Why should businesses even care about a healthy environment? That’s a fundamental issue for Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company. Chouinard and Patagonia are respected by many environmentalists who credit them for putting this philosophy into practice:
“Fundamentally, businesses are responsible to their resource base. Without a healthy environment there are no shareholders, no employees, no customers and no business. Our mission is to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis” Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia
Chouinard is putting his money where his mouth is with a generous company “Earth Tax” devoted to environmental activism. He explained to me how he’s inspired young people and companies to protect the environment.
Nevertheless, Patagonia is arguably fighting a losing battle, especially at Christmas time, when rampant consumerism is in full swing. Here’s my latest BBC report that explores the contrast between Patagonia’s priorities and that of Silicon Valley shoppers who just want “more stuff” and wouldn’t dream of being seen twice in the same dress (dahling!)
This week, as the pro-business, “to hell with the environment” Trump administration prepares to take power, I plan to launch a new series of interviews. My aim is to profile leaders and organizations that are making the environment and climate change action a priority; and are standing up to Trump’s anti-science, anti-environment recklessness.
My report aired on BBC Business Matters on December 23rd. The segment starts at 16:00 on the BBC podcast.
Here’s a transcript of the segment (edited for length and clarity) and a longer version of the report:
BBC Host, Roger Hearing: Alison, I know you’ve been looking at all this…the commercialization of Christmas…I imagine where you are in California, there are a lot of people being pushed into buying things they might not want to? I gather you’ve been investigating…
Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely. I had a rare interview with Yvon Chouinard…he’s the founder of Patagonia, the sustainable outdoor clothing company and is revered by many environmentalists. Chouinard explained to me why his company wants to minimize its impact on the environment and inspire other businesses to do the same. I visited one of Silicon Valley’s busiest malls to see if this green message is resonating with consumers.
[Music: Walking in a Winter Wonderland at Valley Fair Mall]
Alison van Diggelen: I’m here in the mall and there’s a tangible sense of stress as Christmas fast approaches. Shoppers crowd their favorite stores, cell phone lists in one hand, fistfuls of bags in the other. Exhausted mothers and fathers are pushing prams, groups of teenagers maraud the aisles, laughing and posing for photos.
I’m right by the “North Pole” and Santa is waving to wide-eyed children, surrounded by about a dozen Christmas trees with twinkling lights and red baubles. A baby took one look at Santa and started crying. There’s a sickly sweet smell of cinnamon and pumpkin spice in the air. People are looking for bargains: quantity not quality. For many shoppers, “the environment” is the last thing on their minds.
Eggnog gal: There are a little bit of Grinches…but that comes with Christmas. They’re very angry and hostile and they just want to get in the mall, get everything they want and leave. Maybe it’s just the crowds, the financial burden. Maybe they’re just not in the holiday spirit this year.
Young mom: My son’s closet looks like Beyonce’s…it just has so much clothing in it. I love children’s clothing and I buy him so so much. He’s two and a half and he’s so cute! [laughter]
Teen: I just feel like, if I wear a dress once, people see me wear it, like I’d rather have a new dress…something else people can see me in. I’d rather have more stuff than just like one really expensive thing.
Alison van Diggelen: This “wear once” mentality is abhorrent to Yvon Chouinard, who’s notorious for wearing the same flannel shirt for over 20 years. His company, Patagonia is known for its sustainable outdoor clothing. As a founding member of the “One Percent for the Planet” organization, it donates one percent of its sales (not just profits) to environmental causes.
Alison van Diggelen: You’ve impacted so many businesses. Steve Jobs once called you to “green” Apple?
Yvon Chouinard: We’re influencing small companies, not large companies. A lot of the green stuff is green washing.
Alison van Diggelen: Do you feel Apple’s efforts are green washing?
Yvon Chouinard: Absolutely – it’s like that with every large corporation. They’ll pick the low hanging fruit, but when it starts getting a little bit tougher…They’ll do the things that turn into more profits, but when you really have to knuckle down and be truly responsible, they’re not going to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: What do you feel has been your biggest influence in greening the world? The business or consumer side?
Yvon Chouinard: Young people. I wrote this book “Let my people go surfing” that has gone around in nine languages and that has influenced a lot of young people and small companies are really paying attention. The idea of changing large corporations is pretty naive of me.
Alison van Diggelen: I spoke with Jesse Simons of the Sierra Club, an environmental group founded by Scottish naturalist John Muir. He praises Patagonia’s eco leadership but feels it could do more…
Jesse Simons: I’d like to see Patagonia go “all in” on their work on clean energy (and follow Apple’s lead by) committing to 100% clean energy and doing it all the way up the supply chain to ensure that every piece of clothing, zippers, everything are coming from a manufacturing site powered by the wind, the sun and the earth.
