The Power of Patagonia: Working Towards A Greener Earth, Sustainability, Activism & More

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia never intended to be a businessman or start a company. He never planned to become a billionaire or create a clothing apparel line the way that Patagonia has exploded to be now. In simpler terms, Chouinard is a surfer, a mountain climber, a kayaker and more. He does not have a college degree or college level education that has led him to where he is now. It was all simply because he was using items for his mountain climbing and knew he could make these pitons better. He wanted to improve and improve simple things he was using in his everyday life and after Patagonia was founded and it is nearly 50 years later, it has grown so exponentially, that Chouinard even wanted the growth to stop.

If you have never heard of Patagonia, it is the Southern part of Argentina. Yes, this is where the name Patagonia for the company came from. But the actual company itself sells outdoor clothing and gear for sports such as climbing, skiing, fly fishing, trail running, surfing and more. Read along for some fun facts you may not know about Chouinard and what led him to where he is today, how he promises to help the planet, and some recent news of his ownership transfer to a nonprofit organization.

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Cover photo sourced here

Photo Source: The Guardian

Who is Yvon Chouinard?

Photo sourced from Fly Fisherman

Yvon Chouinard was born on November 9th, 1938 and according to online articles his father was a French-Canadian mechanic and handyman. His early childhood included climbing and he was one of the leading climbers of the “Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing”

According to Patagonia’s company history, Yvon Chouinard became a climber in 1953. He was a member of the Southern California Falconry Club for 14 years and he was taught to first rappel down cliffs to falcon nests where they hid. This immediately created his interested and his love for rock climbing. Him and his friends learned to mountain climb and eventually in 1957, he taught himself to blacksmith. Every time he looked at a product he thought that he could make something better than that and this happened when he went climbing. Chouinard wanted to make climbing hard wear that was better than anything else out there.

During this time when Chouinard was climbing, all of the climbing gear that was currently being made was from Europe and it wasn’t good quality and a lot of these items only used once because they were designed to be left where you had used them for the next climbers to come and use them. He felt and knew that this was wrong because with nature, it should always be left alone. Chouinard thought for people to just do their climb, but don’t leave anything behind. He then went and created quality pitons which are pegs put into the cracks of rocks to help climbers support themselves. Chouinard did this for 10 years but again, never intended to be a businessman. He was making 1% of profit from this and did not intend either for it to be a huge or established business.

While he was making these pitons, he taught himself how to pound hot metal into a shape in his parents yard. His dad helped him by converting their chicken coop into a shed for him to do all his work. He was making pitons, snap links and more. It’s also important to note that this was so early on for climbers that Chouinard says there has to be have been at least 250 in the whole country and it was nothing compared to how big it is today.

Patagonia was founded in 1973 in Ventura California and now operates in over 10 countries and has factories in 16 countries.

When the growth of Patagonia skyrocketed and he decided he was officially a businessman, he wanted to read up and become the best he can be on it so he read up books on Japanese style management and businesses. He knew there had to be a different and better way to do business than the way people were doing it at his time. Something else that is also very interesting about Yvon and his company is that he only works for half the year himself. He takes off from June to November, because he has a place in Jackson Hole and he goes fishing everyday. He calls about 3 times in those 5 months, and people know if the warehouse burns down don’t call him because what can he do? They are the ones that know what to do he states in the How I Built This Podcast.

The way that he is able to take off so much time and do this is because of something that previously he heard on NPR before from a woman who went to Stanford and studies ants. Yvon says, ants don’t have bosses and everyone knows what their job is and what they have to do” so this is the mindset he built upon his company. He wrote a book called “Ley My People Go Surfing” and that it’s a policy for his employees that when the surf comes up, he wants them to drop everything and go surfing.

Yvon has even had companies come up to him and say they want to do this as well but he knows they are going to fail because he says you have to do this right when the company starts with the first person who begins. He also had a psychologist study his employees and this man said that his workers are the most independent people he’s seen in any company and they are basically unemployable anywhere else. (source How I Built This Podcast.)

How Chouinard Went From Climbing Gear To Clothing

Yvon was on a climbing trip in Scotland in the winter and while he was out there, he saw a rugby shirt in a window. Because of this, he thought how cool and different it would be if all climbers wore this. No climbers had unique clothing or anything to separate them from others because during this time, active sportswear was basically grey sweatshirts and sweatpants or shorts. One day, he decided to wear a colorful rugby shirt and everyone had asked him where he got it and that they loved it! This sparked his idea to import some of these from England and he started to sell them. He did really well with these and actually became way more profitable than pitons. Chouinard also moved onto shorts after the shirts did so well.

