Don of the Dirtbags: An Interview With Yvon Chouinard

Yvon Chouinard has been wearing the same flannel shirt for 20 years. The 74-year-old conservationist, out-of-the-box thinker, athlete and craftsman is also anti-consumerism, always pushing Patagonia, the company he founded, to find solutions to the global environmental crisis. Below, we asked Chouinard what he thinks his legacy will be—turns out he “couldn’t really care less.” But we speculate it will be measured not by what he’s encouraged us to do more of (be in nature, be personally responsible, simplify) but by what he hopes we’ll do less of (buying, spending, polluting). In short, Chouinard wants us to stop being consumers and start being thoughtful global citizens.

Yvon Chouinard, Tierra del Fuego
Shooting line at Lago Fagnano, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Photo: Doug Tompkins

What do you personally think makes a good company?
Responsibility. During this last recession our company has experienced the highest growth it’s ever had. I think it’s because during a recession people stop being silly, they stop buying fashion stuff that will go out of fashion in a year or two. If they think it’ll last a long time, they’ll buy better quality things they need rather than things they just want, and that’s the kind of stuff we’re making. So our business is really strong. With the Millennial generation, they really appreciate what we’re trying to do to cause the least amount of harm in making our product. The Millennium generation has had some environmental education. They know what the problems are, they know we’re destroying this planet, they want to do something about it. And they want to support the companies that are doing something about it.

In fact we’re trying to tell our customers: think twice before you buy a product from us. Do you really need it or are you just bored and want to buy something? Then we’re taking responsibility for our product forever. If it breaks down, we promise to fix it. We’re going to come out with little booklets and videos showing people how to repair their Patagonia stuff themselves and when you’re finally either tired of the product or you’ve outgrown it or whatever, we’re going to help you get rid of it. We’re doing deals with eBay that you can sell it. And we’re going to start selling used Patagonia stuff in our stores. And then when the product is finally finished, give it back to us, and we’ll make more product from it. So it forces us to make products that don’t wear out, but it also forces us to design a product so that it can be recycled.

How do you feel like Patagonia’s mission statement has evolved over the years since you started?

At first we were all interested in making the best products—that’s the first part of our mission statement. And then as we got concerned about the state of the planet, we added on “cause no unnecessary harm.” And as we got more depressed or concerned about the world we added on a third part, which is influencing other companies to use our business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. That’s what I really think about: Leading by example, not just talking about what we’re doing.

Do you still remain optimistic or is that hard to do?

I’m not optimistic at all. I’m a total pessimist. I’ve been around long enough, traveled around enough, and been around a lot of smart people to know that we’re losing. In every single category, we’re losing. I don’t know if you listened to the President’s [inaugural] speech but he mentioned the environment for two minutes, maybe? He’s concerned with all the symptoms of our problems and not the causes. In the States I think saving the planet was number 19 on peoples’ priorities, and now I hear its number 4 again. Number 1 is personal security. We have a nation of… scary people: Look at all these conservatives that want to arm the whole country. They want to be able to walk in restaurants with their guns and that’s because they’re cowards.

The problem is like [environmentalist] David Brower said, there’s no business to be done on a dead planet. Well, there’s nothing to be done on this dead planet. And that’s what’s happening. So yeah, I’m a total pessimist. But, I’m a happy person. I’ve accepted the fact that there’s a beginning and end to everything. All species are born, evolve, and then die off. We’re going through the 6th great extinction and the large mammals are going first and, you know what – we’re large mammals!

Every empire collapses. The American empire is probably on its way to collapse now. Nature doesn’t like empires. It doesn’t like accumulation in one place, it doesn’t like monoculture. It’s always trying to make diverse species. It wants to spread everything out. And we’re constantly trying to hold everything in.

Is there anything we as individuals can do in the meantime?

