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The rise of Patagonia: How rock climber and activist Yvon Chouinard created one of the world's biggest outdoor brands from the trunk of his car

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The rise of Patagonia: How rock climber and activist Yvon Chouinard created one of the world's biggest outdoor brands from the trunk of his car
  • Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard announced this week he is giving away the company, with all profits going to climate change.
  • Chouinard has a long history of environmental activism, which he has steeped into the company.
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Patagonia was founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, who is married with two children, now in their 40s.

Patagonia was founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, who is married with two children, now in their 40s.
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard poses in his shop November 21, 1993 in California.Jean-Marc Giboux/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Patagonia

The company was built out of Chouinard's love for the outdoors. He was a passionate mountain climber at the ripe age of 14.

The company was built out of Chouinard's love for the outdoors. He was a passionate mountain climber at the ripe age of 14.
Yvon Chouinard climbs near Ophir wall during the three-day Mountainfilm festival in Telluride.Denver Post via Getty Images

Source: Patagonia

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Chouinard grew interested in climbing while a member of the California Falconry Club, when a leader taught the group how to scale cliffs to find falcon nests leading to a "lifelong love or rock climbing," according to the company.

Chouinard grew interested in climbing while a member of the California Falconry Club, when a leader taught the group how to scale cliffs to find falcon nests leading to a "lifelong love or rock climbing," according to the company.
Rock climber John Salathé with Yvon Chouinard at Camp 4, Yosemite Valley, California, October 1964.Tom Frost

Source: Patagonia

As Chouinard expanded his climbing experiences, he grew his network of friends in groups like the Sierra Club and learned to scale iconic peaks like Tahquitz and Yosemite.

As Chouinard expanded his climbing experiences, he grew his network of friends in groups like the Sierra Club and learned to scale iconic peaks like Tahquitz and Yosemite.
Photo of rock climbers (L to R): Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard on the summit of El Capitan on 30 October 1964, following the ten day ascent of the North America Wall, Yosemite National Park, California.Tom Front

Source: Patagonia

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Chouinard began teaching himself how to be a blacksmith in 1957, starting with making pitons, which are spikes mounted into rock to help support a climber. He quickly developed a following, and began selling them from his parents' backyard in Burbank, California, to friends and family.

Chouinard began teaching himself how to be a blacksmith in 1957, starting with making pitons, which are spikes mounted into rock to help support a climber. He quickly developed a following, and began selling them from his parents' backyard in Burbank, California, to friends and family.
A photo of a RURP (Realized Ultimate Reality Piton), invented by rock climbers Tom Frost and Yvon Chouinard.Tom Frost

Source: Patagonia

His real passion, though, was being outside, climbing and surfing along the California coast. He continued selling the gear from his car to support himself, but "profits were slim," and Chouinard would eat discounted tins of cat food for sustenance.

His real passion, though, was being outside, climbing and surfing along the California coast. He continued selling the gear from his car to support himself, but "profits were slim," and Chouinard would eat discounted tins of cat food for sustenance.
Yvon ChouinardJacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty Images
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Ready for a new adventure, in 1965 Chouinard teamed up with Tom Frost to create Chouinard Equipment, with a focus on redesigning climbing tools to make them "stronger, lighter, simpler, and more functional."

Ready for a new adventure, in 1965 Chouinard teamed up with Tom Frost to create Chouinard Equipment, with a focus on redesigning climbing tools to make them "stronger, lighter, simpler, and more functional."
Chouinard Equipment Company, Ventura, California, 1969Tom Frost - Skunkworks

Business began to grow, and by 1970 Chouinard Equipment was the largest climbing tool company in the US.

Source: Patagonia

Inspired by Chouinard's use of a rugby shirt he picked up in Scotland — which worked well on climbs because the collar stopped slings from digging into his neck — the company decided to take a stab at making its own apparel.

