Simplify your life!

Interview with Yvon Chouinard, climber, surfer and founder of Patagonia Inc.

Interview with Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia

If you're not part of the solution you're still part of the problem, according to Yvon Chouinard. That's why he leads by example, lives a simple life consuming only what's necessary and uses all his resources to protect the environment.

His vision for his outdoor clothing company is clear: produce highly qualitative and sustainably manufactured clothing and use the profits to support the protection of our planet. 1% of his annual sales goes to environmental activists. He works as consultant for companies like Wal Mart to show them that ecological responsibility doesn't contradict economical success.

A talk about a fulfilled life, personal values and hopes.

Manuela & Carsten: In our western societies it's all about status and material possessions and much less about nature and our environment. Where does this lead?
Yvon Chouinard: Saving the planet and the environment is only Number 20 on peoples’ priorities, that's a big problem. Because before we do anything about saving the planet, we will solve the war in Iraq, solve the war in Afghanistan, we’re gonna straighten out the economy. I mean, it’s the last thing, always, and it’s because society’s only faced with dealing with symptoms. We never get to the real causes, because we stop at the symptoms. In fact all our wars now are resource wars, they are about oil, they’re all about water, about territory, about food.
The solution is to stop cutting the forest (laughs), but nobody wants to do that.

M&C: You once said: "We're no more inhabitants of this planet, we became consumers of this planet". Resources are disappearing and consumerism is increasing at always higher rates. Our precept is: "The bigger, the better". What can we do to stop this trend?
Y.C.: For me, the solution to all my problems is to go more simple. You can get rid of your cellphone and blackberry and spend time to become skillful. I think the solution is to simplify your life. He who dies with the least toys wins, because the more you know, the less you need.

M&C: What could replace the consumerism for people? People buy things to feel better so what else could they do to feel better?
Y.C.: The whole economy is based on consuming and discarding. The average product bought in a shopping mall is discarded within 90 days!  This consumerism is caused by insecure people who feel like “ If I buy this new dress I’ll be more beautiful, and I’ll feel better about myself.” In reality, it doesn’t work that way. You can only feel better about yourself when you become more skillful at something. That’s true confidence. When you truly learn something instead of trying to buy it at the store.

M&C: Our world is full of advertising everywhere, it's impossible to not be exposed to it and see all the beautiful products, promising so much and seducing us to buy. How could we still change our buying habits?
Y.C.: Well, you know I’m in the business of making all this clothing and I would be out of business if all our customers said: "Ok, I’m gonna stop consuming" What we tell our customers is, instead of owning 5 pairs of shorts just buy one, buy multifunctional products and spend more! Just buy something that’ gonna last forever. The key to consumerism is just consume less, but consume better! I think that’s the answer.

M&C: Even though climate change is already noticeable, 100 species are dying out every day, we are still not willing to change our habits. Why is that so and how could people be motivated to change?
Y.C.: Unfortunately, a lot of people feel that they’re not the problem, and therefore they’re not the solution. They feel like they’re just a little, insignificant human being and if they change their lives it won’t make any effect. You have to get away from that feeling. The problem is us, each and every one of us is the problem. Many of my employees wearing Levis and there are still loads of SUVs in the parking lots. It’s very hard to get across that I am the problem!
But there is more and more awareness, and the consumer has choices now! If you know that one company is more responsible in their business practices and the price is the same and everything is equal, you buy the sustainable one.

M&C: Do you think that every single person counts and that everyone can make a change?
Y.C.: Well, I have learned over and over again that, yes, single individuals can have a big impact! And you can sleep at night! You can feel good about yourself and you feel like “I’m part of the solution, rather than part of the problem” That feels pretty good. Oh yeah.

M&C: Do you think we have lost contact to nature and our place in the web of life?
Y.C.: The key to the problem is that we don’t consider ourselves part of nature anymore, we’re above nature, we control nature and we don’t have to subscribe to the laws of nature! We’re really breaking the laws of nature. Right now we're going through 6th grade extinction and we humans are large mammals.

M&C: You describe yourself as pessimist, because you assume that sooner or later we will have used up our planet. On the other hand you call to action. How does that fit together?
Y.C.: The cure for depression is action. As long as you feel like you’re doing something, you don’t get depressed. I mean, I am a happy person and I am very pessimistic about the fate of the planet. There is no reason why we should be optimistic, every indicator of the health of the planet is down. Every single one. But that doesn’t mean you stop trying. I am dedicated to doing whatever I can, in my own way, with the resources I have, so I can feel like I am part of the solution.

M&C: What can every individual do?
Y.C.: Everybody has different resources. If you’re a writer you should be writing to influence people, if you’re a good speaker you could be speaking out, if you have nothing but free time you should be volunteering for some organization that is doing some good. If you’re a doctor spend a year with doctors without borders. Everybody can do something, according to what resources you have! Patagonia is not going to be sold in my lifetime, because this is the resources I have!
We’re in a very bad economy right now and Patagonia's business is up 8 or 9% over last year. Everybody else in our industry is in terrible condition.We’re doing just fine. (laughs) This company exists to put into practice what all the smart people are saying that we need to do to turn things around. I show other companies that we can do well during a deep recession. They come here and say: “Hey, tell me about your company, I want do know what are you doing, I want do do something similar!” So it exists to influence other companies. And so far it’s working!

M&C: You said, that sometimes it's a real "pain in the ass" to live an examined life. Why do you still do all that?
Y.C.: I really believe that most of the damage caused to the environment by businessmen or individuals is caused unintentionally. And that’s from not leading an examined life. I don’t want do lead a life like that, blindly, not knowing what I’m doing. That’s what we’re trying to do at Patagonia, figure out what are we doing.

