here a hundred years from now. I don't think there will be humans, or there won't be very many of us. I think we're headed for a crash—probably first an economic crash brought about by running out of resources, whether it's petroleum or topsoil or water. And it's going to be pretty nasty, I think.

I mean, there's no way I could do a plan for this company and say, "What's this place going to be like by 2020?" I have no idea. I just know that since we're running out of petroleum, we better stop being dependent on making polyester underwear out of virgin petroleum.

And so that's why we've teamed up with some Japanese companies to, basically by 2010, make all our clothing out of recycled and recyclable fibers. And we're going to accept ownership of our products from birth to birth. So if you buy a jacket from us, or a shirt ,or a pair of pants, when you're done with it, you can give it back to us and we'll make more shirts and pants out of it.

Which is a different idea about consuming. Right now the world runs on consuming and discarding, and we're saying that we're taking responsibility for our products from birth to birth. Can you imagine if a computer company said, "When you're done with your computer, we'll buy it back from you and make more computers out of it." Instead, they sell you computer and you can't even get service from them!

It's a different way of accepting responsibility.

TH: Well, let's talk about this product flow a little bit. You've started this campaign called Leading the Examined Life, and on Patagonia.com there's the mini-site called The Footprint Chronicles, which shows how Patagonia products are truly global products: cotton fiber from Turkey, recycled polyester from Japan, that's spun in Bangkok, sewn in Mexico and Vietnam. Companies are always bemoaning the difficulty of getting transparency when production is all over the globe like this, but Patagonia seems to be embracing this. How are you making it work?

YC: Well, you're absolutely right. It is very difficult. That's why we started with only five representative products. Because to do it on every single product costs a fortune and it's a lot of work. But we're gradually going through all our products. We're going to add another five this year. And as we learn from them, what we learn can apply to other products that aren't on The Footprint Chronicles.

But it's a difficult process. And it's always been difficult for us to lead an examined life as a corporation. I've always felt like a company has the responsibility to not wait for the government to tell it what to do, or to wait for the consumer to tell it what to do, but as soon as it finds out it's doing something wrong, stop doing it.

And it adds a different element in business. Asking a bunch of questions about all of your processes, it's difficult. When we started years ago there were no books on whether cotton dyes are toxic, or nylon dyes are toxic. No one even knew anything about how industrially grown cotton is processed and how bad it is.

There was nothing available. We had to find all this out ourselves. We had to ask a million questions. But once you educate yourself, you're left with choices. This company exists to ask the questions and make the choices, and then prove that it's good business to other companies so that they can do it.


TH: Something that really stands out in The Footprint Chronicles is the willingness to highlight the shortcomings, the pitfalls, the negative impacts created by your processes and products, as well as all the benefits and positive steps. Where does that attitude come from? Have you always been so eager to tell people about the dark side of the products they're buying?

YC: We're very self critical here, for one thing. Because if you're not, you just cruise along. We're very self-critical and we're very idealistic, so if we find we're doing something wrong, we really want to change it. But I think only by being honest, can we show the full extent of the problem.

Right now, there's a lot of green glossing going on, green marketing. And right now a lot of companies are saying, "Oh yeah, we're making sustainable clothing out of bamboo." Well, we don't use any bamboo, because it uses really toxic chemicals in that process. Bamboo itself is grown without chemicals, but the process of converting it into cloth is very toxic.

And making clothing out of corn, corn is a disaster as a crop. It uses fossil water that's millions of years old and not being replenished, it uses all kinds of chemicals, it's genetically modified. With people starving around the world and to be making clothing out of corn is absolutely stupid. But there are companies that are saying, "We're making sustainable clothing out of corn."

So there's a lot misinformation out there, especially right now with all these companies claiming to be green and stuff like that. So we want to be absolutely dead honest on how difficult it is, and that, in reality, there's no such thing as sustainability. No matter how clean and green we can be, we're still net polluters.

TH: Is that unavoidable?

YC: Yeah. There's no such thing as sustainability. You can't manufacture a product without ending up with more waste and pollution than your final product. It's the second law of thermodynamics, you can't help it.

And it's complex. We grow cotton in, say, Turkey, and then it gets sent all over the world. But when you're transporting it by ship, say, from Thailand to San Francisco, and then by truck from San Francisco to our warehouse in Reno, you're probably causing more damage shipping it from San Francisco to Reno than you are from Thailand to San Francisco. Because a ship is very, very efficient energy-wise. A truck is very inefficient.


Yeah, leading an examined life, I always say, is a pain in the ass. It adds an element of complexity to business that most businessmen don't want to hear about.

Planes are the least efficient of all. In fact, to air freight your product around the world, you're causing a lot of damage. So you've got to take that into account when you're talking about, "oh, we should be doing local production." It may not be a better thing to do.

Yeah, leading an examined life, I always say, is a pain in the ass. It adds an element of complexity to business that most businessmen don't want to hear about. They just want to call a fabric manufacturer, and say, "Hey, give us 10,000 yards of shirting."

TH: But don't you think this has attracted people who also see this as a creative challenge? People who might not be inspired by business just for the sake of making a profit, but for actually solving these puzzles and finding out where everything comes from?

YC: There aren't very many people like that, that are in business for those reasons. Most people are in business to make money.

Tags: Chemicals | Clothing | Conspicuous Consumption | Consumerism | Cotton | Cradle To Cradle | Economics