Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard: Saving National Monuments, The Planet

Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard: Saving National Monuments, The Planet

Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard calls himself a “benevolent dictator” who levies a 1% “Earth Tax” from his company to fund environmental activism. Currently Patagonia is funding a campaign to protect Bears Ears National Monument, now under threat from President Trump’s executive order this week.

Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues sat down with this revered 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:


Here are some highlights of the conversation:

On his 1% for the planet “Earth tax”

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.

Listen to my report on Chouinard and consumerism on the BBC World Service (starts @16:00 on the podcast)

Here are Fresh Dialogues Transcript & Highlights of my BBC Report

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This is the second in the series: Fresh Dialogues Uncut

The “Uncut” series launched with an in-depth interview with Google’s Dave Burke

Martin Giles: The Economist on Green Innovation

Martin Giles: The Economist on Green Innovation

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

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.”



Primer from the Dept of Energy

Electricity 101


Go to to find your nearest electronic waste depository.

Check out the 2010 Green Business Rankings at Newsweek and Greenpeace and vote with your consumer choices

Is the greening of tech companies authentic?


Batteries 101 – A Venture Capitalist View

Batteries 101 – A Venture Capitalist View

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

In this week’s Fresh Dialogues, Mark Platshon, an expert in battery technology with venture capitalists, Vantage Point , provides some Battery Basics.

What is a battery?

“Throw a dart at (two elements on) the periodic table and you can make a battery out of it…a potato and a penny can make a battery…unfortunately we have a very limited periodic table…(and remember)  Moore’s Law doesn’t apply to chemistry!”


Why is it a hot space today?

“When did you see a $10 Billion market grow three orders of magnitude in 20 years?”

(That’s Platshon’s prediction for the growth in the lithium ion cell market as we drive more hybrid cars and new generation Electric Vehicles).

What will attract the attention of venture capitalists?

“We are looking for novelty and creativity…materials, systems, cooling…no one is going to find an execution plan because you are up against Samsung and Panasonic, the gorillas. You gotta do something that is truly novel, truly different and run like hell…cos they’re after you.”


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What about grid storage?


Carl Guardino on AB 32/ Prop 23: We’re not going to sit idly by

Carl Guardino on AB 32/ Prop 23: We’re not going to sit idly by

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

You’ve no doubt heard about the November ballot measure (Proposition 23) which aims to to scupper California’s landmark climate change legislation, AB 32. In this Fresh Dialogues interview, Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, didn’t pull any punches in his response to those behind the plan.

“We’re not going to sit idly by and watch you dismantle our environmental achievements… which are also economic ones,” says Carl Guardino.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents over 300 major companies in the valley, including Google, Hewlett Packard and IBM (approximately one in three private sector jobs) provides a proactive voice for Silicon Valley businesses on public policy issues, locally and in Sacramento and Washington D.C.


Here’s a recap of the issue:

AB 32 is the Golden State’s attempt to cap carbon emissions to 1990 levels by introducing a version of a cap-and-trade carbon tax which would hit power plants, refineries and cement manufacturers hard.

What is Proposition 23?

Supporters call it “The California Jobs Initiative,” and point to the high cost and potential job losses of implementing AB 32; but Proposition 23’s main impact would be to suspend (and effectively repeal) the provisions of AB 32. In turn, AB 32 supporters have launched a Stop Dirty Energy Prop Campaign to thwart the proposition. As of today, Proposition 23 is way ahead in the social media popularity index with over 4,500 Facebook “likes” for Prop 23 compared to just under 3,000 for its opponents.

And here’s how Guardino describes it:

“A veiled attempt to dismantle California’s environmental achievements.”


Who is behind it?

Two Texas-based oil companies, Valero Energy Corporation and Tesoro Corporation, provided the initial funding to launch the campaign. Valero donated over $4 Million to the cause.

Guardino’s argument

“This is an economic engine not a caboose and we’re not going to let folks ruin the engine that continues to fuel the renewable energy, clean green economy. It’s not only good for our environment – and it’s critical – it’s also good for our economy and jobs; and we’ve proved that through innovation of products, processes and what we do with our people every day in Silicon Valley.”

“What’s wonderful about Silicon Valley is that it’s never been an ‘either or’  –  it’s never been about the environment or the economy,” says Carl Guardino. “We can have our cake and eat it too.”



