Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialoguessat down with thisrevered pioneer of environmental responsibility. Chouinard explains how a Scottish rugby shirt inspired his Patagonia business; why he believes regenerative agriculture could save the planet; and what he’s doing to ensure Patagonia’s environmental mission continues after he dies. Chouinard’s book: “Let my people go surfing” is an attempt to challenge business as usual and the culture of conspicuous consumption. The interview took place at the Heritage Theater in Silicon Valley in October, 2016.
Listen to this special Fresh Dialogues “Uncut” podcast:
Yvon Chouinard: 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 business. 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. I think that’s called taxation with representation… So we just tax ourselves 1% of our sales – not our profits – 1% of revenue is given away to 900 different small activist organizations working to save our planet.
On Private vs public ownership
Alison van Diggelen: You’ve said that your stock holders are ‘the people of the planet’
Yvon Chouinard: That’s right. When you’re CEO of a public company you have no power. Your board, your stockholders tell you what to do. I can do whatever I feel like. We’re sole owners. We can make quick decisions, be a lot more efficient, move quickly. I would never think of becoming a public corporation….I’m a dictator…
Alison van Diggelen: A generous dictator?
Yvon Chouinard: The most effective form of government is probably a benevolent dictator. Things get done. Look at American politics. The best you can ever achieve is a compromise. And compromise never solves the problem. It leaves both sides feeling cheated.
Alison van Diggelen: What else have you been able to do because you’re a private company and you have this “dictatorship”?
Yvon Chouinard: [Laughter] It’s all through the company. There’s no boss looking over your shoulder. It’s a level society throughout the whole company. Outside the company we’re getting to be very visible. I can’t believe the power we have. We’re getting invited to the White House all the time to advise on policy (under President Obama).
On Patagonia’s business conflict: making money vs saving the planet
Yvon Chouinard: 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. 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.
On Being a Reluctant Businessman
Yvon Chouinard: I never wanted to be a business man. I was a craftsman. I just happened to come up with ideas that people wanted. I love working with my hands. I slowly got trapped…I had no desire to get rich. I’ve done a lot of climbing on every continent and became aware of all the destruction to natural world…I decided to use my resources, which is my business, to do something about the natural world. That’s the reason we’re in business.
On the Scottish inspiration for Patagonia
Yvon Chouinard: I was in the business of making climbing equipment…I came to Scotland to climb Ben Nevis and saw a rugby shirt in department store in Edinburgh. Back then, active sportswear was basically grey flannel sweatshirts and 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.
On Steve Jobs, Apple and influencing businesses to be green
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 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’s been your biggest influence in greening the world? Business side or consumers?
Yvon Chouinard: Young people. I wrote this book “Let my people go surfing” – that has gone around in 9 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.
On Patagonia’s business philosophy
Yvon Chouinard: I never liked authority, I never liked telling people what to do. We decided to do it in our own style. That’s the title of my book “Let My People Go Surfing.” I don’t care when you work as long as you get your work done. You go when the surf’s up. Not next Tuesday at 2 o’clock. So it’s affected our management style. It’s created a way of managing a business so that we’re not tied down. We don’t drag our butts to work every day. We skip up the stairs two steps at a time. You don’t have to do it like everyone else. We don’t hire MBAs; we don’t have advertising agencies. We do most things ourselves because we can’t trust other companies to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: Beyond your lifetime, how will you ensure Patagonia keep the environment central to its mission?
Yvon Chouinard: We’ve become a B-corporation company… 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.
Alison van Diggelen: Will your son or daughter stay at the helm?
Yvon Chouinard: I don’t know…I have no idea what’s going to happen after I’m dead.
Alison van Diggelen: Are you grooming them to do so?
Yvon Chouinard: 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.
Alison van Diggelen: 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?
Yvon Chouinard: [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.
“We are standing on dry grass, and we should be standing on five feet of snow,” Mr. Brown said. “We are in an historic drought… a new era…The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.”
