While Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s decision Wednesday to give away the outdoor-apparel company to help tackle climate change and other environmental problems shocked some in the industry, many people familiar with Chouinard weren’t surprised.
“It seemed very Yvon to me,” said John Sterling, who was the director of environmental programs at Patagonia from 1996 to 2002. “When I worked there, it was a challenge to out-activist Yvon.”
Chouinard, a nature-loving rock climber turned businessman and reluctant billionaire, founded Patagonia in 1973 and has since been molding the company into a leader in responsible business. Giving Patagonia away marks the boldest act of environmental activism yet, after years of unconventional crusades ranging from a campaign against genetic engineering to suing a sitting president over protecting public lands.
Patagonia’s reputation isn’t “a conceived of strategy for the brand,” Sterling said, but rather it reflects Chouinard’s values. “He’s got a pretty clear sense of where he’s headed.”
In a 2012 interview, Chouinard, now 83, explained that the resources he has to “do good” come from his company.
Despite being “a relatively small company in the scheme of things,” Patagonia, he said, “has this tremendous power to change — well, I mean, I hate to be bragging, but change society and to change larger companies and lead by example.”
Here are a few of the radical pursuits Patagonia has undertaken during its nearly 50-year history.
Civil disobedience training and bail policy
For years, the company has provided optional nonviolent civil disobedience trainings to employees. The sessions, Sterling said, stemmed from a group of employees getting arrested in 1996 at a protest against logging ancient redwoods in a forest in Northern California.
Patagonia has also established a bail policy to help any employee who is arrested while peacefully protesting, provided that they have previously completed a civil disobedience class.
This policy of encouraging dissent is not confined to environmental issues. This summer, amid the nationwide debate over abortion, the company announced in a post on LinkedIn that all part-time and full-time employees receive “training and bail for those who peacefully protest for reproductive justice.”
“We don’t have a just society, and that’s when you need civil disobedience, absolutely,” Chouinard said in the 2012 interview.
Environmental Internship Program
Patagonia’s Environmental Internship Program offers employees the opportunity to take up to two months away from their regular jobs to work for an environmental group of their choice while continuing to earn their paycheck and benefits.
John Wallin, who worked at Patagonia from 1993 to 1999, did two internships through the program — an experience that he said inspired him to leave to the company and start his own nonprofit environmental organization.
“I did that because the internships both gave me a fluency in the issues and a desire to make a bigger difference,” said Wallin, who founded the Nevada Wilderness Project. “The Patagonia response, when I said, ‘I think I’m going to leave my middle management job in mail order and start this nonprofit because I think we can protect a lot of Nevada,’ was ‘That is so fantastic. Here’s a phone line and a desk in our service center in Reno.'”
According to Patagonia, 34 employees, 12 stores and one department took advantage of the program this year, which amounted to “almost 10,000 volunteer hours for 43 organizations.”
Efforts to remove dams
Patagonia has long supported the removal of dams, especially those that are “derelict and particularly harmful,” according to a 2014 company statement.
In the statement, Chouinard called himself “a lover of wild rivers.” “That’s why our company has been involved in trying to take out obsolete and damaging dams since 1993,” he said.
The company has advocated for the removal of four lower dams on the Snake River, placing four full-page ads in The New York Times in 1999 that called attention to the impacts of those dams on Pacific Northwest salmon populations, said Sterling, who was directing the company’s environmental programs at the time.
More recently, Patagonia funded a 2014 documentary film called “DamNation,” which aimed to mobilize support for demolishing dams to revive wild fish populations.
1% for the planet
Patagonia has been donating money to causes it supports since the 1970s. But starting in 1985, the company pledged that 1 percent of its sales would go toward “the preservation and restoration of the natural environment.”
In 2002, Chouinard co-founded a nonprofit corporation called “1% for the Planet” in an effort to get other businesses to do the same.
“1% of sales is a hard number,” Chouinard said in the 2012 interview. “And I don’t look at it as charity. It’s our cost of doing business.”
The 1% for the Planet alliance now has more than 5,000 members, according to its website — a list that includes brands such as Kleen Kanteen, Boxed Water and Caudalie.
Public lands advocacy
A fierce defender of public lands, Patagonia made headlines when Chouinard and the company became embroiled in a high-profile fight with the Trump administration over national monuments in Utah.
After President Donald Trump moved to drastically reduce the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in December 2017, Patagonia posted a stark message to its website: “The President Stole Your Land.”
“In an illegal move, the president just reduced the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments,” the rest of the message read. “This is the largest elimination of protected land in American history.”
In the lead-up to December and after, Patagonia carried out a multipronged effort to support public land protections that went beyond assisting grassroots environmental organizations.
The company orchestrated a publicity effort that included its first-ever television ad — a one-minute spot that featured Chouinard, who is known for being somewhat of a recluse, talking about the importance of public lands and “wild places.” Patagonia and other outdoor recreation companies also successfully moved a major industry trade show out of Salt Lake City to Denver.
Patagonia joined a coalition of Native American and grassroots groups in a lawsuit aimed at forcing Trump to restore Bears Ears’ original boundaries.
The decision to sue a sitting president was “fairly unprecedented” for a company like Patagonia, said Josh Ewing, who worked with Patagonia on Bears Ears while heading the nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa.
The lawsuit and the effort to move the trade show “were steps that companies usually don’t take,” said Ewing, who now directs the Rural Climate Partnership. “They don’t take protest-like steps with their money because they’re afraid of their money, they’re afraid of losing their money if they get too active.”