YVON CHOUINARD: Reaching the Top by Doing the Right Thing


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He has no use for the sort of fishing guide who takes you to the fish, points out the fish, tells you to keep your rod pointed down and when to "strip"--tug the line. All that baby-sitting will produce, he says, is a caught fish. What Chouinard wants to produce is an act of understanding. He teaches me about the different water speeds at three different depths. He shows me how to "mend the line," to slow up the motion of the fly. After 20 minutes of correcting and watching me, he suddenly leaves, and I do not notice his leaving.

Now I am alone standing on a flat gray rock in the Snake River, roll casting, as if I had walked there by myself. Out goes the line, like a river winding on a river. The fly whips and curls. I strip the line. I am beginning to see what he means by process. It is far more satisfying to cast for a fish than to have one on your hook. The consequence completes the process, so it is necessary to the process. But it also carries a kind of disappointment in completion.

Ah. I catch four whitefish, one after the other, and throw them back.

"Four's a good number," he tells me. "We'll say you caught a few. It'll sound like more." We watch an air show: an osprey scares off a bald eagle that has probably come too close to its nest.

I ask him if the joy he takes in fishing relates to operations at Patagonia. He says that from the outset in the early 1970s, the entire goal of the company was to do the right thing. At first it meant making the most useful and durable products, the best. Chouinard's company produced aluminum chocks instead of the old steel pitons for climbing so that rocks would not be scarred. It was also the first outdoors company to introduce modern synthetic fleece. In 1984 Chouinard directed his operation to tithe 1% of sales, which reached $180 million last year, for activist environmental groups. In 1996 Patagonia decided to use only organic cotton (grown without artificial pesticides or fertilizers) in its clothing.

These days he is leading a fight to dismantle some of the nation's hydroelectric dams, once essential for people, now destructive of spawning salmon. Chouinard was instrumental in the taking down of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine. Today, at the other end of the Snake, in the State of Washington, the government, egged on by Chouinard, is looking for ways to put such dams as the Little Goose out of service.

"Could you have made a lot more money if you hadn't gone in these directions?" I ask him.

"Absolutely," he says. "To get organically grown cotton, I have to deal directly with the farmers. And there's only one cotton crop a year. In some cases, I've had to cosign loans to keep them in business. When we started doing this, we lost about 20% of our sales. Now the stuff sells better than before, and I'll tell you why. A designer who begins with a bale of cotton takes his task seriously. He makes something more worthwhile." As a private company, Patagonia doesn't report profits, but it has expanded nicely for more than two decades.

"The dams were just something we had to get done," Chouinard continues. "In a few years, all the salmon will be gone. As for the 1% we give away, we do get complaints because the groups we help are often radical, like Earth First! But we're committed to give to groups working with causes, not symptoms."

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