At the age of 18, Yvon Chouinard founded a small blacksmithing company that would later, almost by accident, grow into Patagonia, Inc., an innovative, environmentally conscious outdoor retailer. Yvon’s love of nature developed as a child and at the age of 14, while training to be a falconer, he began a momentously successful rock-climbing career that took him all over the world. A world-class climber, surfer and explorer, Yvon is often described as a revolutionary businessman (though he describes himself as a reluctant businessman). As Patagonia celebrates its 40th anniversary, I sat down and talked to Yvon about his life, work and vision for the future.
Where did you grow up?
When I was 7 years old, we moved to California from Maine – it was a “Grapes of Wrath” migration – there were six of us in one car, and we’d sold everything off. Back in Maine is where I learned to fish. My brother took me out one day and he caught a fish, but I didn’t see it, and he snuck it on my line and made-believe I caught this 12-inch pickerel. I remember this really specifically because it had a big influence on me.
Was the natural world important to you as a child?
Nature saved my life. It really made me what I am today. I think if I hadn’t had a life in nature I probably would’ve ended up a juvenile delinquent or something.
All through my childhood I’d taken a different path; when the other kids were playing baseball and football I was down on the Los Angeles River gigging frogs and capturing crawdads to take home and eat. That followed to my business career as well. I love taking a different path.
Do you think kids today experience nature differently from the way you did?
Kids today have nature deficit disorder. We raise our kids afraid of everything – justifiably in some cases – which creates an estrangement from nature. I think the problem with getting Americans to focus on saving our planet is that they have no experience in nature and you know, you protect what you love and they don’t love nature.
Patagonia’s clothing and gear lasts a long time and doesn’t need to be replaced very often. It’s made responsibly, which can cost more. How do you stay in business?
I think there are only a few companies that understand that the next generation of consumers is going to be voting with their dollars. Given the choice of two products, one made more responsibly and one less, they’re going to vote for the responsible one. We’ve seen this already – in this last recession Patagonia has been growing like crazy. That’s because in a recession people buy multifunctional goods, they buy goods that last a long time, they buy higher quality even though they have less money. That’s what my business is – to make those products.
Looking ahead, what do you think we need to do as individuals to get to a healthier natural world?
Our next environmental campaign is to answer that question. What would an economy look like that doesn’t destroy the planet? We’re not going to put up with only solving the symptoms; we’re going to get down to the real causes of our problems. But I think I might have a solution. Three words stick in my head: quality, innovation and simplicity. Consumers questioning whether they really need something leads to buying things that last a long time and can be recycled. That’s quality. Innovation is replacing an old technology that is polluting or inefficient with a better one. The last word is simplicity. Our philosophy here at Patagonia has always been that a product is perfected not when you can’t add anything more to it, but when you can’t take anything away. As a general philosophy of life, we should work toward simplicity rather than increased complexity. Some of the rock-climbing routes I did on El Capitan in Yosemite in the old days that took 10 days are now being soloed by guys who are back by lunch – and they do it in their gym shorts. I think that’s the way it’s got to be; that’s the direction we have to go. I think I’m stuck on those three words. I don’t have the answer, but I think that may be part of the solution.
Any advice for kids growing up today?
Break the rules. You know, I never wanted to be a businessman. I don’t usually respect business people, I don’t hang out with business people, but once I finally admitted that I’m a businessman, I realized that I enjoy the idea of breaking the rules and making it work.