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Reid Hoffman: LinkedIn Entrepreneurship

Reid Hoffman: LinkedIn Entrepreneurship

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

June 24 marked the 13th annual SDForum Visionary Awards, a celebration of the innovators and chutzpah that make Silicon Valley unique. Although the four visionaries come from diverse backgrounds, Silicon Valley was the common theme for the evening. The visionaries gave a revealing glimpse into the Silicon Valley State of Mind. What exactly is Silicon Valley? What’s its role in the world?

This week, we look at Reid Hoffman’s viewpoint. He’s co-founder of LinkedIn and a renowned innovator in Silicon Valley. He had some strong words to say about the power of entrepreneurship and its ability to jumpstart the economy.

The other honorees this year were Chris Shipley, Arthur Patterson and Brent SchlenderBill Gates was also there. Alas, in virtual form only.

Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn introduced Reid Hoffman as someone with a brilliant strategic mind and ability to invent the future. As well as being Executive Chairman of LinkedIn, Hoffman is also a partner with venture capitalists, Graylock Partners. Pointing to his colleague’s multidisciplinary background (Hoffman studied symbolic systems and philosophy at Stanford and Oxford respectively), Weiner concluded that education provided the building blocks to create an outstanding public thinker and social networking pioneer. Weiner reminded the audience that Hoffman understood the ability of technology to inform and connect people, inspiring him to launch Socialnet (a precursor to LinkedIn) before Facebook and MySpace existed.

Hoffman walked to the podium with some reluctance, saying that listening to the introduction made him “want to run and hide”; yet he started his speech off by grounding us in time and place.

“It’s an enormous privilege to be at this center fulcrum of how we change the world, that we call Silicon Valley,” he said, and posed the powerful question, “What more should we do with that?”

Talking like a true Silicon Valley techie, he suggested not two “answers,” but two “vectors” to his question. And, the visionary he is, Hoffman thinks BIG. First, he recommended leveraging entrepreneurship as a powerful way to get the world economy back on track.  Drawing from author, Tom Friedman’s thesis, Hoffman said,

“We live in a world that is increasingly flat and increasingly accelerating. When you have challenges like economic turbulence and uncertainty… entrepreneurship is a really good pattern…we need to make it more available globally.”

Provoking wry laughter from the crowd, he pointed out that there is no entrepreneurs’ lobby in Washington DC, and implied there should be one to encourage entrepreneurship as part of the stimulus package, both here in the U.S. and around the world.

His second “vector” or call to action was: how can we take business models to the non-profit sector? Drawing from his work at and, he suggested hybrid models of self-sustaining nonprofits that can help spread entrepreneurship and create high impact change.

“I love to play at the heart of what we do best in Silicon Valley,” said Hoffman. “To take risks, develop technologies and use financing and inspire entrepreneurship to create a lever by which we move the world.”



Richard Lowenthal: Tesla, Range Anxiety & the Role of Charging Stations

Richard Lowenthal: Tesla, Range Anxiety & the Role of Charging Stations

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

On the eve of Tesla’s IPO, Richard Lowenthal of Coulomb Technologies discusses the vital role of charging stations in creating a thriving ecosystem for electric vehicles. Lowenthal, a Silicon Valley based maker of charging stations, argues that a comprehensive network of charging stations is a vital prerequisite for the roll out of electric cars such as the Tesla, Smart Car, Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf in the next two years.

Lowenthal explains why a visit to Tesla Motors inspired him to launch his green company after a successful career in high tech at StrataCom and Stardent Computers. For its part, Coulomb Technologies is still in the early stages of installing charging stations and faces competition from the larger, better funded Better Place which offers battery swaps as well as charging. However, Coulomb recently won a $15 Million grant from the Department of Energy and its ChargePoint America program is scheduled to install 4600 charging stations in nine strategic regions of the United States by September 2011.

Reports indicate that despite Tesla’s questionable financials  – the company has failed to have a profitable quarter –  investors are “giddy” about today’s IPO. It seems that for some, the “cool factor” and zero to 60 in under 4 seconds trumps all….at least in the short term.



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This interview was recorded at the CreaTV Studios in Silicon Valley on April 20, 2010. For more interviews with Tesla experts click here

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