Yvon Chouinard, the Ultimate Climate Philanthropist
For the majority of people that read the news last week that the iconic founder and owner of the world-famous company Patagonia had given his company away, it came as a shock, unparalleled in its scope and details in the business world.
According to the New York Times, Mr. Chouinard, his wife and two adult children have transferred their ownership of Patagonia, valued at about $3 billion, to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organization. They were created to preserve the company’s independence and ensure that all of its profits — some $100 million a year — are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the globe.
However, for anybody who has known this self-declared reluctant billionaire, this decision wasn’t amazing at all. It was simply the realization of a lifelong dream.
I first met Chouinard in 2018. Together with my wife and son, and a small film crew I had the privilege to do an interview with him about his company Patagonia Provisions, at his modest but beautifully located home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We sat in the meadow in front of his house with a breathtaking view of the snow-covered Teton mountain range, and Chouinard spoke both plainly and eloquently about his beliefs and about the state of food production in the US.
“There’s nothing wrong with this planet, it’s perfect, but we’re destroying it of course,” he said. “Still, all of the answers are in nature. I think I’ve always believed that.”
Looking back at the 3 hourlong interview, it seemed Mr. Chouinard had plans for quite some time to find a solution that would reconcile seemingly incompatible aspects of his life: his unconditional love for nature and the outdoors, his serious and growing concerns about climate change, his self-identification as a socialist and his phenomenal success as a businessman.
For many afficionados of Patagonia, it may be news that Chouinard has been passionate about transforming the current model of industrial agriculture to a regenerative organic one, helping to tap the solutions already held in nature. “Regenerative organic farming practices yield large crops while building healthier soil, which can draw down and store more greenhouse gases,” he set forth in a recent essay on the subject. “Free-roaming buffalo restore prairie grasslands, one of Earth’s great carbon storage systems. Rope-cultivated mussels produce delicious protein while cleaning the water where they’re grown. Place-based and selective-harvest fishing techniques allow us to target truly sustainable fish populations without harming less abundant species. As these examples illustrate, the more we roll up our sleeves and dig into the world of food, the more we discover that the best ways are often the old ways.”
Chouinard was as fluent—and adamant—about his mission in our discussion as well, articulating his vision for pioneering a new way of addressing our health and our environment by changing the way that we grow our food. “That’s the revolution I want to be a part of,” he said decisively.
It may sound unusual to hear the word “revolution” from someone who is a giant in the business world and listed as a billionaire in the Forbes ranking (a listing he apparently is not happy about). But then Chouinard is an unusual leader and, in his own words, a “reluctant businessman”—the title of his most recent book: Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman — who is not afraid to blaze a path all his own. (Among other enlightened company policies, he has instituted at Patagonia, Chouinard has decreed that when the surf is up, employees should drop their work and go surfing. “I don’t care when you work,” he clarified, “as long as you get the job done.”) Indeed, he sees himself more as a socialist than a capitalist, and has always pursued what seems morally right and important to him as opposed to what made the most profit for his company. One of his favorite quotes is: “If you want to understand entrepreneurs, study the juvenile delinquent.” Because “the juvenile is saying with his actions, ‘This sucks, I am going to do my own thing,’” he explained, “That’s what the entrepreneur does. They just say, ‘This is wrong, I am going to do it this other way’ . . . I love breaking the rules.”
Here are a few more of Yvon’s remarkable statements from the 2018 interview. In response to my question about the basis of his business, he responded:
“My business is based on having a wild nature, you know, free flowing rivers and snow in the mountains … and public lands. … I feel like I have more responsibility to protect those places than your average business”
“I’m basically a socialist and my company is a socialistic organization. .. ”
And in response to my question about the mission of his business:
“If you were going to ask me today why I’m in business, in fact I’m going to change my mission statement. My mission statement is going to be we’re in business to protect our home planet.”
For Yvon in his early 80s, this is not just a dream, and he has done a lot to make this vision become a reality and reverse the destructive course of our current food system. He has a natural talent for building a team of people and followers that devotedly believe in Patagonia’s core principles and who will bring his vision forward into the future. Chouinard has also ensured that his mission will be widely carried out by, in 1985, creating a program at Patagonia that has since offered more than $100 million in grants to grass roots organizations and innovative startups that are forging new methods of food production in a responsible, regenerative organic way. Among many other projects, Chouinard has also supported the development of the perennial long root grain Kernza and turned it into several specialty beers, such as Patagonia Long Root Ale; he promotes the consumption of sustainably and humanely harvested salmon and bison meat; and he leads many educational and marketing campaigns, including producing impactful documentaries about environmental issues such as “Dam Nation” and “Artifishal.”
The encounter with this unique human being 4 years ago, which I documented in detail in my book, The Gut Immune Connection and which I plan to incorporate in the upcoming documentary, Interconnected Planet, had a long-lasting influence on my own world view and career trajectory. Even though other billionaires, including Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Mike Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates have joined the exclusive club of climate philanthropists, Chouinard has set the gold standard of what needs to be done to save the planet from pending climate doom. Let’s hope other companies will follow his lead.
Parts of this post have been taken from my book, The Gut Immune Connection.
Dr. Emeran Mayer is a Distinguished Research Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Physiology and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Executive Director of the G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience at UCLA.