Yvon Chouinard: Social Climber

For the new generation of entrepreneurs casting around for inspiration, they could do worse than follow the example of Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia who, since 1972, has been putting the general interest above all other concerns.

For the new generation of entrepreneurs casting around for inspiration, they could do worse than follow the example of Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia who, since 1972, has been putting the general interest above all other concerns.


As climbers and mountaineers know well, climbing the highest peaks opens your eyes to the fragility of nature. Those that reach the heights of the business world can hardly be blind this fact either. But while some are content to look on from the sidelines, others, such as Yvon Chouinard, decide to take action.  
The rock-climbing enthusiast launched Patagonia in 1972, a company providing equipment and clothing to mountaineers. Chouinard’s ethos was virtually unheard of back in the day: to predicate a company’s business model on respect for nature.

 

30 years ahead of his time

 

While concern for the environment only really entered the collective consciousness of those of the commercial world at the start of the 2000s, at Patagonia, they are its founding principles. These ideals have long found expression in the action taken by the Californian company. In 1985, Chouinard announced that 10% of Patagonia’s pre-tax earnings would be given over to environmental organizations. Today the donation equates to 1% of all sales. The Maine native was the driving force behind 1% for the Planet, an association of businesses who undertake follow Patagonia’s example. Members include Pukka Herbs and Maisons du Monde.

In 1992 Chouinard commissioned a study into his company’s environmental impact, and the results led to profound changes in the way Patagonia did business, including switching to organic cotton, despite the increase in cost for the customer, who, instead of crying foul welcomed the initiative. Patagonia then doubled-down by starting to produce its clothing and equipment from recycled materials. This applies to 70% of the Patagonia line in 2020 and should reach 100% of all products by 2025.  

 

Spreading the word

 

In terms of personnel management philosophy, the 81 year old has had a host of ideas, many of which are contained in his book Let My People Go Surfing, which has become something of a bible for managers. Staff at Patagonia are strongly encouraged to engage in environmentally beneficial activities and have the possibility of taking a two-month sabbatical to participate in an environmentally friendly project. Good eco-practices are shared with co-workers and clients alike.  

At the Patagonia Store in Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc, staff can showcase their eco-friendly habits by, for example, giving cookery courses using ingredients that habitually go to waste, such as the skins of potatoes. This has led to Patagonia having a loyal, more fulfilled workforce. Management, logistics, charity work, the Patagonia way was acknowledged by the UN in 2019, which bestowed its Champions of the Earth trophy on the Ventura, southern California-headquartered company. According to Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UN’s environment programme, the ethos preached by Patagonia provides “the perfect roadmap for the private sector to engage in the fight against climate change, the loss of biodiversity and other threats to society and the planet.”

Unsurisingly, when B Corp certification was born, Patagonia had little difficulty earning the label, after all, the people behind B Corp drew their inspiration from Yvon Chouinard himself.  

Read the full Special Report: Leadership & the Purpose Revolution

First explored in the United States in the 1970s, the idea that purpose can go hand-in-hand with profit has gained mainstream acceptance.
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