What recession? Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard just received US News & World Report’s award at a top 100 human being on the planet. Not half bad.
“The reason I am in business is I want to protect what I love,” he says. “I used to spend 250 days a year sleeping on the ground. I’ve climbed on every continent. I’m old enough to have seen the destruction.”
He points to pine trees along the bank of the river. Many are red-brown, the dying victims of a beetle infestation sweeping through the American West that is linked to warmer winter temperatures resulting from climate change. Behind the trees, the Tetons, even at their uppermost ranges, look largely dry, with only a few noticeable spots of ice. “These mountains should have twice as much snow on them,” he says.
…In 1994, in fact, he threatened to walk away from Patagonia after learning that cotton from industrial farming, which figured in 20 percent of the company’s sales, required all sorts of toxic chemicals and was devastating for Earth. “I said, ‘I don’t want to be in business if I have to use this product.’ ” He gave the company 18 months to switch completely to organic cotton.
The transition was difficult. Patagonia had to find farmers who grew organic cotton. It had to overcome resistance from banks whose interests were tied to major chemical companies. It had to find new gins and mills. “We went a year without making a profit on our cotton products,” he says. Needless to say, Patagonia survived. It has continued growing at a steady, albeit conservative, pace for more than a decade. Sales in 2007 reached $270 million. Even with the recession, Chouinard says, Patagonia is on track to have its best year ever.
But the bigger point, he says, is that the switch was profitable and the right thing to do, a concept that corporate America often doesn’t get. “Corporations are real weenies,” he says. “They are scared to death of everything. My company exists, basically, to take those risks and prove that it’s a good business.”
He’s been wildly successful at convincing others, too. Since 1985, Patagonia has donated 1 percent of its annual sales to grass-roots environmental groups, and it has gotten more than 1,200 companies to follow its lead as part of its “1% for the Planet” group. Patagonia has managed to persuade companies like Nike, Timberland, and even Wal-Mart to begin switching to organic cotton. Lately, it has brought together an unprecedented coalition of governors, businesses, and environmental groups to protect animal migration corridors.
For all the success, Chouinard conveys a fair amount of pessimism…