M&C: Can you give us an example for that
Y.C.: I think every company has a responsibility for not only knowing what goes into the product, but doing something about it once you find out that you are doing something wrong. But you’ll never find out that you are doing something wrong until you start asking questions, a lot of questions! And education, we had to educate ourselves on how to make clothing.  That kind of started us thinking: "What goes into making clothing? What other chemicals that are toxic are we putting in?" Then I found out how toxic growing cotton in traditional ways is. We went out to see some cotton fields here in California. I had no idea, it was a complete Dead zone! There is nothing alive and airplanes flying over our heads, spraying us building highly toxic lakes. Once I found all this out i said "I don’t want to be in business if I have to do this!"

M&C: So in the end it all comes down to information and education?
Y.C.: Deep ecologist, Arne Ness, once said "Just keep asking enough questions until you get to the causes of things." If you want to feed your family healthy food, you can’t just go to the supermarket and buy a bunch of vegetables. Some of them come from Mexico where they still use DDT or they come all the way from Algeria.
You have to know the farmer! So you go to the farmer’s market and you get a relationship with the farmer or the butcher. That’s what you have to do to feed your family healthy food! Every consumer has to do the same thing.

M&C: Are you a spiritual person?
Y.C.: Deep ecologists believe the tree has as much rights as humans. When I eat meat I thank the animal for providing it. If you start thinking this way it changes your attitude towards nature. It’s just a respect for nature and I certainly believe that I am part of nature and not apart from it. That’s a harmless thing that I feel good about.

M&C: Can you tell us something about your project 1% for the Planet?
Y.C.: In my company here we try to minimize the damage that we do. But we’re still polluters, no matter what we do. We’re still using non renewable resources. So, we believe in doing our penance. We take 1% of our total sales, not profit, and give that to environmental NGOs that are really doing the good work. That’s about 3 million dollars that we give away a year. We have been doing this for years so I decided to start an organization to encourage other companies to do the same thing, and it’s called 1% for the Planet.
Now we are in 30 countries and we have over a thousand members. The interesting thing is that the top five largest companies within that organization are all experiencing the best year they have had in 5 years, sales-wise! So it’s karma, you know!

M&C: Why do you support activists and NGOs?
Y.C.: If you look at the history of this country, all the gains that we have made in this country have been done through individuals and NGOs. These are the people that get things done! From freeing the slaves to civil rights. And if you look at the newspaper on a daily basis. Everything that is being done, is being done by civil democracy and that’s why we have to keep supporting these people. They are the housewives standing in front of the bulldozers, they are the ones demanding the clean up of a toxic canal near their homes. We support about 350 organizations a year and most of them are small organizations made up of volunteers no matter who the president is.

M&C: So you think change must come from the bottom up?
Y.C.: The government won’t do anything unless they’re forced to! And that is what these activist organizations do, they force the government to do the right thing. We can’t do it without the government, but it starts with the individuals and the NGOs.

M&C: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?
Y.C.: I think we are in very exciting times, I think probably in my lifetime I’ll see the revolution! And the revolution will begin with agriculture, it has to begin from the bottom. You don’t need many clothes, you don’t need a big house, cars and all that stuff. You need to eat! And organic farming can show us the way. Go back to the sustainable way of doing agriculture.

We met Yvon in January 2009 in Ventura, California.


Comment by paul | 2011, Mar 24

Comment by Raghavendra P V | 2011, Jul 18

Excellent article,just Started a Second-Hand Business of Used goods with the motto of Reuse, Reduce,Recycle. this article was truly motivating and inspiring.thanks a lot. good luck for ur wonderful efforts.

Comment by Jessica | 2011, Aug 21

Wow, this is so cool, so awesome, every concept is so on point and in addition to validating what I think/feel, I was able to get some new ideas as well. I too feel like a happy pessimist and I appreciated that point as well as the entire article. Thank-you for sharing and for doing what you do!!!

Comment by jessica | 2011, Sep 29

Crap!! environment is important but a tree does not have the same value as a human being.

Comment by ecolo | 2011, Oct 17

Ecolo Addict , France To make the organic linen, the brand only uses materials from organic farming. The machine is made ​​of cotton organic vegetable fiber or recycled materials. No dye is used in the manufacture of linen and Ecolo Addict offers only from unbleached natural unbleached organic cotton and natural colors from flax.

Comment by Tom | 2012, Jan 13

Yes it does, Jessica. The attitude you suggest is the very basis of the problem: the widespread and very misguided notion man is more important than other things on this planet. That's the irony of our presence here - the fact that we have the ability to use, kill, control and exercise dominion over everything else does not mean we have the right to do so. That leap is purely the work of man, a rationalization to excuse our selfish nature. People believe what they want to believe, the truth notwithstanding. They always come up with "yeah, but...." and then there's no limit to it. That is why Yvon Chouinard is pessimistic, because you refuse to see the total effect of your attitude. Not only is it unfair, but it will eventually render this planet into little more than a smoldering briquette. Even if you view the planet as here to serve man, we can't consume it and destroy other residents of it as we have done. That's unsustainable. The things we want to call "resources" aren't nearly as renewable as we have assumed - in most cases, once we have tampered with them, they don't renew at all. It just doesn't work the way people want to think it does. There are already far too many people on the planet - even if we change our ways to consume no more than we absolutely need, the present number of people will destroy the place. That's another aspect of human self-worship, this notion that we are so wonderful that more of us is better. Nothing dooms this planet faster than more people, but no one wants to face that issue because they have selfish reasons for thinking otherwise.

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