He moved on and did a 6 month trip from California to South America. Chouinard did surfing, climbing and everything in between on his trip! He would surf down the coast, sold his surfboards in Lima, climbed volcanos in Chile and really grew to love the area of Patagonia in Argentina.

The name Patagonia was picked because of this and also due to him wanting to make clothing for super high crazy wind temperatures and insane conditions that this clothing can be worn in. It was going to be different than anything else in the market out there and he was right. But get this — Yvon knew nothing about clothing! He was learning by simply taking an idea and moving towards with it and this was his motto for everything he did. He did not create scientific plans or anything that would be super elaborate to launch out this idea. He decided that he would take a few steps towards his idea and if it didn’t work, he would just step back and go to another idea!

When founding Patagonia, his first product he was going to sell and that he knew he could do, was climbing shorts. Again, he knew nothing about pattern making so he took a pair of climbing shorts, took canvas from outdoor furniture and got it sewed by a Korean woman working for him with a machine used for sewing leather. That is how thick the product material was that he needed a leather sewing machine. When the shorts were finished, they were so tough and strong that they stood up on their own! These were extremely durable, strong and thick shorts that of course are not the same material today, but they still sell the same style shorts and name — Patagonia Stand Up Shorts.

Yvon’s Mindset for Patagonia & His Life’s Philosophy

From the beginning of starting Patagonia, Yvon’s mindset has always been to just make things better than what he currently used. He says ““if you wait for the customer to tell you what to do, you’re too late” so him and his workers were all their own customers. When he started hiring employees as the company grew larger and he began to do payroll, and creating a company, he did make a lot of mistakes just like anyone else. In the beginning, he had his bumps in the road but he was so successful in the 80s that they were growing 50% in a year and he was scared. Yvon said he couldn’t do this for long without running out of money so they needed a new plan.

There was a recession too where banks had stopped giving money and unfortunately he had to lay people off as well. This hurt Yvon because his employees are more than workers, he looks at them as family so this was especially difficult for him. He always had thoughts Patagonia would fail and he stopped getting loans but he fired some management that got him into this problem and had some loans from friends that could help him get out of this situation. Yvon knew the main reason why they were even facing these issues in the first place, is because they were getting so much growth.

“The faster a business grows, the faster it dies also.”

Yvon Chouinard (how i built this podcast)

They went onto a growth program that would prove they could be in business for 100 years from now so they would only make decisions from here on now and commit to this 100 year plan. The company as a whole started saying no to a lot of things brought to the company and opportunities and wanted to be more responsible. Something that is also interesting about Patagonia is that they don’t have ads to get new customers. This isn’t something they prioritize on or have a huge budget for and this is by choice. They have one half of one percent of sales that is used for their ad budget. They do this because they wait for the customer to tell them how much to grow. Patagonia is not a public company because they don’t have to grow based on people’s investments.

Slowing Patagonia’s Growth + Their Value and Pricing

When you scroll through Patagonia’s website, you will find that most of their items are not cheap and have a necessarily high price tag for rather simple items such as a shirt, pair of shorts or jacket. The reason for this is because of Patagonia’s lifetime guarantee. They cannot make anything cheap because they have to have the highest quality they can. Yvon says in “How I Built This” with Guy Raz Podcast Episode that “it’s like organic food, it costs more because it costs less to the environment so people will buy it and it is better for the planet.” The same mindset goes into his clothing and everything produced for Patagonia.

Yvon is not interested in making cheap products or items either because his mindset is that if you’re going to buy a jacket, make sure it’s a jacket you can wear more than 6 months of the year and that it’s not just sitting in your closet but also you’re wearing it in rain, a storm or any weather.

“Own fewer things, but really good things.”

Yvon Chouinard (how i built this podcast)

Although Patagonia does sustainable things and actions that are better for the planet, they are still part of the consumer market so they put their own spin on how they produce and manufacture with a promise to the planet. When Patagonia customers shop anywhere else, Yvon wants them to have the same mindset and think twice before buying anything too.

40 years ago in the 70s, Patagonia used to also let employees bring their kids to work to help and although it worked for a while, it did not work for long. Chouinard’s wife, Malinda Pennoyer started a job care center specifically because of this issue, but he didn’t want babysitters or anything basic. Yvon recognized ages 0-5 is important when children are growing up so these kids were going to learning and gaining knowledge during their time here and amusingly, Yvon says not one kid out of this daycare has been in jail yet! While there are 70% of women working for Patagonia and a lot of them in upper management, he doesn’t want to lose them so he created things as simple as a care center to help out.

