It's not easy to get ahold of Yvon Chouinard, the legendary climber, adventurer and founder of Patagonia, the wildly successful apparel company headquartered in Ventura, California. He's 74 years old, fit, rich and very cranky about the destructive smudge humans continue to lay on the planet. His efforts to mitigate the damage by making his company and others ecologically responsible have cast him as the Galahad of the green revolution. And it turns out, saving the environment is a good excuse to be out in it: Chouinard spends six months a year out of touch around the world—wherever the surf is good and the fish are biting.
"We haven't seen him in five months," said his assistant when I called. "He's off surfing and fishing somewhere. He doesn't own a cell phone. There's no way to get in touch with him."
I met Chouinard 30 years ago in Moose, Wyoming at his house—a log cabin with a chimney made of river rocks set in a way that allowed his then eight-year-old son and three-year-old daughter to learn to climb to the top. I spent three days there with Yvon and his wife, Malinda, whom he met during an argument over a Yosemite campsite. We talked about his days in that famous cathedral of rocks where he and a ragtag gang of lost boys authored the first climbs of El Capitan, Half Dome and other famous monoliths in the valley. It was there, out of the trunk of his Chevy, that he used a portable forge to hammer out pitons for his climber friends, his first business.
I still had the number for the cabin, and I dialed it on the off chance that I might catch him there. He doesn't own an answering machine, so it rang till I gave up. I phoned half a dozen times over the next two weeks, until one afternoon in September Malinda answered and called Yvon to the phone. He was stopping there for a week before heading to New Haven for a panel at Yale University to discuss his new book, The Responsible Company. Then he was off to fish in Canada for a month. We made a date to meet in early November in Ventura.
The Yale appearance took place in a wood-paneled theater-style classroom that held 500 adoring students. They watched as a moderator introduced Chouinard, who was wearing a travel-anywhere Patagonia sports coat, one of more than 600 products the company manufactures and sells. Also on the panel was the book's co-author, 61-year-old Vincent Stanley, novelist, poet and marketing director of Patagonia. He is also Chouinard's nephew, and his face, though less sun-weathered, bears a resemblance.
This wasn't Chouinard's first trip to Yale. In 1995 its school of forestry awarded him an honorary doctor of humane letters degree for his work on many eco projects. When he received the letter announcing the award, he was cranky as usual, but his response was tinged with the wry humor that often accompanies his crankiness.
"They didn't know what to give me because I didn't have a degree in anything. So when they said humane letters I told them I didn't even like humans. It was really just a smart remark."
A smart remark, sort of, but with an undercurrent of cynicism evinced by the fact that he will tell you evil is stronger than good.
"I still believe that," he says. "Whether or not it's true it's a good way to think. It keeps you from getting hit in the back of the head. Like I've said, if you want to do good, you actually have to do something. Good doesn't just happen; evil does, without your doing anything. It's all around us. In sports, for instance, you're always being pulled to cheat, to make it easier to get one up on somebody else, whether you're doping or using extra-sticky rubber on your climbing shoes. You have to resist it, and if you want to do good you actually have to act."
He has designed his company to be an ongoing act for good, and the book he and Stanley were at Yale to discuss is a detailed blueprint for bringing companies toward the Patagonia model: a laid-back, committed and enlightened approach to corporate consciousness that brought the company $600 million in sales last year. Patagonia has 1,500 employees worldwide and 900 applicants for every job. It's been described as more of a movement than a business.
The Responsible Company includes chapters on pay and benefits, transparency about products' social and environmental impact, energy use and reducing toxins, a point Stanley illustrated by holding up his ring finger: "To make a wedding ring generates 20 tons of mine waste," he said. The second half of the book contains guidelines that detail how companies can move toward the corporate responsibility that Chouinard champions with the evangelical energy of a tent preacher.
"I hate the word sustainable," he told the audience. "Responsible is the word I use. Society is always pushing us to exceed our resources. We're not citizens anymore, we're consumers. We don't have to stop being consumers; we just have to become better consumers."
To make the point, on Black Friday in November 2011 the company had run an ad in The New York Times that featured a photo of a Patagonia coat and the headline DON'T BUY THIS JACKET. It was part of a partnership called Common Threads, which urges customers to buy only what they need and promises to fix or recycle whatever wears out or is unusable.
Regarding the weak economy, Chouinard told the students, "I love recessions. During this last recession we've never had such growth. People become conservative. They'll buy products that last a long time. We have loyal customers. We let them tell us how big we should be and what to make. We grew 30 percent last year. This year we decided that's too much and we're going to go for 15 percent. The truth is that every time we've done the right thing, it's made us money."
On politics he again turned cranky and provocative. "The United States is too big to govern," he said. "California is the ninth-largest economy in the world. It should be its own country. We have a flawed Constitution. There isn't an emerging country in the world that wants to copy our electoral process."
The panel opened to questions, and the subject turned to how Patagonia enlisted 50 of the world's largest clothing companies (including Walmart, Levi's and Nike) to create the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which is developing the Higg index—a rating system that will allow buyers to compare products' environmental impact.
"The index gives ammunition to the consumer," Chouinard tells me later. "They can look at five pairs of jeans on a table, and if one is a two and the other a 10, they'll be able to tell which was made more responsibly. I think the coalition is the most exciting thing we've done."
Chouinard was born in Maine to a tough, mechanically talented French Canadian father and an adventurous mother, and for his first seven years he spoke only French. In 1946 the family made a Grapes of Wrath–style trip in an old Chrysler to Burbank, California.
Speaking no English and stuck with a girl's name, he had a hard time in grammar school. He was an all-around athlete in high school but found what would become lifelong passions in the solitary sports of fishing, climbing and surfing.
He is a small man—five-foot-four, about 140 pounds—and has a sense of humor about his size. When Yale asked him how they could improve the university, "I told them to lower the urinals," he says. "They are too high." He is nevertheless a smooth and powerful athlete: nimble, quick and tenacious on the tennis court, able to turn small waves into long rides in the water, and strong, graceful and daring—at a level of difficulty that would make spiders sweat—as a rock climber (one of the most celebrated in the world).