By Matt Skenazy
Chairmen of international corporations aren’t supposed to be likable.
But it’s difficult not to like someone who is willing to risk profit margins for the sake of the environment, or for the betterment of his employees. Or, better yet, someone who relishes in the fact that one summer he survived on nothing but canned cat food while camping in the Yosemite Valley.
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia Inc., an outdoor clothing and gear company, is just this sort of chairman. Chouinard spoke last Tuesday at his store in Palo Alto, and instead of the protesters and picketers that might be expected when the head of a multibillion-dollar corporation comes into town, people packed into the store to hear him speak.
With about 200 people in the audience, “It was the most we have ever had in the store,” said Jason Holmes, an employee at the Palo Alto branch of the internationally known brand. “Even more [people] than when we gave away free money at our opening seven months ago.”
Chouinard officially came to talk about and sign his newest book, “Let My People Go Surfing,” in which he proposes different methods of business management that are not profit-driven. But the evening quickly turned into a dialogue about the environment and self-accountability.
A staunch environmentalist and transient adventurer, Chouinard, who is now nearly 70, practices what he preaches with Patagonia Inc., donating one percent of sales each year to grassroots environmental groups, in a program called One Percent for the Planet.
“I’m not supposed to tell you our sales,” Chounard said with a sideways grin. “But last year we gave away $2.7 million, so you do the math.”
Since One Percent For The Planet was started in 1985, over 790 companies have joined Patagonia in donating to more than 1,500 environmental organizations. However, most of the companies are small businesses, and Chouinard expressed disdain that many of the larger corporations have yet to step up and do their part.
Whenever the conversation turned to Chouinard’s personal achievements, like his numerous ascents up peaks all over the world, or the time he was buried in an avalanche in southwestern China, he deftly turned the discussion back to the environment.
“He’s not really a self-promoter,” Holmes said. “He’d rather talk about what the company is doing than what he is doing.”
Throughout the evening, however, a polarity began to emerge in Chouinard’s oration. He swayed between contempt at the changing outdoor industry, where people can now buy their gear at Macy’s, and the realization that his inventions and ingenuity contributed to the increased accessibility of adventure destinations and therefore, a greater demand for the market.
Another tension that emerged was the battle between Chouinard’s pessimism and his Buddhist philosophy. Chouinard began his talk by mentioning that it is a race to see “whether we run out of clean water, topsoil, or petroleum first,” and contrasted it later by discussing his attempt to live in the “here and now” without looking into the past or too far into the future. This conflict is to be expected from a man who has worked so desperately his whole life to fix a problem as large and elusive as the environment.
“The reason Patagonia exists is to set an example,” said Simon Goldberg, an employee of the Santa Cruz Patagonia store. Although the very best thing Patagonia could do for the environment would be to shut down entirely, inevitably, another company would make the same products and be less conscious of their impact on the earth.
Chouinard is walking the line between trying to enact change, and being unable to change things quickly enough. It is a constant struggle between attempting to save the environment and needing to stay in business so that he can continue to do so.
“The only way we can turn things around,” concluded Chouinard as the evening wound to a close and the refreshments table dwindled to crumbs, “is by realizing that each one of us is the problem, but also the solution.”