Motivation for the company to grow and do well for someone like Yvon who doesn’t care about money or being rich, stems from a simple quote, “if you want to understand an entrepreneur, study a juvenile delinquent.” He says to figure out what no one else has does and put your own spin on it, break the rules and be creative and that’s the fun part of business.

“Invent your own sport so you can always be a winner”

Yvon Chouinard (how i built this podcast)

The philosophy that Chouinard lives by is the more you know and the less you need. He even went fly fishing at one point with one type of fly in different sizing, he limited himself to this for a year and he caught more fish than he ever caught in his life all because of that. “The hardest thing in the world is the simplify your life because everything pulls you to be more and more complex” from The How I Built This Podcast.

At one point, Patagonia was also growing 50% a year and he even wanted customers to not buy anything. He wanted his company to be the resource to show a different way of doing business. He has the largest garment repair system in North America and they repair any kind of Patagonia in any condition which is amazing. The reason for this is they want to teach people to not throw things away, just repair them.

Another commitment by Patagonia is to owning the product forever. Any sweater you buy is a product that they still own, if you get sick and tired of a color they can help you sell it to someone else, and they recycle any sweater you don’t want anymore into a new one if you really don’t want it. Plus, they repair any sweater you bring in! They are designing items that are made to be repaired and replaced so that they don’t need to be ever thrown away or not able to be replaced or repaired.

Their Promise To The Planet + Yvon Transfers Ownership

As of the beginning of September 2022, Yvon Chouinard gave away Patagonia to Fight Climate Crisis. He did not ever want to sell the company or make it public so he transferred ownership which is valued at $3 billion. Fight Climate Crisis is a nonprofit organization and they were “created to preserve the company’s indepdence and ensure that all of tis profits are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the globe” according to NY Times.

If you want to read up more on Patagonia’s promise to the planet, we’ve compiled everything below that you can get to know.

  • They guarantee everything they make — this commits to wasting less water and creating less trash
    • Ironclad Guarantee means that if you are not happy with one of the products you receive from Patagonia, you can return it and get a repair, replacement or refund
  • They know how every product is made and what goes into your clothing — they have a environment and social responsibility program
    • Their current progress includes:
      • 87% of their line is Fair Trade Certified sewn
      • 64k+ of their workers are supported by Patagonia’s participation in the Fair Trade Program
      • 550+ farms are part of their Regenerative Organic Certified Pilot Cotton Program
  • The reason why they do this:
    • They know that apparel workers are the lowest paid employees in the world and a lot of the clothing industry has low social standards for their workers which lead to unsafe conditions for employees, long hours, low pay and job discrimination especially women. This is why Patagonia chose to make a change and they want to have a positive benefit for the lives that they touch throughout business — they analyze and manage the impacts that their business has brought upon workers and communities within their supply chain.
  • Their progress within this change:
    • Throughout the years, Patagonia created several programs to assist within these issues and continue to make an impact across not just their business but also from farms to stores.
    • They have built environment and animal welfare responsibility programs to guide how materials and products are made. This includes:
      • 89% of fabrics this season are made with preferred materials
      • 100% of their down is responsibly sourced
      • 100% of their virgin cotton in clothing is grown organically
  • They have a lifetime guarantee with all their sweaters
    • You can buy used, trade in and fix your gear through their Worn Wear policy
    • This is an entire website separate from Patagonia’s actual website where you can repair, share and recycle your gear to cut down on the consumption of what we already own
    • You can trade in old Patagonia items that are sitting around and get credit towards your next purchase on a used or new garment
  • Why does Patagonia hold onto their gear?
    • They hold on to it because in just nine months, they reduce the combined carbon, water and waste foot print by 20-30%
    • Buying used garments extends their lifetime by about two years
    • And this creates a circular reinvestment — they build their products in the first place to be endured so that it lasts longer and so that the trading in to someone else offers the next person to have a guaranteed amount of quality out of the gear
    • They give back 1% of sales to the restoration of the natural environment

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Author: Pamela Valdez

Content Writer Intern for She's SINGLE Magazine, Social Media Marketing Intern, and PR Editorial Intern for Access by NKC. Pursuing fashion industry and will be an upcoming undergraduate at FIT.