Although the governor’s mandate calls for a 25% water use reduction, it probably won’t go into effect until June and will barely impact the farming community, which accounts for 80% of the state’s water use (almond farmers alone use 10%). According to a report by Lisa Krieger, the CA Department of Water Resources confirms that agriculture water use has already been heavily restricted, however the new rules will not restrict groundwater pumping.
Experts at NPR’s KQED say the most worrying part is that this crisis is a glimpse of the future: the low rainfall and high temperatures we’ve experienced in the last four years are now the “new normal,” thanks to climate change.
Here’s an extract of our discussion that starts at 29:00 in the BBC podcast:
Hearing: We know California is sunny…but it’s rather too sunny and not quite rainy enough…and for the first time in the state’s history you have mandatory water restrictions. How does it affect your life and what’s going on there?
van Diggelen: Yes, this is big news here. Governor Brown went up into the Sierra this morning and he stood where normally there would be about five foot of snow and he was on grass. It was such a powerful image to relay to people the extent of the problem: 2013 was the driest on record in the state, 2014 was the warmest. It was like a one-two punch for the environment and finally he’s getting round to doing something. A lot of people, myself included, are asking: Why didn’t you start something a year ago? We saw this coming…(A recent San Jose Mercury News editorial describes Brown’s action to date as “lame.”)
Hearing: What’s it actually look like? Do you notice the lakes ebbing away, the rivers drying up?
van Diggelen: There are a lot of reservoirs in the south San Francisco Bay area that are completely dry or close to being dry. A lot of locals are letting their grass go brown. There are a lot of visible ways of seeing this, however you’re also seeing beautiful verdant grass on golf courses, so you could say there is a cover up going on. This is long overdue, there really needed to have been mandates before this, but at least there is something happening now. Gov. Brown is calling for reduction in water use of 25% for the next year.
Hearing: But he can’t make rain. Is there any sign of it coming?
van Diggelen: Our rainy season is almost over. We’re now in April and the majority of our rain falls between September and March, so it’s not looking likely. We may get one or two light showers, but the experts are saying the window of opportunity for a big storm has passed.
Hearing: It’s going to be a long hot summer.
Toward the end of the program (at 48:45 in the podcast), Don McLean fans will be interested to learn that we discussed the “American Pie” manuscript, which goes to auction on April 7th. I couldn’t help remarking how relevant the classic contemporary song is to California today:
“I drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.”
Sadly, as climate change progresses, dry levees, lakes and rivers are going to be a widespread sight in California. Indeed, that and brown lawns are going to become “the new normal.”
One day after the sweeping new rules to limit power plant emissions were announced by the EPA’s Gina McCarthy, China just announced a major carbon emissions cap. Yet the climate change deniers and the the coal lobby are campaigning to preserve carbon polluting energy. It’s valuable to reflect on why these new rules are critical to the future of mankind.
As McCarthy described it, “We have a moral obligation to the next generation to ensure the world we leave is healthy & vibrant.”
Others might be more direct: It’s climate change, stupid.
I recently interviewed CBS 60 Minutes Correspondent Lesley Stahl and she shared her emotional reaction to climate change. She witnessed the rapid ice melt in Greenland and reported about it for Years of Living Dangerously, the documentary series on climate change.
“I thought global warming needed an alarm bell rung before I went, but it was extremely emotional for me to see first hand the ice melt,” says Stahl. “…knowing what it’s going to do for the rest of the planet.”
Days before the Global Climate Conference in Durban South Africa, NBC’s Special Correspondent Tom Brokaw delivered a strong message in Silicon Valley for those who deny climate change. “It’s real, we see it in our weather systems,” he said and made a somber call to action, saying everyone needs to take a part. Brokaw, who has hosted two documentaries about global warming for the Discovery Channel, says he’s planning an expedition to Antarctica with a team of climate scientists to record the glacial melting next January.
