A rock climber hanging on rock (c) Hu Chen

Saving rock and earth – the Patagonia brand

I’ve been a secret admirer of Patagonia ever since I saw its logo stuck to the back of my surf instructor’s Jeep six years ago. My lesson wasn’t successful but, without realising it, surfing had given me a taste of what this brand is all about – being a part of something bigger than yourself.

Clean climbing

A few weeks ago I found myself reading ‘Let my people go surfing – the education of a reluctant business man’ – written by Yvon Chouinard who’s the founder and owner of Patagonia. I was reading it because I’m interested in the big businesses that keep their sustainable values.

“Pitons were the mainstay of our business, but we were destroying the very rocks we loved”.
– Yvon Chouinard

I was pleased to learn that for Yvon it all started with a connection to the land. He started making pitons for rock climbers in the 60s but soon realised that hammering these into the rock was actually destroying it. The business started making aluminium chocks instead (that can be wedged by hand).

In 1972 the first Chouinard Equipment catalog began with an essay about clean climbing – “Clean is climbing the rock without changing it”. The company’s values for sustainability were set.

How to seed a dress

“I am amazed to witness an entire village working to produce the dress I am wearing today.”
– Jill Vlahos

The business then started to make specialist outdoor clothing. On a visit to China’s Shaanxi Province Jill Vlahos visited the farmers and villagers who prepared the hemp that weaves the fabric for Patagonia.

Jill saw the preparation and expertise needed to create their product, right down to finding the correct spot in a river to loosen the fibres from the woody pulp. No irrigation or chemicals were needed as the hemp was rain fed, and fertilisation came from the animals.

This is a great example of a business going right to the roots of it’s product. To understand the practices and people involved at every step of the way is the best way to ensure you have a sustainable practice.

“At Patagonia, making a profit is not the goal because the Zen master would say profits happen ‘when you do everything else right’.”
– Yvon Chouinard

1% for the planet

Despite the risk of alienating their customers Patagonia took stands on controversial issues. But Yvon discovered that their business had actually grown because of their ‘radical’ stands. Customers wanted to support companies that took a stand for the environment and donated to activists.

“There’s no business to be done on a dead planet”.
– David Brower

In 2001 Yvon and Craig Mathews started the organisation ‘1% for the planet’. It allowed people to know where businesses stand on the environmental crisis. All members pledge to donate at least 1% of sales towards active efforts to protect and restore our natural environment. You could see it as a self-imposed tax for using resources, and I think it’s a brilliant and simple commitment that many businesses could make.

Learning from your garden

“Much of what I know about achieving any measure of sustainability in an economic activity, I learned in trying to grow my own garden”.
– Yvon Chouinard

After years of working with his soil – breaking it up, adding mushroom compost, sulphur, animal manure, worm casts and nitrogen-fixing crops such as clover – Yvon turned his impenetrable clay into fertile soil. But he admits it’s probably still lacking the five billion bacteria, twenty million fungi and one million protists that can be found in just one teaspoon of virgin topsoil.

It’s the understanding that all of these organisms have to work together that inspires Yvon’s values for his company.

“A successful, long-lived, and productive company like Patagonia could be compared, on the most basic level, with a healthy environment, simply in the fact that both are composed of various elements that must function together in some kind of balance in order for the whole system to work.”
– Yvon Chouinard

Yvon understands that it’s the diversity of his employees that make his company strong. Although their expertise varies greatly, one thing they all share is “a passion for something outside themselves, whether for surfing or opera, climbing or gardening, skiing or community activism”.

So to all those gardeners and activists out there who want a bit of inspiration – from someone who I believe is a great leader – pick up a copy of Let my people go surfing and read Yvon’s incredible story.



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