Inspired by Chouinard's use of a rugby shirt he picked up in Scotland — which worked well on climbs because the collar stopped slings from digging into his neck — the company decided to take a stab at making its own apparel.
Patagonia store owner Yvon Chouinard poses with his automobile November 21, 1993 in CaliforniaJean-Marc Giboux /Liaison Agency via Getty Images

Source: Patagonia

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Over the next few years, Patagonia introduced rugby shirts, raincoats, gloves, mittens, and hats to its catalogue.

Over the next few years, Patagonia introduced rugby shirts, raincoats, gloves, mittens, and hats to its catalogue.
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Source: Patagonia

In 1973, the company opened its first store, Great Pacific Iron Works in Ventura, California. Today it serves as the company headquarters.

In 1973, the company opened its first store, Great Pacific Iron Works in Ventura, California. Today it serves as the company headquarters.
Patagonia headquarters, the site of the first store, Great Pacific Iron WorksWikimedia Commons
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Throughout the next decade, Patagonia worked on developing new forms of apparel — including specialty outerwear and long underwear — designed to keep climbers warm and dry.

Throughout the next decade, Patagonia worked on developing new forms of apparel — including specialty outerwear and long underwear — designed to keep climbers warm and dry.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The company experimented with different types of fabrics and materials. It also began using its signature bright, bold colors for its clothing.

The company experimented with different types of fabrics and materials. It also began using its signature bright, bold colors for its clothing.
An array of fabrics along the wall in the lab on the Patagonia corporate headquarters campus in Ventura, California.David Walter Banks/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
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By the late 80s and early 90s, the company established a culture known for its community spirit and love of outdoor sports.

By the late 80s and early 90s, the company established a culture known for its community spirit and love of outdoor sports.
Free bikes are available for employee use on the Patagonia corporate headquarters campus in Ventura, California.David Walter Banks/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Its headquarters had no private offices, and employees were allowed to wear whatever they pleased.

Its headquarters had no private offices, and employees were allowed to wear whatever they pleased.
Solar panels cover the employee parking lot on the Patagonia corporate headquarters campus in Ventura, California on Friday, September 19, 2014.David Walter Banks/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
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Employees were encouraged to take surf breaks. Chouinard's laid-back approach to management is detailed in his memoir, "Let My People Go Surfing."

Employees were encouraged to take surf breaks. Chouinard's laid-back approach to management is detailed in his memoir, "Let My People Go Surfing."
Laura Tripp, testing & standards engineer, tests fabric strength in the lab on the Patagonia corporate headquarters campus in Ventura, California on Friday, September 19, 2014.David Walter Banks/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

It was also during this period that the company made an increased effort to support environmental efforts, and in 1988 Patagonia kicked off its first major campaign to protect Yosemite Valley.

It was also during this period that the company made an increased effort to support environmental efforts, and in 1988 Patagonia kicked off its first major campaign to protect Yosemite Valley.
In this Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, photograph, buyers pass by a sign in the Patagonia exhibit at the Outdoor Retailer & Snow Show in the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. Major players in the outdoor industry jumped into the political fight over national monuments two years ago and now have added climate change and sustainable manufacturing to their portfolio.AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Similar efforts continued over the years, and the company began making regular donations to grassroots environmental organizations. It later debuted its 1% for the Planet effort, in which 1% of all sales are directed to these groups.

Similar efforts continued over the years, and the company began making regular donations to grassroots environmental organizations. It later debuted its 1% for the Planet effort, in which 1% of all sales are directed to these groups.
Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Patagonia continued to make waves on the sustainability front, including with major campaigns like the 2011 Black Friday "Don't Buy This Jacket" ads, which urged customers to reduce their consumption.

Patagonia continued to make waves on the sustainability front, including with major campaigns like the 2011 Black Friday "Don't Buy This Jacket" ads, which urged customers to reduce their consumption.
Patagonia

Source: Insider

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Despite its focus on activism, Patagonia hasn't been impervious to controversy. In 2015, an expose from The Atlantic reported that internal audits showed "multiple instances of human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation in Patagonia's supply chain."

