King of the mountain: we meet Yvon Chouinard
The cult hero and former climber founded the outerwear brand Patagonia in the 1960s. Now it’s experiencing a renaissance among Silicon Valley execs and hipsters, with global sales soaring to £650m
Sure, I can skin a rabbit,” says Yvon Chouinard, the American outdoorsman, environmentalist and owner of what is probably the coolest clothing label on the planet, Patagonia. “I’ve skinned and cooked plenty. The difficult ones are porcupines. I used to eat a lot of porcupine when I was rock climbing. They’re pretty tasty, actually.”
Relaxing at his home on the California coast in trademark plaid shirt, Levi’s and Converse, Chouinard is reminiscing about the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, when he became famous as a rock climber, scaling “impossible peaks with minimal gear”. Patagonia, the climbing equipment company he founded in the 1970s with his wife, Malinda, has steadily grown into a global business — since 2010, annual sales have doubled to £650m and recently, at the age of 78, he has found himself back in vogue.
His eco-friendly offices and maverick business methods have inspired a new “profit and purpose” generation of entrepreneurs and start-ups that like to mix business with social mission. As fans of HBO’s Silicon Valley TV series will know, Patagonia’s fleece jackets have become de rigueur among VCs and tech bros. In Shoreditch, where murals advertise the brand’s unique business mission (“Build the best product. Cause no unnecessary harm. Use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”), hipsters pack into the company’s clothes-mending workshops and screenings of vintage films about Chouinard’s climbs.
And on the back of a new edition of his global bestseller, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, he and his staff are invited to speak and advise companies around the world on how to run successful offices where people actually want to work. It pleases him, as this was the point all along. “I never actually wanted to be ‘in business’ as such. I wanted to climb and surf, so I started a business that would help me do that,” he says, looking out over the sea from the yard at his modest house. “The main thing was always to be as responsible as possible, and prove that being responsible could be good business, so I’d encourage other companies to follow. That’s why I do it.”
Patagonia makes clothing and equipment for all kinds of outdoor activities. Beginning (as Chouinard Equipment) by inventing reusable pitons, it then created the fleece jacket (Chouinard spotted the fabric’s potential when he noticed it being used for toilet-seat covers) and, among other things, pioneered the idea of layering. As well as seeking to minimise environmental damage, the company annually gives 1% of its sales or 10% of pre-tax profits, whichever is greater, to environmental causes.
The quirky idealism is apparent as soon as you enter the brand’s campus in Ventura, a rough-around-the-edges surf town an hour north of Los Angeles. The car park is covered by a canopy of solar panels, and the main buildings — a mix of wood-rich new build and converted industrial — ring with the sound of children in the classrooms and playgrounds of the integrated nurseries. The Patagonia childcare programme — pioneered by Malinda in the 1970s, when the Chouinards’ son and daughter were young — is internationally famous, and increasingly copied as a means of attracting female talent.
Company bosses credit it with the 100% return-to-work rate of new mums, but also with increasing the company’s performance and productivity: the children’s areas are deliberately spread out between offices, because, says Rick Ridgeway, a famous ex-climber and adventurer who now works as Patagonia’s vice president of environmental affairs, “the sound of kids playing influences people working here to be more polite. When people are aware there are children around, the tension and backbiting are reduced. They become more civil, and they work better.”
Adults are free to play a bit, too. The receptionist is a laid-back, beardy veteran world frisbee champion called Chipper Bro, who also functions as a company ambassador and provides a visitor orientation that includes an explanation of how to discover zen through surfing. At lunchtime in the surf season, he says, about a third of the staff grab their boards and go down to the beach; if it snows, whoever wants to can head off to the mountains to ski. No one is expected to work after 5.30pm or answer phones or email at weekends.
Chouinard, who has an open-plan work space like other employees, and uses neither email nor computer nor phone (though Malinda will pass on messages), operates what he calls “management by absence”, sometimes not visiting the offices for weeks because he’s away fly-fishing or climbing. “I trust people to make decisions,” he shrugs. “If the office is on fire, they don’t need me to tell them to call the fire brigade, do they?”