Well, the reason why we won’t face up to our problems with the environment is that we are the problem. It’s not the corporations out there, it’s not the governments, it’s us. We’re the ones telling the corporations to make more stuff, and make it as cheap and as disposable as possible. We’re not citizens anymore. We’re consumers. That’s what we’re called. It’s just like being an alcoholic and being in denial that you’re an alcoholic. We’re in denial that each and every one of us is the problem. And until we face up to that, nothing’s going to happen.

So, there’s a movement for simplifying your life: purchase less stuff, own a few things that are very high quality that last a long time, and that are multifunctional.

Do you have your own personal ethos around food? Are there certain things that you won’t eat?

Absolutely. I haven’t bought any beef from a store for probably four years. If somebody serves me beef at a house, I’ll eat it. I don’t want to be an asshole (laughs). My family here eats mostly wild game and sustainable fish, if there actually is sustainable fish. I won’t anything that’s genetically modified. I try to eat all organic vegetables.

Heading toward Fitzroy
The Ventura Shop Employees Tom, Doreen, Tony, Dennis, Terry, Yvon, Merl, and Davey, 1966. Photo: Tom Frost

When you were younger, you famously ate canned cat food to get through a summer on a budget, right?

Yeah. I ate a lot of it. It wasn’t very good. But it was better than dog food.

What’s the oldest Patagonia item that you own?

Let’s put it this way—I don’t own any new stuff. I’m not a consumer, even with my own stuff. I’ve got all these flannel shirts that go back almost 20 years (laughs). We started a little website [web address] that asks our customers to write in what their favorite Patagonia product is and a story to go with it. We’ve got one coming up where a guy got bitten by a shark. The shark bit through his surfboard, through him, he got I don’t know how many stitches, and ruined his wetsuit. So we heard about it, we gave him a new wetsuit. And then a local beer company heard about it, and they gave him a lifetime supply of beer. So he got a new wetsuit and a lifetime supply of beer (laughs).

How did Mount Fitz Roy in Southern Patagonia become your logo?

You remember the trips that that lasted for a long time. The way people do trips now, they take, a week, they go to Europe—you don’t remember those trips very much. Or you go surfing in Indo for a week. But if you had to go over land or take a boat it’s really different. That trip [to Mt. Fitz Roy] lasted six months and in that time there were a lot of adventures on the way. From sleeping on the ground in Guatemala and waking up to a gun to our heads—there was so much going on. It became a really important trip in my life. At the time I was thinking about starting this clothing company, and I wanted to make clothes for the conditions we found down there, which are like hurricane force winds and the evening with its orange look and its lenticular clouds. I thought, ‘This, this is what I want to make clothes for, I want to make clothes for Cape Horn and Patagonia.’ I came up with the idea for the logo. At the time, Patagonia was like Timbuktu, which is this mystical place. Everybody kind of knew where it was, but didn’t really. We put Patagonia on the map, now everybody knows where it is, everybody goes down there. The name Patagonia has been really good because it can be pronounced in every language. I mean, try and get the Japanese to pronounce Lululemon (laughs).

Is there any climb that you’ve done in your lifetime that you’re most proud of?

I did a route on El Capitan with my friend P. M. Herbert that took us 9 or 10 days. It was the first time that any of us had done a route on El Capitan with just two people and push, no fixed ropes or anything, and it was quite an achievement. And very difficult. That’s probably my best climb.

Were you scared at any point?

Well, yeah, we got to the top with no food, no water, and very little equipment. It was pretty thin.

Where the inspiration for the label came from: Mt. Fitzroy peaks in Patagonia. Photo: Barbara Rowell

Was there a climb that has defeated you?

Oh, yeah, I’ve backed off quite a few climbs. But there are climbs I’ve never attempted that I wish I had done, particularly in the Alps. I used to climb in the Alps a lot. You know, like the north face of the Eiger, I wish I had done that climb. To me it’s kind of personified everything that I really like about climbing. I have regrets about that, but as far as the failure, I don’t look back very much. I don’t look forward very much. I’m kind of grounded. In fact, I have a hard time remembering failures. Kind of washed them off.

