He’s a man the Wall Street Journal once called “America’s most unlikely business guru.”
True, most business leaders aren’t extreme outdoorsman like Yvon Chouinard, who is a surfer, kayaker, climber, fisherman and even a falconer. But then again, most businesses aren’t like Mr. Chouinard’s Patagonia, a California-based clothing company that is world-renowned for its environmental efforts – including donating one per cent of its total sales or 10 per cent of profits (whichever is more) each year to environmental groups.
“We consider it a cost of doing business,” said Mr. Chouinard to a packed Potter Auditorium last weekend, speaking at the invitation of Dal’s Faculty of Management. “It’s not charity; it’s a cost for being polluters.”
Questioning the supply chain
For more than an hour, the 73-year-old Mr. Chouinard, seated centre stage, led the audience through his career, highlighting the factors that inspired and focused his belief in living what he refers to as “an examined life in business.”
One of his first companies, Chouinard Equipment, was founded because he and his climbing friends wanted to build a better piton – one that could be reused rather than left there in the side of the mountain.
“It was like they wanted to conquer the mountains and bring them down to their own democratic level,” he said of other climbers at the time. “But we were brought up reading Thoreau, Emerson…the naturist philosophers of America. We felt like you should go into nature leaving no trace of having been there.”
Acknowledging that he’s more an innovator than an inventor, Mr. Chouinard’s interest in clothing has always been informed by industrial design: making items based on functional need rather than simply what’s in style or in fashion. But in starting Patagonia in 1973, he began to ask questions about the materials that went into his clothing, and what impact their creation was having on the environment.
The worst culprit was industrial cotton, and after touring the cotton plants that were producing his fabrics, he set in place an ambitious 18-month timeline to move the company entirely away from industrial cotton production. Since that point, he’s continued to dive into and question his supply chain, start to finish, on its broader ecological impact.
From consumers to citizens
He acknowledges that running a company this way is often “a pain in the ass,” but he says it’s about doing what’s right – even if, personally, he’s hardly optimistic about the state of the planet.
“There’s no difference between a pessimist who says ‘it’s all over, don’t bother doing anything’ and an optimist that says, ‘everything’s going to be fine, don’t bother doing anything.’ I’m a total pessimist that thinks it’s all over, but I’m going to do what I can so that I’m part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”
One of the initiatives he’s particularly excited about is a sustainability index for clothing, which Patagonia is working on with Wal-Mart and other clothing companies. The idea is to provide consumers with a consistent information system about how the clothing they buy is produced, so that they can make better informed choices.
He says it’s about turning consumption-focused consumers into responsible citizens.
“Most of the damage we do to democracy is done unintentionally through ignorance,” he said. “So we need to give ammunition to the consumer. If we can get us consumers to perform the good kinds of work that citizens do, that’s a revolution. And I think given the choice of buying a product that was made irresponsibly, and one that is [responsible], I think people will choose the responsible one.”
In parting, Mr. Chouinard had some kind words for the Faculty of Management, whose Dean Peggy Cunningham introduced the talk by discussing its IDEAS (innovation, diversity, experience, action and sustainability) model of education.
“I’m pretty excited by what is going on here,” said Mr. Chouinard. “This is what I started out to try and influence.”
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