Yvon Chouinard has gained a reputation as a radical all his life. He invented rigid crampons and perfected a drooped-pick ice axe that hurtled ice climbing out of its classic days of cutting endless steps (“stairways to the stars”) to clawing up vertical ice. I got swept along in its early days and am proud to say that for a few years in the early 1970s Yvon and I had more first ascents on California ice than anyone.
So it was that, by 1972 I happened to be working at the Chouinard Equipment Company’s tin shed in Ventura, and I had a front-row seat to watch him bet the company on fomenting another revolution, that of clean climbing. Yesterday I happened to hear the relevant numbers: 71 percent of the company’s business then was selling pitons (most of the rest was probably carabiners). He decided that saving the rocks of the world from the ugly scars that chipped away even hard Yosemite granite, caused by his main product, was worth risking the entire company. Clean climbing became one of the world’s first environmental movements.
It goes on. In his most recent book Some Stories, Yvon lists seven “Golden Ages” that he participated in. It’s an interesting list. Hint: telemark skiing is one to which he did not contribute innovative equipment designs. Good stories–read it.
Yesterday, Chouinard announced his most radical move ever. It took two years, and a lot of smart lawyers, to come up with what can be called no less than a truly groundbreaking business structure. I’ll skip over the details. You can read about them elsewhere. (And honestly, this never-before-seen arrangement feels just a tad vague—even to its perpetrators—in exactly how it will roll out. They said so from the stage.) What’s certain is that Mother Earth now owns Patagonia. Lock, stock, and barrel. Fifty million dollars have been set aside to go immediately into environmental work. Followed, in all likelihood, according to CEO Ryan Gellert, by another hundred million this year. And eight to ten percent of the annual profits forever after.
I liked the New York Times headline: “Billionaire No Longer.” They thought that breaking the story was worthy of a special push-email, something they do relatively rarely. I heartily agree. In Ventura for the announcement, there was thunderous applause from the mostly employee crowd there, and exclamations like “Gobsmacked!” got heard for the rest of the day. One former employee grabbed the mic immediately to announce that, since she has no children, she wanted to add her inheritance to the Patagonia pot to amplify its environmental clout. Inspiring, and I’m sure she won’t be the last.
Chouinard said that he hoped giving away his billions (and his wife and kids heartily agreeing) will inspire imitators. It was agreed at the party which followed—where there was plenty of buzz—that a lot of guys in suits and ties will be scratching their balls in boardrooms around the world today. I can’t wait to see what company will be the first to jump on that bandwagon. After all, One Percent for the Planet, which was another Chouinard innovation, has more than a thousand member companies. Its director says she now expects to be a lot busier. And simply riding Patagonia’s coattails here could end up—just in the business realm—as marketing gold.
I’m an optimist, okay? I couldn’t help but think, as this news began to sink in yesterday (it does take a while to begin to fully grok something this radical), that this can shake the roots of capitalism as we know it.
Tin shed photo courtesy Patagonia