Have you climbed much around the East Coast/New York area?

I think some of the best rock climbing in the world is in the Shawangunks there, near New Paltz. And then I climbed in up around the Adirondacks. I climbed in New Hampshire.

Was that part of the incentive to open a store in New York?

Not necessarily. We’re opening a climbing store and we’re opening a surf store. It’s a general trend that we’re trying to put more focus on individual sports that we make stuff for, instead of just being a general clothing store. We’re trying to add more focus to things.

A lot of people that do these climbs and outdoor activities in general talk about this connection to nature and kind of transcending something greater than themselves. Is that how you felt when you started getting into this and do you still feel that way?

Yeah, sure. I mean, that’s the reason—especially for young people—that they do those things. They want to push their limits, to see what they’re made out of. That’s why a lot of these guys are paddling into giant waves. They’re out to see what they’re made of, and I think it’s pretty cool. One of the one of the things I really believed in is the idea of simplicity, that life should always be moving towards more simplicity rather than more complexity. And when I see somebody, you know, riding a finless surfboard and surfing better than 99 percent of the surfers out there, I think, “This is fantastic. This is the way to go.” We’ve gone from tow-in surfing to now paddling into those same waves. And that’s the direction we should be going, rather than more toward technology. In the 70s there was a thing around that “he who dies with the most toys wins.” That’s wrong, it’s the opposite. You want to replace all that gear with knowledge and experience. And so in sports I’d love to see the people who are simplifying their sport. I’ve done like six routes on El Capitan and Yosemite—and some of those routes that took us 10 days to climb are now being soloed with no rope by guys in their gym shorts. And they’re back down before lunch. I think that’s absolutely fantastic. Glad they’re not my kids, but that’s the direction we should always go.

Is the process is easier now? How have we gotten to this point?

Well, we all want to cheat. In climbing, there are so many ways to cheat. You can do a route that’s been done 50 times and all you’ve got to do is follow the chalk marks that tell you exactly where to put your hands and feet. I can’t stand to do a route like that because I can’t stand to have people tell me what to do. I want to figure it out myself. I look at people climbing Everest—there’s a guy back in Austria that gives them a weather report every day that basically tells them to go or not go. It’s hundreds of ladders in place, thousands of feet of fixed ropes, Sherpas in front pulling and another one behind pushing. In surfing there are very few ways to cheat. Tow-in surfing was one way to cheat, but that’s passé now. So I think it’s the purest sport there is, and the most difficult too. I don’t know of any other sport that’s more difficult than surfing.

You think surfing’s more difficult than climbing?

Oh yeah, much more. I know a lot of world-class climbers that are unbelievable athletes and they try surfing—they try it seriously—but after you’re about 20 years old it’s almost impossible to get very good at it. You have to start really young.

When you started surfing you said that you welcomed people coming in the water because there was no one out there. Now that’s not the case.

It was the same thing with climbing too. I’m pretty lucky. I lived in the golden age of a lot of sports from kayaking in America, to spear fishing back in the 50s when we had to make all our gear, telemark skiing, and climbing and surfing. I started surfing in ‘54 or something, and I really enjoyed it those days, because you’re discovering new things every time you go out, new techniques, and new equipment.

Are you pretty involved with Patagonia’s ambassadors and selecting who they will be?

No, not at all. I don’t want anything to do personally with ambassadors: Some of the sports that we make stuff for, like climbing and big wave surfing, are dangerous sports. I don’t want go to a big wave surfer and say, “Look, the more photographs we get a view of you on covers riding a big wave, the more you get paid,” which encourages them to stick their necks out more and more. It’s the same with climbing. I don’t believe that anybody should be a professional in climbing or surfing. Those are passionate, personal sports. You should ride big waves for personal reasons, not so that you can get on the cover of a magazine. Then, a lot of these people become really good friends. I surf with the Malloys all the time. We all have property at Hollister Ranch, and we go on trips together and stuff, but at some point they’re going to get long in the teeth like I am, and you’re going to have to say to them, “Oh, gee, you know, we’re going to replace you with a younger surfer who’s on the tour and, you know, tough shit.” Or, go to a woman surfer and say, “You know, this new ambassador looks a lot better in bikinis than you do, so you’re out of here.” I don’t want to have to be in that position to do that.

