november 2009 | Cover Story
Standing in front of Yvon Chouinard, the owner and founder of outdoor company Patagonia, he hardly comes across as a successful businessman. I see a mountain guide or messenger. Yvon Chouinard is clad in comfortable looking jeans that he loves because they are made from recycled cloth, his top looks like an old friend and he radiates warm inquisitiveness.
“I don’t know how I became a businessman because I’m not really. I’ve actually created a company I don’t need. I never wanted to be a businessman. I’m a craftsman, good at doing things with my hands. My first company made and sold climbing equipment. One day I bought a rugby shirt in Scotland that proved to be good for people like me who mountain-climb. My friends saw the shirt and wanted to buy one each. That’s how it all began 30 years ago.”
Patagonia continues to grow at a rate of three to eight per cent a year, despite growth currently standing at 11–12 per cent due to, as Yvon Chouinard puts it: “When the world economy is in a bad state, things go well for us because we produce garments that keep a long time.”
Even if sustainability is an affair of the heart for Yvon Chouinard, his eyes flash when he is asked what sustainable leadership means to him.
“I hate the word sustainability. There’s nothing that is sustainable. There’s nothing sustainable in sustainability. There are only different degrees of sustainable, but that doesn’t make the issue any less important. As a person I’m an optimist, but when I see the state of the planet I become a pessimist. But the sustainability revolution has begun anyway and is spreading at increasing speed. Look at Wal-Mart, the large US megastore chain. If they could manage a tenth of what they’ve resolved to do with regard to creating a more sustainable society then it would be fantastic.
“There is a general attitude that it’s difficult to be a profit-making company at the same time as working towards sustainability. As if it were a clash of interests, but it’s not according to the organisation behind the 1% For The Planet movement. The opposite perhaps in their case. Caring about the state of the planet could in itself be a profit-making project.”
“Break the rules and make them work. We invent our own philosophy.”
From an international perspective, Patagonia is not a large company, but a great role model for many, they have a significant influence and are counted among the most prominent role models for a company that has a CSR profile and endeavours to minimise its environmental impact.
There is a 50-page catalogue of the projects that the company supports around the world to bring about positive change: Patagonia Environmental Initiatives. It takes up how much money the company donates to environmental projects (USD 34 million since 1985), the number of environmental groups to have received money from them (398), how much clothes they have donated to non-profit organisations, etc. Also about the 1% For The Planet project, www.onepercentfortheplanet.org, where each member company donates one per cent of the sales turnover (not their profit as profits go up and down more that the sales turnover). There are currently 1,271 company members and 1,847 recipient organisations the world over.
“We’re already using the resources of seven planets, so constant growth is madness.”
Yvon Chouinard says it is high time to take the step from pure consumption to ‘buy what you need, not want you want’. And adds “Patagonia will still be here in a hundred years and will still be profitable”.
“If you manufacture landmines then travel to Cambodia and see what your company is part of creating, what must go around you head? When you see women and children without legs, perhaps both legs and know that you have produced these products, how can you not possibly care? How can you return home and continue manufacturing these landmines? We must always, and in all situations, ask the question: ‘how are we helping the planet with what we do?”
Yvon Chouinard has a simple business philosophy: You must educate yourself the whole time. When you educate yourself you get more chances than those who don’t, regardless of what you do in life. Travelling is also education, as is reading. He says that those within the company have created their own values.
“Break the rules and make them work. We invent our own philosophy. I heard that very early. When I was young I was quite good in most sports, until it was time to compete. I soon realised that if I wanted to win something I’d have to find my own event in which I could compete and win.”
We meet Yvon Chouinard on his travels around the world for a month to talk about what he thinks and how he thinks and he says that not once during his travels has he called his company to hear how things are going. Perhaps this is because he does not use a mobile phone (his wife does) or a computer.
“I could probably be regarded as an anti-technology person with the exception of medical technology. I never watch television, I read books and newspapers. I live a simple life and try not to let my company grow at any price. I’m anti-capitalist. By capitalism I mean the share market. The trouble with shareholders is that they’re always looking for greater profits. When they acquire for $10 and get a value of $1 and the rest just goes up in smoke there’s a permanent demand for 15 per cent growth. In this way we destroy the planet. We’re already using the resources of seven planets, so constant growth is madness.”
“We must always, and in all situations, ask the question: ‘how are we helping the planet with what we do?”
The story goes that when on his way to Lhasa, the Buddhist teacher Attisha saw a women on the road who alternately laughed and cried. The woman’s behaviour confused him. He asked what was behind her behaviour. Well, said the woman, when I think that all people have the ability to develop wisdom and humility I can’t help but laugh with joy. When I then think what people do with this ability I cannot help but cry.
And the Indian poet Shantideva writes:
Though people seek immunity from disaster
they rush into all types of misery.
Though they seek happiness
they destroy it through foolishness, as though it were an enemy.
“We see this everywhere. Our short-term egoism leads to negative, near catastrophic consequences for ourselves, others and not least our only planet. We must ask the question over and over again: Is this decision we are making in our company good for our planet? If the answer is yes then we should do it, otherwise not.
You call yourself a Buddhist?
“I’m a philosophical Buddhist, a sort of Zen Buddhist. My senses are open, but I have no cause to believe anything. I’ve also understood that the Zen philosophy is important, not only for me and my company, but for the development of the world. If the process is going well, the profit will come.”