The creased and weary face of Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard stares out from the cover of magazine, with the eye-catching headline: “CAPITALISM IS DEAD. LONG LIVE CAPITALISM.” The cover further explains Chouinard “and a brigade of bold leaders are fighting for a fairer, more sustainable way forward.”
Inside the pages, Chouinard declares in an interview, “I’m an avowed socialist. I’m proud of it. That was a dirty word just a few years ago until Bernie Sanders brought it up. It was equated with communism and that whole thing. Yet the countries around the world that are most squared away are all socialistic countries like those in Scandinavia. I’m not talking about Venezuela, which is a disaster. That’s not a socialistic country. That’s a . . . I don’t know what.”
Chouinard’s net worth is estimated at $1.2 billion.
Before we tear Chouinard’s comments apart, let’s give him credit where it’s due. He undoubtedly puts his money where his mouth is for the environmental causes he supports. In 1970, he learned that the steel pitons (climbing spikes) that were one of his company’s biggest-selling products were damaging the cracks at Yosemite National Park. He spent two years developing less damaging ones made of aluminum and phased out the steel ones. Since 1985, his company has set aside one percent of sales to finance grassroots environmental groups around the world.
On Black Friday 2011, his company bought a full-page ad in the New York Times, encouraging customers to repair their old gear rather than buy new replacements, declaring, “each piece of Patagonia clothing, whether or not it’s organic or uses recycled materials, emits several times its weight in greenhouse gases, generates at least another half garment’s worth of scrap, and draws down copious amounts of freshwater now growing scarce everywhere on the planet.”
There may be no other company that is more openly or loudly morally conflicted about what it does, which is make money — lots of money — by producing goods and selling them to customers around the world. But that does not change what it does. When Chouinard says in that interview with Fast Company, “it’s all growth, growth, growth, and that’s what’s destroying the planet,” he is exactly the personification of the problem he is lamenting.
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And his insistence that he never intended to be in this position isn’t very convincing. Elsewhere in that interview, Chouinard says, “we’re a billion-dollar company, and I don’t want to be a billion-dollar company. The day they announced it to me, I hung my head and said, ‘Oh God, I knew it would come to this.’ I’m trying to figure out how to make Patagonia act like a small company again.”
What, did Patagonia become a billion-dollar company — and Chouinard a billionaire — by accident? What did Chouinard think would happen when he opened thirty stores, and started selling $299 backpacks, $519 sleeping bags, $549 wading boots, and $699 parkas? Chouinard wants to convince readers — and perhaps himself — that he’s above such petty motivations as the desire for profits, for greed, or to be, as GQ Style declared, “fashion’s favorite outdoor brand.” It’s extremely difficult to believe that Patagonia just stumbled into growth worldwide and that Chouinard obliviously accumulated more than a billion dollars in net worth through dumb luck. (And you felt good when you find a quarter on the street.)
Capitalism has been quite generous to Chouinard, and now he’s decided that it is a problem and needs massive changes. Those of us who have not made our first billion notice he’s pushing to change the rules for making and keeping money now that he’s got his fortune.
He says in the interview that his company will be active and vocal in the upcoming presidential election:
“We’re keeping quiet in the primary election, but for the national presidential election, we’re going to be very, very active. We’re going to spend a lot of money and basically say, vote the climate deniers out. Anyone who is a climate denier or even on the fence, vote them out because they are evil. They are out to destroy our planet, and we’re not going to stand for it. We got involved in the last election and we helped elect a couple of senators in Montana and Nevada. I had no idea how much power we really have.”
Interestingly, Chouinard is apparently frequently frustrated with Democrats for being insufficiently committed to environmental causes. correspondent in 2016 during the Democratic National Convention, he panned Hillary Clinton’s convention speech. “One half a sentence about global warming. That’s dismal. Jesus Christ. We’ve got another Obama—another city kid who’s never been out in nature.”
“Think global, act local,” the environmentalists tell us, but some of us don’t want to look too closely at what’s going on close to home. A 2015 profile of him noted, “flying over beautiful mountains and rivers in his own private plane is something that Yvon loves to do,” (SEE UPDATE BELOW) and in another interview he lamented, “we’re probably all going to hell for our consumptive lifestyles. My own little hot spot in hell will be because of all the jet fuel I’ve burned.”
UPDATE: Patagonia PR & Communications reaches out to declare Yvon Chouinard does not own a private plane, and that the 2015 Medium post linked above confused Yvon with his friend Doug Tompkins, who owned the private plane that Chouinard flew in to survey the land he had purchased.