So was it your idea to start to have ambassadors?

Well, it was. And the reason we wanted them is that we wanted their expertise in helping us in our designs, not to promote the brand or anything, but to help us in the designs. So we picked our ambassadors according to how much feedback they could give us, not how famous they were.

What do you consider is your biggest environmental accomplishment?

We’re working on a sustainability index for apparel and footware, kind of like organic standards for foods. We’re working on it with a coalition made up of about 60 large companies like, J. C. Penney and Kohl’s and Nike and the Gap and Levis and Wal-Mart. Right now when you go buy clothing from a company, you have no idea how the product was made. Within a few years you’ll be able to walk into a department store and there’ll be five brands of jeans; each one will have a number on it that will tell you how responsibly—or irresponsibly—they were made. It will include whether the fiber is organic cotton or industrially grown cotton, it will include biodiversity, the working conditions at factories—everything. And it’s going to have a grade so if it’s important for the consumer to cause the least amount of harm, they’ll have the information to be able to do that. That has potential to change the world. The same index that we’re developing can be also used for buying a lawnmower or, any product.

What kind of work are you doing right now with the environment that you’re passionate about?

Our next big campaign in our catalogs and websites is to imagine an economy that doesn’t destroy the planet. And that’s what I’ve been working on writing and stuff. It’s a tough one. It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever tried to talk about.  Everything you talk about kind of leads to a dead end. We don’t want to be wishy-washy, we just talk about the symptoms of what’s wrong with society. If you look at the causes you’ll realize we’re doing absolutely nothing to solve the causes, and it’s pretty easy to get depressed about it. Especially because I just had my first grandchild. She’s going to still be alive at the end of this century, and by then there’s going to be a 5 foot sea level rise. That’s what they’re predicting now. Every month there’s a new study about climate change that is grimmer than the one before. So things are happening so much faster than we even predicted.

So how would you help your granddaughter to be optimistic about the situation?

I don’t think being optimistic does any good, sticking your head in the sand. I think what’s important is to raise a grandchild so they have a life with nature. You protect what you love, and if you love nature then you’ll want to protect it. And that’s one of the problems that we have, this nature deficit disorder. We have gang kids in New York City that are afraid to go to Central Park because of the squirrels there (laughs). They’re so divorced from nature. So the best thing I can do is make sure she has a life as much in the outdoors as possible.

Your family is French Canadian. What role has that played, if any, in your life?

I think it played a lot. I lived in Maine until I was seven years old and spoke only French. And then suddenly I’m doing a “Grapes of Wrath” trip across the country—six of us, and everything we own in one automobile, moving to California. Immediately I was put in public school where everybody spoke English. I’m the shortest kid in school and couldn’t speak English and I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, always in fights and finally running away from school. What it did was it put me on a different path than other kids. After school I’d be down on the river bottom in LA, gathering crawdads and frogs to bring home to eat instead of playing football or baseball or something like that. Those kinds of early experiences either kill you or make you stronger. Thankfully they made me stronger. And also in business it’s made me enjoy breaking the rules and making them work. That’s the enjoyable part of business that I really like. The other parts I don’t care much for, but I love breaking the rules (laughs).

So after all this do you still consider yourself a dirtbag?

Well, if you saw my lifestyle, yeah, you’d probably agree. I drive old cars, all my Patagonia clothes are years and years old, I hardly have anything new. I try to lead a very simple life. I am not a consumer of anything. And I much prefer sleeping on somebody’s floor than in a motel room. So, yeah, I fit the profile, all right.

What would you like your legacy to be?

You know, I couldn’t care less about my legacy.