When I suggest it all sounds too good to be true, Chipper says: “Yvon figures that if we’re going to make the best clothes for those activities, we need to do the activities.” Staff say it works because they’re free to manage their own work, as long as they meet their deadlines, and if you do need to work late, you can. Chouinard suggests that, at a deeper level, it’s because they believe in the mission. (“My job as leader is to build consensus. If everyone believes in the mission, they don’t conflict with each other and you don’t need leaders.”) Ridgeway, a personal friend, says it’s also because the boss is a good businessman. “He makes sure he knows how he’s going to make money first. He knows you have to be successful in business to make people really take notice. It’s OK to be eccentric so long as you’re rich. If you’re not, people just think you’re crazy.”
It’s clearly this inner toughness that keeps Chouinard going. He was born in Maine to working-class French-Canadian parents; the family moved to California when he was seven. School and then the army did nothing for him, but through his love of reading and the outdoors, he befriended a group of outsider, nature-loving intellectuals, who, with their free-form climbing, created one of history’s strangest youth subcultures.
The group included other future clothing manufacturers such as Royal Robbins, as well as Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face and Esprit (and Chouinard’s business inspiration; they were kayaking together when Tompkins drowned in 2015). Their climbing — which began what became known as the golden age of rock climbing as they tackled peaks in Yosemite in the late 1950s — was unlike the equipment-heavy, large-team expeditions of mountaineers like Edmund Hillary, and intended to make a point about having fun and communing with nature. In the 1960s and 1970s they hung out with rock stars like the Grateful Dead, and were covered by Rolling Stone magazine. Towards the end of the 1970s, the scene acquired a wild fringe, with parties in the national parks and some climbers taking drugs. (Chouinard himself says he introduced one highly respected British climber to pott.)
“We were all misfits and we didn’t belong in society,” he remembers. “We felt the government was wrong, the whole society was wrong and consumerism was wrong. We lived off the grid, camping and eating what we could find; climbing saved us, because every time you do a difficult climb, you come down and you feel like you’ve become a better person.”
It was clearly his love of the natural environment that “saved” him that inspired his ethical business position and practices such as using only organic cotton. The radical edge is still apparent in the business and branding. A few years ago, the company produced an ad to promote the Worn Wear initiative, through which Patagonia promotes the repair of its clothes (its garments have lifetime guarantees, and are replaced or repaired by the company as needed). The ad showed a classic Patagonia fleece with the slogan, “Don’t buy this jacket” and a blurb urging people to consume less. It had a strong impact, not least on sales.
“We’ve never had more response to an ad,” the boss says. “Of course, it led to us selling more of that jacket than you can imagine, but it wasn’t a marketing ploy. The point was that by taking that position, it forced us to think about how we show people how to repair clothes, how we provide repair facilities. Remember, I don’t want to see any clothes come back to us, because it costs a fortune to repair this stuff. So you see it also forces us to make them as sturdy and durable as possible.” As Ridgeway says, first of all, Chouinard is a good businessman.
Chouinard sometimes worries he hasn’t had quite the impact he had hoped. It was naive to assume that public companies would follow him, he says. Instead, they’ve gone in for greenwashing: “Easy steps that cut waste and save money anyway. When choices get difficult, they back off.” He once thought Silicon Valley’s new masters of the universe would follow through on their promises to save the world, but now he thinks it was mostly hot air and he has stopped giving talks there. He doesn’t think about them at all, he says, except for when Apple poaches his staff for its wearables projects.
His hope for the future, the thing he gets most excited about, is Patagonia Provisions, a new food range made from products grown using “regenerative agriculture”. Regenerative farming is geared towards enriching soil, reducing carbon emissions and fostering communities — “probably the only way we’re going to save the planet”.
And so we come back to food again. How do you, I ask, skin a porcupine?
“Very carefully,” he replies.