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Patagonia founder brings rugged wisdom to Kellogg School

By Aubrey Henretty

11/1/2005 - Yvon Chouinard hates to say it, but he is a businessman.

The founder and owner of Patagonia, the purveyor of outdoor sporting gear, admits to being a businessman the way a thirtysomething might admit to holding down a minimum-wage job while still living at home with the parents — reluctantly.

Chouinard, addressing an audience of Kellogg School students, faculty and staff in the Owen L. Coon Forum on Nov. 8 as part of the Social Impact Club's 2005 Fall Speaker Series, related his youthful ambitions to pursue fur trapping — a profession he described as a “a long way” from conventional business life.

He said that an important part of Patagonia's mission from very early on was to “blur the distinction between work and play and family,” and so the company did. According to Chouinard, Patagonia was among the first companies in the United states to offer on-site child care for employees, and remains the only one with an official surfing policy: “When the surf comes up … you drop work and go surfing.”

Social Impact Club Fall Speaker Organizer Hadar Kramer '06 describes the series as “a great opportunity to learn more about socially responsible business, non-profit organizations and a collection of other ventures [that] combine a balance between a profit objective and a social mission.” She also notes that the student-run club, nationally recognized for its commitment to enlightened business practices, was fortunate to have attracted Chouinard to Kellogg, as he is not an avid public speaker.

After all, between running a company, riding the waves and writing his new book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, Chouinard has little time for speeches. The book, his first, could be said to chronicle his journey from the great outdoors to the conference room, except that he never really left the outdoors.

In the mid-1960's, Chouinard said, when he formed his first business partnership, the “European” attitude toward mountain climbing — that a mountain existed to be “conquered” by the climber — was pervasive on this continent as well. But Chouinard and his friends (who, in many cases, were also his business associates), inspired by the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, saw the natural world as something to be appreciated and respected rather than overcome. They subscribed to the “leave no trace” philosophy of climbing, and when there was no existing equipment that supported this philosophy, they forged their own.

“We were making things that didn't exist before. We had to write the book on ice climbing because we had all this new ice-climbing equipment and no one knew what to do with it,” he said.

Like Emerson and Thoreau, Chouinard was largely self-taught. He taught himself to blacksmith and to climb. And perhaps more importantly, he asked questions. Of the 1991 recession that nearly obliterated Patagonia, Chouinard says, “It was a real wake-up call for me because I realized my company was totally unsustainable and probably part of the [overall] problem [facing the environment].”

So he started thinking carefully about how Patagonia could move toward sustainability.

Even after his subsequent decision to stop using non-organic cotton — which proved to be the most harmful fabric for the planet to weave — the questions kept coming: “What are we going to dye this cotton with? Are the dyes toxic?”

Patagonia has been pledging 1 percent of sales or 10 percent of net profits (whichever is more) to grassroots environmental groups for the past 20 years, a figure that now totals more than $20 million, according to the company. In 2001, Chouinard helped organize a group of businesses — known collectively as One Percent for the Planet — pledging to do the same. “We don't look at this as philanthropy,” he said. “We look at this as Earth Tax.”

Knowing when to step back and give back some of what you've taken, Chouinard said, is all part of the responsible learning experience: “Education gives you choices … once you educate yourself, you've got to clean up your act.”