Brokaw cited carbon based fuels and energy consumption as major issues, and stopped short of making specific policy recommendations, but said that the Obama administration missed a valuable opportunity to do something substantial about energy and jobs. “People could have got allied with that,” he added.
He acknowledged his part in contributing to the problem (long commutes in polluting LA traffic to visit his beloved mother), but is now doing what he can to be greener. He recently adopted solar in his Montana Ranch, recouping his capital investment in only three years. In this intimate video, he waxes lyrical about the piping hot water and heating system – even during long Montana winters.
Brokaw ended on an upbeat note, saying that he thinks the younger generation will change things for the better.
The video was recorded on November 21st, 2011 at the Commonwealth Club in Silicon Valley, moderated by KGO TV’s Dan Ashley. Brokaw is promoting his new oeuvre The Time of Our Lives, a conversation about America; Who we are, where we’ve been, and where we need to go now, to recapture the American Dream.
Google has taken a unique role in green policy advocacy as well as cutting edge clean energy investment. In July, Fresh Dialogues covered Google’s Green Dream, an audacious report outlining how the right green investment and policy could positively impact the economy and the planet. Without Weihl at the helm, Green at Google may lose some impetus. A new Green Czar has not yet been announced.
So what’s next on this Hero of the Environment’s agenda? Has he been tipped as President Obama’s Green Czar? Certainly Tom Friedman has turned down that job (saying he gets enough aggravation playing golf). Is Weihl heading to Europe where the debate about climate change is (thankfully) over. Or perhaps China has promised him a fortune to lead the ambitious green agenda for its new five year plan?
For now, he’s being tight lipped.
He simply told me, “It’s time to move on and find something new.”
Plus he’s standing by his statement made in September at the GoingGreen Conference that, despite the naysayers, “The Solyndra debacle will not impact smart venture capital investment.” Emphasis on the “smart.”
Fresh Dialogues will update you as soon as Mr. Weihl shares plans for his replacement and his next exciting chapter. Bets are on that he will stay in the green arena.
UPDATENovember 8, 2011 1pm PST
Will a new Green Czar be appointed soon? Google’s Parag Chokshi confirmed today in an email response, “Bill (Weihl) played a unique and important role bridging several different internal teams. But we have a strong team in place. Urs Hoelzle will continue to lead our data center efficiency and renewable power purchase efforts, and Rick Needham leads on sustainability and renewable energy investments.”
We assume that means “no.”
Parag Chokshi, Clean Energy Public Affairs Manager, also confirmed that it was Rick Needham and his team who spearheaded the $800M in green investments (another $45 M was made by Google.org).
Chokshi said that Weihl would be having a good send-off today. Just what that means in terms of low carbon celebrations and green-themed surprises is yet to be revealed. Watch this space.
Read transcripts, see photos and check out our ARCHIVES featuring exclusive interviews with Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman, Vinod Khosla and many more green experts and visionaries…
The Economist newspaper has a reputation for world-class reporting, with a sardonic British twist. Is the publication bullish about green innovation? I sat down with Martin Giles, the Economist’s US Technology Correspondent last week to get his global perspective on green innovation and the greening of Silicon Valley tech companies. Giles conducts interviews for the delicious Tea with the Economist series and other high profile conferences, but when the tables were turned, he didn’t disappoint. In this Fresh Dialogues interview, we talk GREEN, from data centers to smart grid; and green jobs to political bluster.
Is GREEN and sustainability important to tech companies today?
“It’s definitely on everybody’s agenda. It’s an opportunity to save money. If we can find ways of powering our server farms…our production lines more efficiently, we can save money and do a favor to the environment. That’s a win-win.”
What lasting green trends are happening today?
“E-waste is a big issue…How do we create products that don’t leave a massive footprint on the environment?”
“Smart grid… It’s classic Silicon Valley – it’s technology on the one hand and power on the other…let’s bring them together and create a whole new paradigm.”