The backstory to Patagonia’s ‘billionaire’ owner giving away his company

Outdoor enthusiast-come-reluctant-tycoon Yvon Chouinard has put his money where his mouth has long been, dedicating all future Patagonia profits the health of Planet Earth. Why?

Yvon Chouinard
(Image credit: Patagonia)

The clothing and apparel industries have been flooded with greenwashing for decades now, but the active-outdoor community has become increasingly savvy when it comes to spotting fake green news from genuine initiatives. Yet, when Patagonia (opens in new tab) founder Yvon Chouinard announced that he was handing over all profits the company makes to an organisation dedicated to improving and defending the heath of the planet, his lofty statement was applauded by all. 

“As of now, Earth is our only shareholder,” 83-year-old Chouinard announced on Thursday. “All profits, in perpetuity, will go to our mission to ‘save our home planet’.”

If these words had been uttered by almost anyone else, they probably would have been at best ridiculed, and almost certainly greeted with massive pinches of cynicism. But from the mouth of Chouinard - a former blacksmith and dirtbag rock climber who started out making gear for friends in his garage and almost reluctantly became a billionaire businessman - it was taken at face value.    

It helps that, for all the profits they have undoubtably made in the 50 years the company has been in existence, Patagonia has always led the charge for apparel brands to become more sustainable and ethical in both their manufacturing and employment practises. 

Over 35 years ago Patagonia imposed a 1% ‘earth tax’ on itself (formalised in 2001 under the ‘1% for the Planet Scheme’) and millions of dollars has been channelled into environmental projects as a result. Patagonia were among the first companies to become a b-Corp, not simply committing to upholding high environmental and social standards, but submitting proof of action and gaining certification. 

Patagonia

Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

(Image credit: Getty)

Chouinard named the company after a region he loved, where he spent time exploring with other climbers and leaders such as Douglas Tompkins, a close friend and founder of The North Face.

The company, based in Ventura, California, famously lets - indeed, encourages - staff to hit the beach when the surf is good, and Chouinard takes his duty of care for everyone involved in the manufacture of Patagonia packs and garments very seriously. Employment standards can be traced right back up the production line in a way now emulated by many other brands, anxious to be seen as squeaky clean, but Patagonia pioneered this approach.  

Most outdoor-active people are now familiar with Patagonia’s policies on making gear in the most sustainable and ethical way passible. The Better Sweater Fleece Jacket is a great example of that commitment. One of the best fleeces around, not only is it made of 100% recycled polyester, but the fabric is all Bluesign approved and Fair Trade Certified sewn, and it's coloured with low-impact dyes. 

But not everyone will remember that the brand were tackling problematic consumersism and fast fashion long before they were concepts anyone had heard of. Back in 2005, Patagonia launched its Common Threads Recycling Program with the stated goal of reducing how many products people purchase from the company, and the brand also led the way in taking old gear back from customers and repairing it. In an age of deliberately in-built obsolescence, this was revolutionary.  

And then, in 2011, Patagonia took out an ad picturing one of their coats in the New York Times during the orgy of consumerism that is Black Friday, pleading with people, ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ (opens in new tab).  

Chouinard clearly doesn’t see himself as a typical businessman, let alone a tycoon, doesn’t enjoy being portrayed in that light. “I was in Forbes magazine listed as a billionaire, which really, really pissed me off,” he told the New York Times (opens in new tab) this week. “I don’t have $1bn in the bank. I don’t drive Lexuses.”

His reaction was dramatic. A decision was made by Chouinard and his family to donate 2% of all stock and hand over all decision-making authority to a trust committed to overseeing the company’s mission and values. The remaining 98% will go to the Holdfast Collective, a non-profit. A statement described how they will: “will use every dollar received to fight the environmental crisis, protect nature and biodiversity, and support thriving communities, as quickly as possible”, according to the statement.

“Instead of ‘going public’, you could say we’re ‘going purpose’,” said Chouinard. “Instead of extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth for investors, we’ll use the wealth Patagonia creates to protect the source of all wealth.”

“If we have any hope of a thriving planet – much less a thriving business – 50 years from now, it is going to take all of us doing what we can with the resources we have,” the statement continued. “This is another way we’ve found to do our part.”

Pat Kinsella
Editor T3 Outdoors

Pat Kinsella has been chasing adventures and writing about the outdoors for two decades. In pursuit of stories he’s canoed Canada’s Yukon River, climbed Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro, skied and mountain biked across the Norwegian Alps, run an ultra across the roof of Mauritius, and set short-lived speed records for trail-running Australia’s highest peaks and New Zealand’s nine Great Walks. A former editor of several Australian magazines he’s a longtime contributor to publications including Sidetracked, Outdoor, National Geographic Traveller, Trail Running, The Great Outdoors, Outdoor Fitness and Adventure Travel, and a regular writer for Lonely Planet (for whom he compiled, edited and co-wrote the Atlas of Adventure, a guide to outdoor pursuits around the globe). He’s authored guides to exploring the coastline and countryside of Devon and Dorset, and recently wrote a book about pub walks. Follow Pat's adventures on Strava (opens in new tab).