The TH Interview: Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia (Part Two)
In part two of our interview with Yvon Chouinard, the maverick businessman talks about politics and the irony of living simply in a consumer society. He also rebuffs his brand's "Pata-Gucci" reputation and explains why he's started pouring cheap wine down the toilet. ::TreeHugger Radio
Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: Let's talk about money for a second. People find Patagonia gear to be pretty pricey stuff. It's sometimes tongue-in cheekly called "Pata-Gucci," as if it's designer wear for hippies and climbers. What do you think of that nickname, or the broader criticism that's it's so expensive?
Yvon Couinard: We're exactly the price as The North Face or Marmot or any of the better-made outdoor clothing companies. We're more expensive than, say, Columbia, which is kind of a cheap brand. But look at the price of jeans these days. People are paying hundreds of dollars for a pair of jeans. If you compare us to Ralph Lauren or any of the fashion companies, we're way, way less.
But that kind of the "Pata-Gucci" thing comes from college students who really can't afford to buy a lot of the things they would really like to have. I just tell them, "Buy less." You don't need 20 T-shirts and 10 pairs of shorts. You just buy one pair of shorts that'll do everything. Then you can afford to pay more for it, and it'll last forever.
I don't know whether we're in a recession or not, but our business is booming right now. And every recession we've had in the last 50 years, my company has done really well. And it doesn't do as well when the economy is in a boom. Because in the boom times, people want to buy fashion stuff. They get silly, they really become consumers. And they forget about quality. They just want quantity. So right now, we're in an unbelievable growth spurt.
TH: Well, let's talk about politics for a second. I've got a quote here from you that I really like. "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."
Are you trying to change the government through consumers?
YC: Well, I've kind of given up on government, the idea that government is going to solve our problems. If you look at the candidates now, the environment hardly even shows up. But they're all talking about symptoms: Iraq is a symptom, healthcare is a symptom. They're all symptoms of society breaking down. Nobody is really attacking the causes.
And so I'm trying to change corporations, and I'm trying to change consumers. Through our catalogues and through our various campaigns we educate our consumers.
I said I've given up on government but we can't do it without government. I've seen how much harm government can do. I haven't seen the good that government can do; except when I go to the places like Sweden or Norway or Iceland. They're so far ahead of us in terms of doing what they need to do to combat global warming.
Socialism is such a dirty word in this country; nobody dares to even whisper it. No politician, certainly. But go to Iceland. They have no natural resources except hot and cold water and fish. But they have no speck of paint missing on their infrastructure, the president lives down the street, there's free medical care, free education through university, they have no homeless people It's unbelievable what you can do when the entire country can go in one direction.
What we have is a country that should be several countries, really. There's no way you can govern this country. We can never mobilize this country again to go in one direction like we did, say, in World War II. It can't happen. That's why I'm so pessimistic about getting a handle on global warming in this country. Because the things we need to do will never happen.
TH: You gave the keynote address at this year's conference of Net Impact in Nashville, and at the end of your talk—I'll never forget this—the Net Impact coordinator came up and handed you the obligatory swag bag, the corporate goodie bag, which you very politely declined to take.
You said something like, "Thank you, but I have everything I need." And that might have been an off-hand remark for you, but it was a striking thing to see. And it certainly made an impression on the audience.
YC: It sure did. I've gotten more of a response from that than anything else I said!
TH: But it's a commentary on your attitude toward material possessions. But then again, selling things is your business. So is that a conflict?
YC: Yeah, it is. Absolutely. We did an ad one time that said instead of owning a pair of volleyball shorts, a pair of running shorts, a pair of tennis shorts, a pair of walking shorts (we listed all these different uses for shorts), buy one pair of Baggies, and they'll do it all.
And it's the truth. You don't need a pair of surf trunks to surf. Kelly Slater could probably surf just as well in a pair of cut-off jeans as a $60 pair of surf trunks. And we don't mind saying that. I don't feel any guilt about making really high-quality products that last a long time.
We kind of got off base for a while. I didn't feel too good about making thongs for a while! [laughs] But we're back on it now.
People are going to buy clothes. It's the same thing with wine. I've cut down like crazy on the amount of wine I drink. If somebody gives me a glass and it's just average wine, I make an excuse and I go dump it in the toilet. I've decided to drink way less but much better quality.
And it's the same thing with all my purchases. I'm trying to simplify my life and eliminate a lot of the unnecessary things. I've got so many T-shirts. I've never bought a T-shirts, but people are always dumping them on me. Now, if they're not organic, I hand it back to them. I say, "Thanks, but I only wear organic cotton." And it kind of shakes them up, but it's my own personal thing.