Jenni Avins

Yvon Chouinard: Cat Food, Climbing and Commitment


Wednesday, at the Sustainable Textiles Conference in New York, Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor super-brand Patagonia, told industry insiders from brands like Nike, H&M and Eileen Fisher that he never wanted to be a businessman, and remembered leaner days as a young alpinist.

“I used to eat cat food,” he said. “That’s all I could afford to eat. I’d go to the dented can store in San Francisco and buy cases of dented cat food.”

When Chouinard found his way into business more than 50 years ago, he was just a climber who wanted a more environmentally friendly piton to secure his ropes to mountainsides. Today, his story and subsequent success have earned him sage-like status among colleagues and customers alike.

It seems to be a slightly demented sense of commitment – common to climbers – that has helped Chouinard reach the top. But it hasn’t always been a smooth ascent. When Synchilla, Patagonia’s synthetic fleece, became a household name in the ‘80s, suburbanites across America sported the company’s cult classic Snap-T and Patagonia projected 50% growth. Then the recession hit.

“We got to a point,” Chouinard remembered, “where my accountant introduced me to some mafia guys.”

So he took a step back, and brought a group of key employees to the tip of South America, the real Patagonia, to re-examine their priorities. What emerged, from long walks and talks in the spectacular landscape, was a renewed commitment to their principles and their planet. They wanted a flexible workplace where kids were welcome and surf reports could determine working hours, and to continue Patagonia’s tradition of looking after the environment.

When Chouinard visited a conventional cotton farm and found what he described as a lifeless “killing zone,” toxic with pesticides, he gave Patagonia just 18 months to start sourcing organic cotton, and then realized he couldn’t send it to a gin dripping with chemicals. So his team set about re-sourcing the whole supply chain, like climbers, just putting one foot in front of the other.

“And then you get the spinner,” Chouinard laughed, “who says, ‘Hey your cotton’s coming in with seeds and stems…like bad dope!’”

Except in this case, the “bad dope,” cleaned and certified organic cotton, came at a premium price. But Patagonia committed, and their customers followed. Now, their product line is made of 80 percent recycled materials.

“You just have to work harder,” Chouinard said, of the remaining 20 percent. “Anytime there’s a business issue, the answer is to increase the quality.”

And in a bizarre reversal, the owner of the brand has become picky about the quality of his customers, asserting that a customer who desires, but doesn’t “need” his product is not sustainable. So the next step will be a clothing recycling program, and new merchandise will come with a contract that states, “Please don’t buy this jacket unless you really need it.”

It’s a strange strategy–one that will probably make Patagonia’s sales skyrocket. And if not?

He always has cat food.

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