Yvon Chouinard, world-class mountaineer, diehard surfer, obsessive fly
fisher -- oh yes, and founder and owner of Patagonia -- is as famous for
his brio and gutsy outdoorsmanship as he is for his visionary business
strategy. A Maine-born blacksmith, Chouinard has built Patagonia, a
purveyor of top-quality outdoor goods, into a $230 million company
without taking it public. Now in his mid 60s, he has for decades
maintained a tireless my-way-or-the-highway attitude toward corporate
America that has helped him nudge both colleagues and competitors in the
direction of sustainability.
Patagonia was the first major retail
company to switch all its cotton clothing over to organic, the first to
make fleece from recycled soda-pop bottles, and the first to pledge 1
percent of its annual sales to grassroots environmental organizations.
It has since touched off a trend that has big-name brands such as the
Gap, Levi's, Nike, and Timberland incorporating organic materials into
their products and taking steps to minimize environmental harm. Of
course, Patagonia is not entirely free of environmental fault. For one,
the multinational company does much of its manufacturing overseas, and
therefore must burn a fair amount of fuel to transport its materials and
products around the globe.
Yvon contemplates the fate of the
planet.(Photo: Courtesy of Rick Ridgeway.)
But in the past several months, Patagonia has scored another notable
first -- launching the half-a-million-dollar Vote the Environment
project to rally outdoor enthusiasts to the polls on Nov. 2. Chouinard
spoke with Grist from his Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, Calif.,
about the presidential campaign, the challenges of pushing a business
toward sustainability, why he's more powerful than Bill Ford, and
whether the planet is toast.
Q: What motivated you to launch
Patagonia's Vote the Environment campaign?
A: Well, I was talking to Jesus last
night [laughter] and He told me that everybody's got it all wrong --
that He really doesn't want us to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge for oil, that we're screwing everything up and we need to live a
more examined life.
Q: You've got a direct
line to Jesus! What else did He say?
A: Well, He doesn't talk to me very often
-- He was pretty brief.
You know, I'm just so disappointed that there's nobody talking about the
environment. Even though the Pentagon itself has come out and said that
one of the biggest threats to American security is global warming. You
listen to these [presidential] debates -- they're so stupid they're
unbelievable. The questions are stupid and the answers are stupid and
nobody's talking about the massive environmental problems we're facing,
whether it's Bush or Kerry. It's a sad deal. I want the environment to
be a much bigger part of the political process. It only occupies 5
percent of the political agenda. Five percent! And to me it really is
the bottom line.
Q: Let's get back to the details of the
Vote the Environment campaign. I know the mission is to inspire outdoor
enthusiasts to get out there and vote. How are you recruiting voters?
A: We're helping voters register online and
at our retail stores and asking them to make the environment their No. 1
priority. We're not telling anybody how to vote.
A Vote the Environment ad. (Image:
Q: Why aren't you calling it the Vote
Against Bush campaign, given that Bush is widely criticized as having
the worst environmental record in history while Kerry's environmental
record is widely applauded?
A: Legally we can't -- corporations are
supposed to stay out of the endorsement game. And for me, all that
matters is really to tell people to look at each candidate's
environmental record and decide for themselves.
Q: Can you talk about your own opinions
about the candidates?
A: Not in this context -- I'm a
representative of Patagonia. They'll nail me. [Laughter.]
Q: But if anyone took even one minute
to try and figure out which presidential candidate represents the
environmental vote, it would be obvious who that is, wouldn't it?
A: Yes, but it's not just the presidential
candidates -- there are a lot of people who are running for Congress and
the Senate and city council races and all kinds of stuff. And I'm saying
look at their environmental records because it's more important than
anything else they say or do.
Q: More important than the war,
health care, education, everything?
A: Yes, in that it's deeply connected to
almost every one of those issues. I'm sick and tired of a society -- I'm
not talking about politics, I'm talking about a society -- that is only
dealing with symptoms of a problem and not the root cause. Our
health-care problems are deeply connected to the environment. Consider
breast cancer -- you've got one in eight American women who are going to
get breast cancer, that's up from one out of 30 right after World War
II, so there's got to be an environmental cause to it. And yet only 3
percent of cancer research funding goes to trying to find the
environmental causes. They're trying to find treatments so they can make
money off of it. The same thing goes for our so-called War on Terror.
