THE BUZZ: Eco Renegade

By on October 20, 2015

Reveling in raw discussion with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard.

Yvon Chouinard has introduced an environmentally focused business model that is testament to his deep-seated desire to protect the planet. (Photo: SHIFT)

Yvon Chouinard has introduced an environmentally focused business model that is testament to his deep-seated desire to protect the planet. (Photo: SHIFT)

Jackson, WY – “Climate deniers are either dumbasses or crooks.” Such unadulterated words make Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard one of this newspaper’s favorite people to speak with. On the heels of Chouinard’s sold-out appearances for SHIFT Festival, an annual gathering and conference that focuses on the inextricable link between conservation and outdoor exploration, The Planet sat down with the environmentalist, outdoor enthusiast and architect of One Percent for The Planet.

With Patagonia, 76-year-old Chouinard, an avid ice and rock climber, kayaker, fisherman, surfer and skier, has crafted a sustainable, eco-focused business model that is swimming against capitalistic currents. It has placed him in a renegade category of entrepreneurship.

PJH: There is an interesting dichotomy between your role as an anti-consumer and your role as head of a company that makes goods for people to consume. How does this work into Patagonia’s business model?

Chouinard: There is only one way to lead and that is by example. All of my Patagonia gear is so old you can’t believe it. Unless I really need it, I don’t get it and I am trying to encourage our own customers to think the same way. That’s why I came up with ads that say, don’t buy this jacket unless you think twice. We are trying to take responsibility and ownership for our clothes from birth till death and rebirth, and we are making it easy for people to repair their clothes. We opened the largest clothing repair facility in North America and we are creating videos on how to sew buttons and do repairs yourself and we are sending a truck around the country to repair clothes, no matter if they’re Patagonia. We are also selling used stuff in larger stores and our goal is to have nothing go to the landfill. Then we take everything back and recycle it … once you have made the clothing, the best thing is to get people to wear it forever. I am not interested in selling more clothes, I am interested in making great clothes and saving the planet … if we can make a jacket more responsibly than someone else, then it causes less damage and wont end up in a landfill.

I mentioned that I teach fishing classes to kids. You know, I am not out there putting them all on drift boats with a $500 reel and $800 rod because that teaches the wrong message, that you should want to work to get rich so you can afford these things at some point in life. I have them out there with a pole and a line and they are catching fish and they learn they don’t need all that. … I have also taught climbing classes in barefeet.

PJH: What did you take away from the SHIFT Festival?

Chouinard: I learned some things. I mainly started remembering the things I should have said … I talked about how many Surfrider chapters there are [to protect oceans] – 81, and yet fishing? There are 30,000 fishing manufacturers and only 13 belong to One Percent for The Planet and probably most are fishing shops or guides. It is pitiful. Climbing is even worse, the most that happens is they pick up trash at El Cap. With surfing it is very in your face – you lose a spot or you don’t. But climate change affects every sport – whether it is kayaking or climbing or skiing. You know, a lot of the ice climbs I have made first ascent on don’t exist anymore – in the Canadian Rockies – Mount Kenya, for example, the route is gone.

PJH: How can the Jackson populace become better stewards of this land?

Chouinard: There should be a 1 percent tax that doesn’t go to the Chamber of Commerce to get more people to Jackson Hole. What gets more people here is having nature in tact. There could be a real estate tax used to make sure that if conservation property comes up for sale, we buy it and protect it … why don’t we have a referendum for the one percent tax or take away the bed tax and replace it with this? All it takes is one person to get behind the idea.

PJH: What strikes you most about the Jackson of yesterday – when your kids built a raft with your climbing rope and floated the Snake River from Dornan’s to Wilson – to the Jackson of today?

Chouinard: Well, they wouldn’t be able to do it now because they wouldn’t have gotten an invasive species permit (laughs)! I think there is too much coddling of our kids. I see kids being driven to the high school from town [in Jackson]; that is ridiculous. When you hear about “Mile for Mile,” the film about Patagonia park that was screened during the SHIFT Festival, the family that homesteaded that land, when one of the boys was 12 years old and his brother was 14, they rode horses for four days over 100-plus miles, fording rivers and snowstorms to go to school … now, we just coddle them and then we have a climber in the Tetons who gets wet in a thunder storm and calls search and rescue. I think it starts with parents. They have to learn to take risks for their kids.

PJH: Let’s talk about mentorship, which you addressed during your talk at the Center Theatre, Oct. 7, how, as a pre-teen you got your start climbing with a group of college kids. It sounded like they might have needed you more than you needed them though? You were leading everything, right? At any rate, how should mentorship play a role in conservation?

Chouinard: I just didn’t know how to use the gear (laughs). I could scramble pretty good but had to learn the hard way.

I had terrible mentors for kayaking – their idea of mentoring was, “Follow us!” My first trip ever was class 3, the next day class 4, and the next day class 5. Over two days I ended up with 15 stitches in my face.

But mentorship can come from a lot of people; it can certainly come from parents or other adult figures, because you are not going to get it in school. So many universities are teaching business and environmental classes in the old way. Kids are demanding that they want to study business and go work for a nonprofit but they are not getting the tools and instruction to do that. I was speaking to design graduate students at Stanford and explaining to them that an important part of design is to cause the least amount of harm in your design. Designers have a lot of power in how they design something – they can design something made out of rare minerals or straw. For example, they can design houses just from the rice straw grown in California. This rice straw has no value and they are wondering what to do with it … you could build 2,000 square foot homes every year with this stuff that is made of thrown-away materials and is earthquake-proof. Look at low-income housing made of sticks, they are bullshit houses – why wouldn’t we do it another way?

I told the audience [during my appearance at SHIFT] that my philosophy is to hang out with older people when you are young and then younger people when you are old. I think everybody in that room could find someone to mentor.

PJH: There may be some mountain folk who disagree with you that surfing is the hardest sport out there (but perhaps those are folks who haven’t surfed before).

Chouinard: Let’s compare surfing with skiing or snowboarding – you learn on the hill that is groomed and you can practice one run over and over and every time you take a lesson, you get better. But with surfing the only lesson is your first day and after that you are on your own. Every day is different and it is super crowded and no one is going to give you a wave … I have seen world class climbers at the age of 30 try to learn to surf and it is pitiful. Learning to surf after 30 is near impossible. Climbing is a controlled activity and surfing is just a completely different mindset.

PJH: Can you recall a particularly transformative experience in the outdoors?

Chouinard: I used to do expedition climbing and then one day I was caught in an avalanche in Tibet. One person died and one person broke his back. I came within inches of dying. It was then that I realized I had a responsibility to my family and that it was time to stop expedition climbing – it was a learning experience. PJH

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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