Patagonia’s environmental activism: a timeline

1960’s:    Yvon Chouinard, a competitive rock climber, takes up blacksmithing to improve the quality of steel pitons and climbing gear. He quickly establishes a reputation for worth and reliability, and begins selling climbing gear to other climbers out of the back of his car. 

1970:      Chouinard Equipment is the leading supplier of climbing equipment in the U.S., with an excellent reputation for quality, but meanwhile Chouinard has seen that his steel pitons are scarring rock faces in Yosemite and on other climbing routes. He finds an alternative, aluminum chocks, that doesn’t damage the rock, and abruptly stops selling pitons. 

Forty years after first learning blacksmithing to build better climbing equipment, Chouinard still at times likes to experiment in the shop.

1972:       In Chouinard Equipment’s first catalog for the public an article is published calling for “clean climbing” using gear that doesn’t mar rock faces. With just a handful of employees, including Chouinard, the company sets up shop in a tin shed in Ventura, not far from the surf. 

Yvon Chouinard teaches ice-climbing in his early days, to make some money as a mountain-climber, and to fully learn the technique.

1973:       Chouinard launches Patagonia, an adventure clothing company. Originally intended to support the climbing equipment company, Patagonia’s clothing line soon became dominant in sales. (Chouinard Equipment struggles with low profit margins for years, eventually goes bankrupt under legal pressure, but is bought out by its employees. It’s rebranded and successfully relaunched as Black Diamond in 1989.) 

1973:        In its first environmental action, Yvon Chouinard in a moment agrees to give Mark Capelli and Friends of the Ventura River $3000 to file a lawsuit to prevent the city of Ventura from “dewatering” the river near its headquarters. This action saves the wildlife in the river. 

Yvon Chouinard and Make Capelli, years after Chouinard enabled Capelli and Friends of the Ventura River to file a lawsuit to save its wildlife.

1979:      Patagonia names Kris McDivitt its first CEO. Under her leadership, the company innovates with fleece clothing, bright colors for adventure wear, and polyester fabrics, among other new ideas. Sales boom, going from $20 million to $100 million in revenue in the 1980’s, and the company begins to expand into Europe and Japan. 

1984:       Patagonia launches a childcare facility for its corporate employees in Ventura, one of the first corporations in the nation to do so. 

1985:       Yvon and Malinda Chouinard develop a new form of fleece, called Synchilla, with Polartec, as an alternative to heavy wool sweaters. Synchilla becomes an industry standard.

1986:       Patagonia formalizes its long-standing practice of donating to small nonprofits devoted to habitat restoration and environmental causes by announcing a policy of annually giving 10% of its profits to environmental organizations. 

1991:     After growing its revenue from 30-50% a year throughout the 1980’s, the end of the decade brought a recession that cut growth at the company in half. Under financial pressure from lenders, the company retrenches. In July Chouinard reluctantly lays off 120 employees, which was at the time nearly one-fifth of the company.

When forced to downsize Patagonia to survive a recession, Chouinard led a full-scale rethinking of the business with staff leadership.

1991:       Led by Chouinard, Patagonia launches a lengthy full-scale rethinking of its own philosophy, working to control its growth to about 5% a year, and intending to create a model for environmental stewardship and sustainability that other businesses could look to for guidance. 

1996:         After years of research and preparation, Patagonia moves to 100% organic cotton, rethinking the product line to reduce the necessarily higher material costs. 

2000s:        Patagonia has always offered “ironclad guarantee” and a willingness to take back defective products, but this decade they extended that guarantee by offering to repair damaged items that are returned for free. Patagonia in time offers a “Worn Wear” option in which they buy back and resell Patagonia items at a reduced cost. 

2002:      With renowned fly-fisher and friend Craig Matthews, who owns the company Blue Ribbon Flies, Chouinard and Patagonia partner in a new effort called 1% for the Planet, which enlists for-profit corporations to pledge 1% of their total sales annually to environmental action. This “earth tax” that they vow to pay is equivalent to (or greater than) Patagonia’s earlier pledge of 10% of profits, and the 1% of sales turns out to be a figure more resistant to manipulation. 

2009:         On Black Friday, Patagonia runs a full-page ad in the New York Times, urging people “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” Sales on that day soar, ironically, convincing Patagonia of the link between environmental ethics at the company and public perception of the worth of its products. 

2011:       An internal audit discovers examples of “human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation in Patagonia’s supply chain” among 2nd and 3rd tier supplies based in Taiwan. Led by Rick Ridgeway, an Ojai resident and Patagonia executive, the company goes public with the issue. “We have to tell people about the problem. We have to get the supply chain involved. We have to get the government involved. You can’t fix a system without all the players coming together. That is our default position,” Ridgeway later explained to a Harvard researcher. 

2011:     Patagonia joins a new standards movement for transparent and ethical corporate behavior, called the “B Corporation,” in which corporations pledge to follow a “triple bottom line” ethos that calls for respecting people and the planet as well as profit, with verification audits. 

2018:       After passage of legislation from the Trump administration that dramatically lowered the corporate tax rate, “Patagonia took the $10 million they received from that tax break and donated it to groups fighting the climate crisis,” said Hans Cole, VP of environmental activism. 

2020:       Thinking of how best to position Patagonia for a future of environmental action, Chouinard thinks of selling the company, and tells Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert that he’s ready to start cold-calling fellow billionaires. But he wasn’t happy with their response. “So we created our own [plan],” he wrote in his letter released this September, to “save our home planet.”

2022:    A survey by a business group, the Edelman Trust Barometer, found that most people felt capitalism was more harmful than helpful. The Chouinards’ grown children Fletcher and Claire agree. They told Patagonia CEO Gellert that they didn’t want to inherit the company, worth about $3 billion, because they didn’t want to be seen as benefiting from capitalism. 

“They felt very strongly about it,” Gellert, the CEO of Patagonia, said. “I know it can sound flippant, but they really embody this notion that every billionaire is a policy failure.”

From “Let My People Go Surfing,” Yvon Chouinard’s memoir, and other linked sources. 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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