This is much more than a story about how a man built a thriving business that turns over more than $200 million a year, this is a story of a man who never lost sight of the bigger picture. A man who stuck to his values and principles, who showed amazing vision, integrity, responsibility and courage. He was a pioneer in so many ways who brought doing good and having fun into the heart of his business, a business that is values-led, a leader and truly unique.
He brought the passion of his love for the great outdoors, rock climbing, surfing, fishing, kayaking, skiing and travelling directly into business. He never forgot why he got started and never let the greed of capitalism and the chance of big quick cash get in the way of ethics and his immense vision.
From when he first began designing and manufacturing rock climbing equipment in the 1950’s, his strong values were evident. Despite pitons (a climbing tool that was hammered into the rock) being the mainstay of his business and the main money maker he found they were disfiguring the rocks, the once pristine mountain faces he loved so much were becoming destroyed. Many a man faced with this dilemma may choose the easy money, but Yvon stopped the production of pitons and instead designed an environmentally friendly alternative and started the push towards clean climbing.
Later, through the success of Patagonia’s clothing line Yvon learnt industrial grown cotton was the most damaging for the environment . So he made the switch at massive financial costs to 100% organically grown cotton. In 1993 Yvon was the first to start making jackets using fibre from recycled polyester soda pop bottles. His environmental initiatives even flowed onto his buildings, most of his stores are old free standing buildings saved from the wrecking ball, with one building constructed using 95% recycled materials.
Through his passion for climbing and travelling the world he noticed the deterioration of the natural world and the rapid changes taking place, the forests disappearing, glaciers melting, wildlife dwindling. He took it upon himself to make a change giving away 22 million dollars in donations to grass root conversational activists, helping to save old forests from being torn down, mines from being dug, dismantling damaging dams, restoring rivers, creating parks and wilderness.
He was at the forefront of in-work child care centres at a time when it was new and relatively unknown. His passion for his employees led the way for what is a common practice around the world today. He started the ‘let my people go surfing flexitime policy’ where employees take time off to catch a good swell, go bouldering or greet their kids off the school bus. He was again ahead of his time in changing the face of the office, removing offices and doors and encouraging a fun and happy workplace. It was these things that made Fortune Magazine list Patagonia in the 100 best companies to work for.
He restrained from selling to mass merchants and department stores as it challenged his principle of making the best quality products, even though it meant missing out on massive monetary benefits and massive profits at a time when his business and the economy was struggling. He refused to write advertising that appealed to vanity and greed instead using it to promote environmental concerns. Patagonia was the first business in the United States to print its catalogue on recycled paper. In 2001 Yvon cofounded ‘1% for the planet,' an alliance of businesses that contribute at least 1% of their net annual sales to groups on a list of researched and approved environmental organisations.
Yvon is no doubt a beautiful mind, a pioneer, a man of many firsts, a brave soul who drew a line in the sand and forced change. A man who throughout his life stayed strong to his principles and as a result formed a business that has flourished. He withstood the temptation of big money fast and instead formed a business that can be around in 100 years, not just a business after short term success and a quick buck.
He is what you call authentic and so is everything that Patagonia stands for, authentic not just a bunch of meaningless letters, truly authentic right down to the bone. In his pursuit of the highest quality products he has caused minimal damage to the environment, something that cannot be said for many businesses around the world and showed that capitalism and ethics can stand together.
All along the way he did something he loved, travelling the world, surfing, fishing, climbing and bringing change to important issues whilst making other businesses around the world sit up and take notice.
Yvon Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia. For more information on Yvon do yourself a favour and check out his book Let My People Go Surfing; The Education of a Reluctant Businessman.
By Evan Sutter