Fast Company: Exclusive: Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard talks about the sustainability myth, the problem with Amazon—and why it’s not too late to save the planet
Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard set the standard for how a business can mitigate the ravages of capitalism on earth’s environment. At 81 years old, he’s just getting started.
Chouinard and his company have spent decades—and millions of dollars—fighting for environmental causes around the world while investing in more sustainable business practices. What’s more, Patagonia has embraced and promoted the B Corporation movement, while Chouinard led such efforts as 1% for the Planet, a collective of companies that pledged to donate 1% of sales to environmental groups and has raised more than $225 million since 2002. Meanwhile, over the past 46 years, Patagonia has become a billion-dollar global brand, making it the ultimate do-good-and-do-well company.
But Chouinard remains unsatisfied. The 81-year-old is more focused than ever on demonstrating, by Patagonia’s example, the lengths a company can go to protect the planet… Chouinard is both passionate and wry in discussing his business philosophy, what we get wrong about sustainability, why he’s so excited about regenerative agriculture, and Patagonia’s rising political machine.
FC: Ten years ago, you started getting into the food space, launching Patagonia Provisions and working on regenerative agriculture. Now you’ve been bringing those regenerative principles to your cotton supply chain. Did you always see that as the ultimate path?
YC: This is all pretty new. Scientists are just discovering how important agriculture is to climate change, both negatively and positively. [Environmentalist and entrepreneur] Paul Hawken has a book that lists 100 things that we can do to combat climate change [Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming]. Out of those 100, the most important that applied to us was agriculture, so we’re doubling down on regenerative organic agriculture. We’re working on a new certification that goes beyond organic. We’ve been using organically grown cotton for years, but all it does is cause a little bit less harm. So we decided to start growing it regeneratively and organically. We started with 150 farmers in India, small-scale farmers. We talked them into growing cotton with a minimum amount of tilling. Even with cotton now, we’re sequestering carbon. This is a big deal. Regenerative agriculture can’t be done on a large scale. It just can’t. These people are getting rid of their bugs by squashing them with their fingers. They’re stringing up lights to attract the insects at night and using natural methods. Then they’re using cover crops—chickpeas and turmeric, for which there is a big demand. And they’re using compost. We’re paying them an extra 10%, so [between that and the cover-crop revenue] they’ve almost doubled their income. Next year, we’ve got 580 small farmers who will grow cotton this way.
FC: What role can businesses like Patagonia play in advocating for that national mobilization effort to save the planet and change how we work in the process?
YC: We’re keeping quiet in the primary election, but for the national presidential election, we’re going to be very, very active. We’re going to spend a lot of money and basically say, vote the climate deniers out. Anyone who is a climate denier or even on the fence, vote them out because they are evil. They are out to destroy our planet, and we’re not going to stand for it. We got involved in the last election and we helped elect a couple of senators in Montana and Nevada. I had no idea how much power we really have.
FC: You mentioned Artifishal. Even with Patagonia’s smaller, shorter films—I liked [surfer] Dave Rastovich’s Saving Martha, on Tasmanian fish farms—there’s an aspect of fun with them, whether it’s surfing or climbing, combined with activism for the causes you believe in. Over the last number of years, you’ve invested more in that kind of storytelling to get these issues across to people in a way that’s engaging. I don’t want to call it marketing, but has this become a much bigger part of the company?
YC: Well, that’s for sure. We’ve got a propaganda machine going. After we were involved in this film 180 Degrees South [a 2010 documentary retracing Chouinard’s 1968 journey from Ventura, California, to Patagonia, Chile] and then DamNation [Patagonia’s 2014 movie about the damage dams can do], we realized the power that we have in film. I had no idea. With DamNation, we got the whole Obama administration to rethink hydropower. They no longer considered it green energy. Now it’s back, of course, with Trump, but that was it; they said hydropower is not green energy, and that was as a result of our film. We recognize that people make decisions based on emotion, and the best way to elicit emotion is through film. It’s not through books or catalogs or speeches. So we’re in the film business. We’re working on 10 films at a time these days. Some of them don’t make a cent. But that’s not the purpose.
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