We're not looking at the root cause of our conflict with the Middle
East, resource dependency; we're treating the symptoms.
I find that people concerned about the environment tend to be a lot
more honest than people who aren't. I think you can trust them. If you
are voting for a congressman who has a really good voting record on the
environment and the other guy who's got a 10 percent [voting record],
let me tell you I think that 10 percent guy is probably going to get
indicted for something pretty soon.
Q: What kind of feedback have you gotten
from your customers about this campaign?
A: We've gotten hundreds of email responses
on the campaign and more than 50 percent aren't happy. I got lots of
letters back from our customers really angry at us for getting political
and telling them, they think, what to do.
I have one of the letters right here: "We are given the gift of our
land by God in which to have dominion. That means to use and to a degree
pollute. We are also called by God not to worship idols. The notion of a
largely untouched pristine environment has become a quasi-religious idol
for many. Hence with regard to environmentalism we have a distorted
hubris, even dark influence."
Q: That guy must be talking to a
different Jesus than the one you're talking to! Is it alarming to
discover that so many of your customers are anti-environmentalism?
A: It's surprising, not alarming. I
couldn't care less. I could get 10,000 letters saying "Take me off your
mailing list" and it wouldn't bother me. If you're not getting those
letters, you're not trying hard enough. That's the way I see it.
What they don't realize is that I'm not in the business to make
clothes. I'm not in the business to make more money for myself, for
Christ's sake. This is the reason Patagonia exists -- to put into action
the recommendations I read about in books to avoid environmental
collapse. That's the reason I'm in business -- to try to clean up our
own act, and try to influence other companies to do the right thing, and
try to influence our customers to do the right thing. So we're not going
to change. They can go buy from somewhere else if they don't like it.
Q: What will be the effect of the Vote
the Environment campaign on your sales?
A: It's already having a huge effect on the
good side. We're getting so much publicity off of it, a lot of
editorials because we've taken a leadership position. Magazines have
given us free ads. We can't tell exactly how it's affecting our sales
yet in terms of numbers -- it's too early -- but we do know it's having
an effect on registration. My estimate so far is that we're going to get
100,000 people to register that have never voted before.
Q: That's enough to tip the election if
you pull in pro-environment votes in the right swing states.
A: That's new voters. We're not going to
change anybody's mind who's already made up their mind. But something
like 20 percent of single women have never voted. That's a huge
Q: Your Vote the Environment campaign is
applying the same marketing strategies to politics as Patagonia does to
sell its products. Could the political world stand to learn some
marketing savvy from the corporate world?
A: Yeah. When I look at how these guys are
marketing themselves, the politicians, I'm thinking, Oh my God! Oh man,
this is pathetic! You see Kerry out there with a coat, tie, and a
starched shirt giving a speech to a bunch of autoworkers and you think,
Oh my God, who dressed this guy? All Kerry has to do is go bass fishing
and go to NASCAR races to loosen up his image
Q: What do you think are the
environmental problems that the next president should be most concerned
A: Well, I'm a real pessimist. I think as a
society we're toast, to tell you the truth. I don't know whether it's
going to be running out of water or topsoil, or disease, or endless wars
being fought over resources. The Israelis are never going to give up the
West Bank -- that's where all the water is. It's all about resources,
it's all about territory, and it's going to be a lot of gnashing of
teeth. And any one of these things could be deadly serious, or it could
happen all at once. And when you talk about the economy, the economy is
so shaky because it's based on all of us just consuming and discarding
endlessly non-renewable resources and you can't do that forever. There's
good reason for people to feel insecure.
Q: Do you think that corporate leaders
who are in business to make money simply can't take a stand on any
controversial causes because it might hurt their bottom line?
A: First of all, if they're a public
company they can't do anything -- they're beholden to their
shareholders. Patagonia is a private company, and the sole stockholders
are me and my wife, so we can do anything we want. But if you're CEO of
a public company, the board of directors tells you what to do, and the
stockholders tell the board of directors what to do, so there's no way
you can take a stance on anything controversial. Bill Ford says he's an
environmentalist, so deep down in his heart I'm sure he believes he
shouldn't be making SUVs, period. He shouldn't allow the stockholders to
tell him what to do. But he can't do it. He has no power. I have way
more power than Bill Ford does.