Mother Earth now owns Patagonia. Next: Rastle Capitalism

Yvon Chouinard has had a reputation as a radical throughout his life. He invented rigid crampons and perfected an ice ax that churned up the ice, climbing out of its classic days of cutting endless steps (“stairways to the stars”) to scrape up vertical ice. I was swept along in its early days and am proud to say that for a few years in the early 1970s Yvon and I had more first ascents on California ice than anyone else.

So it was that in 1972, I happened to be working in the Chouinard Equipment Company’s tin shed in Ventura, and I had a front-row seat to watch him bet the company on bringing about another revolution, pure climbing. Yesterday I happened to hear the relevant numbers: 71 percent of the company’s business at the time was selling pitons (most of the rest were probably carabiners). He decided that saving the world’s rocks from the ugly scars that split away even hard Yosemite granite caused by his flagship product was worth risking the entire enterprise. Clean climbing became one of the world’s first environmental movements.

It continues. In his latest book Some stories, Yvon lists seven “Golden Ages” that he participated in. It’s an interesting list. Tip: telemark skiing is a skiing race to which he has not contributed innovative equipment design. Good stories – read them.

Chouinard with a cane, recovering from back surgery. Photo: Doug Robinson

Yesterday Chouinard announced his most radical move ever. It took two years, and a lot of smart lawyers, to come up with what can be called nothing short of a truly groundbreaking business structure. I’ll skip the details. You can read about them elsewhere. (And frankly, this never-before-seen arrangement just feels a little vague—even to its perpetrators—as to exactly how it will unfold. That’s what they said from the stage.) What is certain is that Mother Earth now owns Patagonia . Lock, stock and run. 50 million dollars has been set aside to go immediately to environmental work. In all likelihood, according to CEO Ryan Gellert, of another hundred million this year.

I liked the New York Times headline: “Billionaire No Longer.” They thought breaking the story was worthy of a special push email, something they do relatively rarely. I strongly agree. In Ventura for the announcement, there was thunderous applause from most of the workforce there, and exclamations like “Gobsmacked!” was heard the rest of the day. A former employee immediately grabbed the microphone to announce that since she has no children, she wanted to add her legacy to the Patagonia pot to amplify its environmental impact. Inspirational and I’m sure she won’t be the last.

Chouinard said he hoped giving away his billions (and his wife and children heartily agree) would inspire imitators. It was agreed at the after party – where there was plenty of buzz – that a lot of guys in suits and ties will be scratching their balls in boardrooms around the world today. I can’t wait to see which company will be the first to jump on that bandwagon. After all, One Percent for the Planet, which was another Chouinard innovation, has more than a thousand member companies. Its director says she now expects to be much busier. And just riding Patagonia’s coattails here could end up – just in the business world – as marketing gold.

I’m an optimist, okay? I couldn’t help but think as this news began to sink in yesterday (it takes a while to begin to understand something so radical) that this could shake the very roots of capitalism as we know it.

Image of tin shed courtesy of Patagonia

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