Patagonia founder: 'We're in the business of saving the planet'

Two businessmen discuss why they have their companies stand for a cause

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, answers a question as he talks with a small group of students at Gage Memorial Union on the Coe College campus in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, answers a question as he talks with a small group of students at Gage Memorial Union on the Coe College campus in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Companies will need to change the way they think about business if they want to stand for a cause, two environmentalists and businessmen said Wednesday.

“I tell any new employee, ‘Why do you think we’re in business?’ They’ll say, ‘Well, we’re in the clothing business.’ I’ll say, ‘No, no, we’re not in the clothing business. We’re in the business of saving the planet and we use making clothing as our way of doing it,’” said Yvon Chouinard, the founder of outdoor clothing company Patagonia

“That totally is a different approach to business.”

Chouinard and Craig Mathews, the founder of fly fishing equipment company Blue Ribbon Flies, spoke to The Gazette about their companies and why they have pushed their organizations to be socially responsible, specifically when it comes to conservation.

Chouinard and Mathews were in town to speak at Coe College’s Contemporary Issues Forum Wednesday night.

Standing behind such causes, they said, has helped boost sales, customer loyalty and employee morale.

Together, Chouinard and Mathews have started “1% for the Planet,” a network of businesses, not-for-profits and individuals who donate to environmental organizations. Businesses are supposed to give one percent of their annual sales to those efforts, which Mathews and Chouinard described as a self-imposed “earth tax.”

“This is the cost of doing business. It’s an earth tax. It’s taxing ourselves for being polluters, for using non-renewable resources,” Chouinard said.

The group has more than 1,200 members, according to its website.


Chouinard’s company also has fought with the current presidential administration over public lands. When President Donald Trump ordered in December to reduce the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah, Patagonia’s website blasted a message that read, “The President Stole Your Land.”

Patagonia was then met with criticism that it was politicizing the order to boost its own bottom line.

On Wednesday, Chouinard called that “bulls — t,” but acknowledged the move had helped sales.

“The day they said that, our sales went up 600 percent,” he said.

Mathews added that “you can’t buy that kind of advertising.”

The two credited consumers for driving the push for companies to stand behind specific causes.

“I used to think that designers had the most power because they’re going to decide the color of the clothes you’re going to wear, the type of car you’re going to drive. ... But you know who has the most power? Consumers,” Chouinard said.

“They can just say the most powerful word there is, which is ‘no.’ ‘No, I’m not going to buy your product.’”

Mathews argued businesses have a responsibility to help support the environment because “our government isn’t going to.”

“You’re starting to see a change and we have to change the paradigm of business and people’s giving or we’re going to lose this battle,” he said. Chouinard and Mathews also seemed to shrug off any worries they could alienate potential customers who disagree with their views.

“Our customers stand behind us all the time. Every now and then I’ll get a petroleum engineer from Wyoming — I swear it’s the same one — and he’ll say, ‘I can’t be your customer anymore.’ And that’s OK because they’re deniers,” Mathews said.

Asked if they’re OK losing those customers, Chouinard said “absolutely.”

“I don’t want them wearing our brand. Absolutely not,” he said.

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