A prophet who spurned profit – Yvon Chouinard’s Patagonian odyssey

Environmentally-conscious business practices are the norm these days, so much so that that any major clothing company that never mentioned the “e” word would be viewed as a pariah. But this was not always so. Up until 30 years ago the profit motif was the only consideration.

Yvon Chouinard, one of the world’s greatest businessmen-environmentalists, was “green” long before it became fashionable – or should we say obligatory? The founder of Patagonia*, a company whose origins can be traced back to 1970 when he visited Scotland and forged a successful business selling rugby shirts, his line is famous for its mountain trekking gear and use of organic cotton.

nicolas.boullosa / Foter / CC BY

 


Against the tide

Chouinard was ahead of his time in envisioning the global repercussions of the greed and abuse of man. In 1974, when the environmental movement was regarded as a few long-haired crackpots, he wrote the following. “No longer can we assume the Earth’s resources are limitless; that there are ranges of unclimbed peaks extending endlessly beyond the horizon. Mountains are finite, and despite their massive appearance, they are fragile.”

When this essay first came to light it was seen as revolutionary thinking. In his own words: “Here was a company that made climbing hardware advocating a more pure, equipment-light approach to the sport. Why? Because popular climbing areas were being defaced by the constant pounding of pitons, and the overuse of gear only detracted from the real challenge – the climb. Such an argument could have hurt sales, but it didn’t, because climbers saw that it was the right thing to do. Since then, Patagonia has taken many such stands in favor of the environment and the purity of sport. And we continue to grow.”

And Chouinard’s interest in the environment continued to grow. By the early 1990s he was living simply, eating healthily and committing to donate a share of the company’s profits to environmental causes. Around the same time an audit of Patagonia revealed the surprising result that cotton was an environmentally destructive product. So Chouinard committed the company to using pesticide-free cotton, and this demand created the organic cotton industry in California.

Ethical business practices

The early 1990s coincided with a downturn in business as recession hit the US, prompting a period of soul-searching for Chouinard. “I took a dozen of our top managers to Argentina, to the windswept mountains of the real Patagonia (in South America) for a walkabout. In the course of roaming around those wild lands, we asked ourselves why we were in business and what kind of business we wanted Patagonia to be. A billion-dollar company? Okay, but not if it meant we had to make products we couldn’t be proud of.”

 

It was fitting that Chouinard, now 74, called his company Patagonia – and that he and his fellow managers visited this rugged part of South America that occupies Chile and Argentina. (“Patagonia” comes from the word patagón used by Magellan to describe the native people that his expedition thought to be giants). For the region is indeed the unspoiled wilderness that an environmentalist like Chouinard would wish to cherish.

Chilean Patagonia is essentially divided between an area that includes all the fjords and channels along the Pacific Ocean down to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America that is home to glaciers and tundra. Argentinean Patagonia is a region of desert and sparse vegetation – just little ponds and backwaters – interrupted by a succession of huge terraces that rise from the ground.  As you approach the Andres, the vegetation gradually becomes lusher and gives rise to the animal life and flora and fauna of the west coast, typically southern beech and conifer trees.

As for Patagonia – the clothing company – it has now diversified into offering apparel for skiers and swimmers as well as climbers. Its chief remains committed to respecting boundaries and putting concern for the environment above commercial interests.

Yan Boechat / Foter / CC BY-NC

 

And the region that gives Chouinard’s company its name? It is available to you, the trusted tourist. Detour can take you to the most scenic sites in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. Alternatively, you could  take the Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego expedition cruise. Or trek through Patagonia in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, one of the area’s most famous landmarks. But remember to leave it as you found it – in the true spirit of Detour, the sustainable travel company.

*Patagonia’s logo is Mount Fitz Roy, a mountain located near El Chaltén village, in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in Patagonia, in Argentina.

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