Alison van Diggelen: Gary Cook at Greenpeace credits Patagonia’s efforts against our “throw away culture” with its “don’t buy this jacket” campaign and its repair and recycling services. But he points to the company’s continued use of toxic chemicals and he’d like to see them eliminated from its supply chain.
Although Patagonia is seen to be raising the bar on corporate sustainability practices, its prices are out of reach for many consumers. Back at the mall, I spoke with another bargain hunter…
Diana V: We went to check out the Patagonia store in Reno, Nevada and couldn’t find anything for under $100, so we left…We’re just being very cautious right now with our money. Waiting to see what happens with our economy and our national political situation.
End of Report
This part of our interview didn’t make the final cut:
On Patagonia doing more
Sierra Club’s Jesse Simons: I’d like to see them (Patagonia) work with other outdoor industry brands to show them how it actually makes biz sense to stand up to bad trade deals. It would be great to see them take their leadership and use it to get other companies to similarly pay a living wage, take care of the environment in countries where they’re manufacturing their goods, so that they can feel good about saying no to bad trade deals.
Chouinard talks on Earth Tax, Agriculture and Death (I’ll post the full interview here soon for your listening pleasure)
A: Tell me about your trip to Scotland in 1970 – why was that the inspiration for Patagonia clothing?
Y: I was in business of making climbing equipment. I came to Scotland to climb Ben Nevis and saw a rugby shirt in Dept store in Edinburgh. At that time, active sportswear was basically grey flannel sweatshirts, pants. Men didn’t wear colorful sports clothes. It had a blue body, yellow stripes. I was wearing it around Yosemite, everyone said “Woah!” A light went off…I imported a few…I said, maybe I’ll get into the clothing business.
A: Tell me about that 1% for the planet? An earth tax?
Y: Your typical large corporation is out to make as much money as they can for the shareholders. And what the shareholders do with their profits is their biz. We believe it should be done in the business as well.
I believe in taxes. Especially the kind of taxes where you get to decide where the money goes. So we just tax ourselves 1% of our sales – not our profits – 1% of revenue given away to 900 different small activist organizations working to save our planet.
A: Some people say there’s a conflict here: you are an environmental company. You’re saying: save the planet but at the same time, you’re saying: buy our products. You have to make your products, you have to sell your products. You have to make a profit in order to stay in business. Otherwise you go belly up. So talk about that conflict between being a company, a business and doing good for the planet.
Y: Well, to put a spin on it. I’d say buying a jacket from us causes less harm to the environment than buying a jacket from another company that doesn’t put all the thought and processes causing the least amount of harm. For instance, we only use organically grown cotton. That’s fine. Growing cotton organically causes less harm but it doesn’t do the world any good. It still causes the world a lot of harm. That’s why I decided to go into the food business. I want to go beyond organic foods, organic cotton to what’s called regenerative agriculture. The difference is, regenerative agriculture builds soil and captures carbon. And so now I have to go to my cotton farmers – who supply us with cotton – and say: you can’t plow any more because every time you plow, it releases all the carbon you’ve captured back into the air. So agriculture is one of the biggest causes of global warming so it’s probably the biggest thing we can do to save this planet.
A: So is that going to be a major focus for Patagonia?
Y: It’s a major focus for me, that’s for sure. I’m really excited about this. I think it’s our only hope to regulate the climate. We’re not going to do it any other way. Agriculture has a chance of sequestering so much carbon out of the air through changing our grazing practices and our farming practices; and basically going back to the old way of doing things. And that’s what gets me excited.
A: Tell me about the long term future. How are you going to make sure, beyond your lifetime, that Patagonia keeps the environment central to its mission.
Y: We’ve become a B-corporation company. That’s different than a regular corporation. In a B-corporation you can put down what your values are and they have to be values that are good for the planet, good for society. So the way the law states: if I die tomorrow, the stock is in a trust and this trust would have 8 years to divest 80% of that because the law doesn’t want you to have all your stock, your foundation have all your stock in one corporation. (In) a B-corp you wouldn’t necessarily have to do that and we wouldn’t have to sell to the highest bidder which would be to go public. All the laws force you to go public, pretty much…we wouldn’t have to do that
A: But would it keep the environment central to its mission?
Y: That’s part of the values that we’ve inculcated in our charter, under being a B-corporation.
A: Will your son or daughter stay at the helm?
Y: I don’t know…I have no idea what’s going to happen after I’m dead.
A: Are you grooming them to do so?
Y: Yeah, they are slowly taking over more responsibility, absolutely. My daughter is head of sportswear design right now and my son is on the board. They both have the same values that my wife and I have.
A: One last question: going back to Scotland – John Muir, I know he’s been an inspiration to you. Do you have a favorite quote or inspiration from him?
Y: (laughter) When I was a climber, it was John Muir and Emerson, Thoreau and the transcendentalists, philosophers which had a different attitude to climbing mountains than say the Europeans did, which was to conquer the mountains; and our attitude was you climb them and leave no trace of having been there.