Patagonia founder on why there's no 'sustainability'

Patagonia clothing founder Yvon Chouinard has written a new book he hopes will be a blueprint for companies to do better... by doing good.

Image of The Responsible Company: What We've Learned From Patagonia's First 40 Years
Author: Yvon Chouinard, Vincent Stanley
Publisher: Patagonia Books (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 160 pages

Kai Ryssdal: You might call Yvon Chouinard an accidental environmentalist. Sounds unkind, but I'm not saying anything the founder of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, doesn't say about himself. As a younger man, Chouinard was a pioneering mountaineer. He started making climbing equipment in his parents' backyard in the 1950s. And he's since built a brand that anyone who's ever gone on a hike knows about. He's driven his company to profitability, and also activism. From the importance of paying a living wage to a defense of the environment, Patagonia reflects Chouinard's vision of how companies ought to be run.

It's a vision he details in his new book, "The Responsible Company." In today's Conversation from the Corner Office, Yvon Chouinard and the lessons he learned when his climbing gear pitons --that you hammer into the rock when you're on the mountain -- did more harm than good.

Yvon Chouinard: Yeah, well that was an unintended consequence of thinking we were doing the right thing. We made our pitons out of a harder steel so that they could be taken out and put in, taken out and put in, and last a long time. But it turned out when there got to be so many climbers around, putting 'em in and taking 'em out, it started destroying the rock. That was kind of our first lesson. The fact that we were causing the damage, so therefore we should do something about it.

Ryssdal: 'Course there is that responsibility tax, right? Because I can come to Patagonia and spend $200 on a really useful coat, but I can go to the Gap and get one for $44.99.

Chouinard: Somebody said poor people can't afford to buy cheap goods.

Ryssdal: Hmm, that's a great line.

Chouinard: You can go to Costco and buy a blender, first time you put ice in it, it will blow out. Save up, wait until you can afford a really good one that will last the rest of your life.

Ryssdal: This book is an evangelical book in the very secular sense. You want people to read this and change the way they do business. Do you care, though, why they change? Is it OK if they're doing it for the good PR and for the benefits that they might get from good publicity or is it important that they do it for the right reasons?

Chouinard: No, it doesn't matter why they do it as long as they do it. I think if you start out on that process of trying to be more responsible, after a while you realize how good it feels. It becomes a habit. This millenium generation, these young people, are going to demand that from you. Everybody's making the same stuff and the consumer has the final say.

Ryssdal: Do you ever sit back and think how interesting it is that you, a 70-what 73-, 74-year-old guy is trying to give the millennials what they want?

Chouinard: Yeah, I never thought I'd come to this at all. I do this because I'm very pessimistic about the fate of the planet. I think there's another way of doing business that is less harmful.

Ryssdal: I found it interesting that -- and you make a point of this actually -- you don't talk about sustainability a lot. You say that's kind of overused and it's become a little bit cheapened.

Chouinard: Yeah, it's like gourmet. You get gourmet hamburgers now. It's a watered-down word. There is no sustainability as far as any human, economic endeavor. We're polluters here and we recognize that. All you can do is work towards minimizing the damage that you do. You'll never be sustainable.

Ryssdal: You, Patagonia, is in a number of associations and organizations with Wal-Mart, which I just find fascniating. You'd think you guys would be uneasy bedfellows, at best.

Chouinard: Yeah, we've been advising them and working with them on creating a sustainability index for clothing. Within a few years, a customer will be able to go into a department store and they can zap the barcode with their little electronic gizmo, whatever it is in a few years. And it'll give a grade on how the labor practices were in making that pair of jeans, and all the environmental impacts, and there will be a grade. So the customer will be able to say, 'Oh this is a two, this is a 10. I'm going to buy the 10.'

Ryssdal: When you started, however many years ago it was, did you ever think you'd be sitting here running a company that's trying to change the world?

Chouinard: No, absolutely not. I'm not very good at thinking into the future. I kind of live for the day.

Ryssdal: Oh, come on. I don't actually believe that.

Chouinard: No, I'm not that good at it.

Ryssdal: What's next then? There's more, right?

Chouinard: Well, as soon as you leave I'm going surfing.

Ryssdal: Oh man. Yvon Chouinard, thanks very much for your time.

Chouinard: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
Image of The Responsible Company: What We've Learned From Patagonia's First 40 Years
Author: Yvon Chouinard, Vincent Stanley
Publisher: Patagonia Books (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 160 pages

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