Despite its focus on activism, Patagonia hasn't been impervious to controversy. In 2015, an expose from The Atlantic reported that internal audits showed "multiple instances of human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation in Patagonia's supply chain."
Demand Fair Trade sticker seen in the Patagonia store window in Dublin city center during Level 5 Covid-19 lockdown. On Saturday, 13 March 2021, in Dublin, Ireland.Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Source: The Atlantic

Over the past decade, the company continued to expand its reach, including launching its own line of food, designed for hiking and camping called Patagonia Provisions.

Over the past decade, the company continued to expand its reach, including launching its own line of food, designed for hiking and camping called Patagonia Provisions.
Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Source: The New York Times

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Today, Patagonia has more than 70 stores globally and operates two distribution centers.

Today, Patagonia has more than 70 stores globally and operates two distribution centers.
Tourists enter the Patagonia outdoor clothing shop in Vail, Colorado.Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Source: Patagonia

In April 2017, Patagonia announced the launch of Worn Wear, a program in which customers can return old gear and apparel, and receive credit toward a new item.

In April 2017, Patagonia announced the launch of Worn Wear, a program in which customers can return old gear and apparel, and receive credit toward a new item.
Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Source: The Washington Post

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The company then mends the used items and resells them on its Worn Wear website.

The company then mends the used items and resells them on its Worn Wear website.
Bethany Biron/Business Insider

In 2020, Patagonia took its activism to new heights when it sued former President Donald Trump over plans to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah. The lawsuit came in tandem with an awareness campaign, "The President Stole Your Land."

In 2020, Patagonia took its activism to new heights when it sued former President Donald Trump over plans to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah. The lawsuit came in tandem with an awareness campaign, "The President Stole Your Land."
Patagonia.com

Source: Insider

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In an unprecedented move, Chouinard announced this week he is giving away Patagonia, with all profits going into a new trust established to fight climate change.

In an unprecedented move, Chouinard announced this week he is giving away Patagonia, with all profits going into a new trust established to fight climate change.
Brad Barket/GettyImages

"Instead of 'going public,' you could say we're 'going purpose.' Instead of extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth for investors, we'll use the wealth Patagonia creates to protect the source of all wealth," he wrote in a statement on Wednesday.

The company, which is valued at around $3 billion, will now be owned by the Patagonia Purpose Trust and Holdfast Collective.

The company, which is valued at around $3 billion, will now be owned by the Patagonia Purpose Trust and Holdfast Collective.
A Patagonia store signage is seen on Greene Street on September 14, 2022 in New York City.Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Source: Insider

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Often described as a "reluctant billionaire," Chouinard still embodies the same adventurous and unfettered spirit of his youth. According to The New York Times, the 83-year-old who was born in Maine "wears raggedy old clothes, drives a beat-up Subaru" and "does not own a computer or a cellphone."

Often described as a "reluctant billionaire," Chouinard still embodies the same adventurous and unfettered spirit of his youth. According to The New York Times, the 83-year-old who was born in Maine "wears raggedy old clothes, drives a beat-up Subaru" and "does not own a computer or a cellphone."
Patagonia founder Yvon ChouinardAl Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

"I never wanted to be a businessman," he wrote in his Wednesday statement. "I started as a craftsman, making climbing gear for my friends and myself, then got into apparel."

"I never wanted to be a businessman," he wrote in his Wednesday statement. "I started as a craftsman, making climbing gear for my friends and myself, then got into apparel."
George Frey/Getty Images

Source: Patagonia

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He continued: "Despite its immensity, the Earth's resources are not infinite, and it's clear we've exceeded its limits. But it's also resilient. We can save our planet if we commit to it."

He continued: "Despite its immensity, the Earth's resources are not infinite, and it's clear we've exceeded its limits. But it's also resilient. We can save our planet if we commit to it."
Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Source: Patagonia