Yvon Chouinard: Patagonia Founder Fights for the Environment

His accomplishments make him one of America's Best Leaders.

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Jackson Hole, Wyo.—Yvon Chouinard does this a lot. "I'll go fishing for two or three weeks sometimes, where no one can get ahold of me," says the founder and owner of Patagonia, the outdoor equipment and clothing company. "Even if a building burns down, why call me?"

It is early September, a warm afternoon in western Wyoming in the shadows of the Teton Range, and the Snake River is flowing swiftly to the south a couple of hundred yards behind Chouinard's house. With a simple fly-fishing rod in one hand, Chouinard is jumping across rocks with the learned ease of the world-class mountain climber he was in his youth.

He is wearing a black Patagonia jacket, which holds a box of flies and might be mistaken for product placement were it a marquee product of practically any other company. But Chouinard, who is 70 but looks younger, doesn't care much about selling jackets these days. "The reason I am in business is I want to protect what I love," he says. "I used to spend 250 days a year sleeping on the ground. I've climbed on every continent. I'm old enough to have seen the destruction."

He points to pine trees along the bank of the river. Many are red-brown, the dying victims of a beetle infestation sweeping through the American West that is linked to warmer winter temperatures resulting from climate change. Behind the trees, the Tetons, even at their uppermost ranges, look largely dry, with only a few noticeable spots of ice. "These mountains should have twice as much snow on them," he says.

Organic or bust. Chouinard, who was born in Maine and grew up in Southern California, got into the outdoor product business in the 1950s as a self-taught blacksmith, making high-quality metal pitons for himself and friends to use as anchors on risky climbs, then expanded into clothing in the 1970s. But since the 1980s, Chouinard has put environmental activism at the forefront of his company. In 1994, in fact, he threatened to walk away from Patagonia after learning that cotton from industrial farming, which figured in 20 percent of the company's sales, required all sorts of toxic chemicals and was devastating for Earth. "I said, 'I don't want to be in business if I have to use this product.' " He gave the company 18 months to switch completely to organic cotton.

The transition was difficult. Patagonia had to find farmers who grew organic cotton. It had to overcome resistance from banks whose interests were tied to major chemical companies. It had to find new gins and mills. "We went a year without making a profit on our cotton products," he says. Needless to say, Patagonia survived. It has continued growing at a steady, albeit conservative, pace for more than a decade. Sales in 2007 reached $270 million. Even with the recession, Chouinard says, Patagonia is on track to have its best year ever.

But the bigger point, he says, is that the switch was profitable and the right thing to do, a concept that corporate America often doesn't get. "Corporations are real weenies," he says. "They are scared to death of everything. My company exists, basically, to take those risks and prove that it's a good business."

He's been wildly successful at convincing others, too. Since 1985, Patagonia has donated 1 percent of its annual sales to grass-roots environmental groups, and it has gotten more than 1,200 companies to follow its lead as part of its "1% for the Planet" group. Patagonia has managed to persuade companies like Nike, Timberland, and even Wal-Mart to begin switching to organic cotton. Lately, it has brought together an unprecedented coalition of governors, businesses, and environmental groups to protect animal migration corridors.

For all the success, Chouinard conveys a fair amount of pessimism. He acknowledges that every product, no matter how much thought goes into it, has a destructive impact on Earth. Nothing, he says, is completely sustainable. "I avoid using that word as much as I can," he says. Nonetheless, "I keep at it, because it's the right thing to do."