Video by Chapman Croskell
Yvon Chouinard pioneered rock climbing in America and founded the popular outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, but his true legacy is his commitment to political and environmental activism. Chouinard is outspoken in a political climate that resists environmental consciousness, and he has donated upwards of a million dollars to environmental causes.
On Friday evening, Chouinard led a talk about conservation at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival at Colorado State University. Before the festival, Chouinard sat down with The Rocky Mountain Collegian to discuss brand loyalty, politics and his hobbies.
Collegian: If you walk around Colorado State University, you could easily find a hundred people wearing your clothing brand Patagonia. Why do you think your brand stands out in the college demographic among the REIs and the LL Beans?
Chouinard: With the millennials, the environment is super, super important to them. They know we are screwing up the planet, and they want to do something about it as opposed to us who don’t want to do anything. They want to support companies that are trying to do the right thing. It’s pretty simple I think.
Collegian: Fort Collins has a very high-cost of living. What advice would you give to the 22-year-old, recent college graduate who wants to work for a company with Corporate Social Responsibility but also has to pay the bills?
Chouinard: We have that same problem in Ventura where our headquarters is. The cost of living is super, super high. But they really want to work for us. I raised two kids in a 700 square foot home until I was condemned. You don’t need 1,500 square feet or 2,000 square feet or two bedrooms, three bedrooms. You don’t need all of that. There’s a movement for building 500 square foot little tiny homes. What’s wrong with suffering for a little bit? Crash with somebody else. Share an apartment.
Collegian: Last month, you released a television advertisement supporting the preservation of public lands like Bear’s Ears National Monument. In the advertisement, you say that the Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, believes in public lands and that we should hold him to that statement. How do we do that?
Chouinard: They’ve got tens of thousands of people calling his office saying that they’re for public lands and to not resend the monuments. I forgot exactly how many, but it was tens of thousands of people calling as a result of that ad. I don’t know what else you could do. But, you know, they were supposed to come out with the findings right away, but I think it maybe spooked them a little bit, hopefully.
Collegian: The current administration is known for creating non-environmental friendly polices, which you are very outspoken about. But the administration also supports corporations and big business. How do you reconcile those two things as someone who is a globally recognized environmentalist but also the founder of a corporation?
Chouinard: Well, we are not a public corporation. We are family owned, so we’re a little different. I’m not afraid to alienate certain customers because of our political views. So be it. I feel like everybody has a responsibility to do something about the fate of this planet. If you’re a writer, you should write about the injustices of the world. If you’re a speaker, you speak out. Everybody’s got some sort of recourse they can use. My recourse is my company. So, I’m using my company to hopefully do the right thing and prove that it’s good business.
Collegian: Considering the current political climate, what advice would you give CSU students who want to follow in the footsteps of yourself, and Doug Tompkins and other environmental activists?
Chouinard: It’s hard to answer that one. Like I said, everybody’s different. Everybody has different recourses. What I found though in running my business and making decisions because it’s the right thing to do and not because it leads to more profit, it’s serendipity. In the end, it leads to better business. Every time.
Like for instance, on Black Friday, we decided to give all our revenue away to environmental causes. Every cent that we brought in. And that amounted to ten and a half million dollars. About 60% were new customers, and 25,000 of those transactions were to new customers who had never bought from us before. And I can tell you; it costs a lot of money to get 25,000 new customers. It cost us hardly anything comparatively, and our sales afterwards did not go down, they kept going straight up. It was just good business. And we didn’t do it for marketing. We did it because it was the right thing to do. It was after the election, and everybody was depressed. And you know what you like to do when you get depressed? You go shopping, right?
Collegian: Favorite route you’ve ever climbed?
Chouinard: Might be the Mirror Wall on El Capitan.
Collegian: Favorite clothing brand that’s not Patagonia?
Chouinard: I don’t own anything else.
Collegian: Favorite camp food?
Chouinard: Probably fish that I’ve caught myself.
Collegian: Favorite place to climb in Colorado?
Chouinard: My favorite one was the Jackson Culp route on Hallett’s Peak.
Collegian: Fishing or climbing?
Chouinard: Oh, I can only fish these days. I’m getting too long in the tooth to go climbing.
Collegian: Fishing or surfing?
Chouinard: That’s a tough one. Well, I don’t know how much longer I can surf, but I can certainly fish for a lot longer.
Collegian Arts and Culture Director Randi Mattox can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @randi_mattox.