“Every definition of adventure in the Webster's has risk,” says Yvon Chouinard, “whether it's a financial venture, or whatever.”
Chouinard knows whereof he speaks. As a mountain adventurer, surfer and founder of the successful outdoor gear company Patagonia, he’s spent a lifetime welcoming adventure of all kinds.
“You have to purposely stick your neck out,” he continues. “Otherwise you’re not gonna have an adventure.We always dared it to happen. So we can fight our way out of it and, you know, that’s when you get the most value.”
At a recent Climate One event, Chouinard entertained a rapt audience with tales of his life of adventure, from skiing down volcanoes in Chile, climbing the mountains of the Andes and riding the surf in Lima, to the peaks and valleys of retail capitalism.
A self-identified “dirtbag,” Chouinard admits that he entered the business world reluctantly, when he came up with a line of handmade mountain gear (Chouinard taught himself blacksmithing in his father’s garage in order to craft better climbing tools). “Because this is in the 60s and, you know, businessmen were all grease balls in the 60s,” he chuckles. Like many of his counterculture friends, Chouinard saw business as “the enemy.”
Until one day “I kind of woke up and discovered, oh my God I am a businessman! And that's when I decided I better find out what I'm doing…and basically try to create a business that we wanted to come to work in.”
In founding Patagonia, he continued to let his outsider flag fly, as he writes in his book, “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman.” The title is meant to be taken literally. “I don't care when you work as long as the job gets done. And if the surf comes up, drop everything; go surfing if you're a surfer.”
Chouinard describes the company’s management system as “kind of like an ant colony.”
“There's no bosses in ant colony, but every single ant knows what his job is and gets it done, and they communicate by touching feelers and that's about it.”
Through his company, Chouinard has always given generously to environmental causes. But lately, he’s felt a responsibility to do more. “I know we’re a relatively small company, but we have incredible amount of social power around the world,” Chouinard says. “So, it’s changed the way our company operates.Instead of just giving money away to a bunch of NGOs which we still do, but we're doing a lot more stuff ourselves.”
That includes looking more closely into the source of their clothing materials, from the soil it’s grown in to the dyes used. “It was a long, long process…to the point where I now I have to go to our cotton farmers and say it's not enough for you to grow organic cotton, now you have to grow it regeneratively. Which means, the difference between organic and regenerative farming is regenerative builds topsoil and captures carbon.
“Anyway, it led to us cleaning up our supply chain as much we possibly could. Every time we learned we were doing something wrong, we changed it.”
This attention to detail doesn’t come cheap, Chouinard admits. The added cost of using organic cotton is reflected in the price tag, prompting one audience member to refer to the brand as “Pata-Gucci.” But while Patagonia’s sportswear may be more expensive than other brands, Chouinard maintains that consumers should be “buying less, but buying better.”
“My father was a tradesman and he taught me that when you buy a tool, you buy the absolute best tool you can get and keep it for the rest of your life,” Chouinard says. To that end, Patagonia’s policy for repairing and replacing worn products has earned it a loyal following.
Chouinard is continuing to expand Patagonia’s scope, experimenting with a line of food designed to use agricultural means to combat climate change and starting a venture capitalist fund to support sustainable business startups. And at 78, Chouinard is still every bit the adventurer he ever was. Despite being sidelined by a rotator cuff operation, he plans to hit the surf as soon as possible. “November 1st is six months,” he grins, “and that's when the doctor says I can start surfing again!”