Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. –Patagonia’s Mission Statement
Patagonia grew out of a small company that made tools for climbers. Alpinism remains at the heart of a worldwide business that still makes clothes for climbing – as well as for skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running. These are all silent sports. None requires a motor; none delivers the cheers of a crowd. In each sport, reward comes in the form of hard-won grace and moments of connection between us and nature. Our values reflect those of a business started by a band of climbers and surfers, and the minimalist style they promoted. The approach we take towards product design demonstrates a bias for simplicity and utility.
Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, got his start as a climber in 1953 as a 14-year-old member of the Southern California Falconry Club, which trained hawks and falcons for hunting. [singlepic id=22 w=150 h=200 float=right] After one of the adult leaders, Don Prentice, taught the boys how to rappel down the cliffs to the falcon aeries, Yvon and his friends became so fond of the sport they started hopping freight trains to the west end of the San Fernando Valley, to the sandstone cliffs of Stoney Point. [singlepic id=24 w=200 h=150 float=left] There, eventually, they learned to climb up as well as rappel down the rock. Eventually, Yvon and his friends moved from Tahquitz to Yosemite, to teach themselves to climb its big walls.
The only pitons available at that time were made of soft iron, placed once, then left in the rock. But in Yosemite, multiday ascents required hundreds of placements. Chouinard, after meeting John Salathé, a Swiss climber and Swedenborgian mystic who had once made hard-iron pitons out of Model A axles, decided to make his own reusable hardware. In 1957, he went to a junkyard and bought a used coal-fired forge, a 138-pound anvil, some tongs and hammers, and started teaching himself how to blacksmith.
Chouinard made his first pitons from an old harvester blade and tried them out with T.M. Herbert on early ascents of the Lost Arrow Chimney and the North Face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite. [singlepic id=8 w=240 h=120 float=left] The word spread and soon friends had to have Chouinard’s chrome-molybdenum steel pitons. Before he knew it he was in business. He could forge two of his in an hour, and sold them for $1.50 each.
Chouinard built a small shop in his parents’ backyard in Burbank. [singlepic id=23 w=200 h=150 float=right] Most of his tools were portable, so he could load up his car and travel the California coast from Big Sur to San Diego, surfing. After a session, he would haul his anvil down to the beach and cut out angle pitons with a cold chisel and hammer before moving on. For the next few years, Chouinard forged pitons during the winter months, spent April to July on the walls of Yosemite, then headed out of the heat of summer for the high mountains of Wyoming, Canada, or the Alps, and then back to Yosemite in the fall until the snow fell in November. He supported himself selling gear from the back of his car. The profits were slim, though. For weeks at a time, he’d live on fifty cents to a dollar a day. Before leaving for the Rockies one summer he bought two cases of dented, canned cat tuna from a damaged-can outlet in San Francisco. This food supply was supplemented by oatmeal, potatoes, and poached ground squirrel and porcupines.
There was soon enough demand for Chouinard’s gear that he couldn’t keep making it by hand; he had to start using tools and dies and machinery. So in 1965, he went into partnership with Tom Frost, who was an aeronautical engineer as well as a climber, and had a keen sense of design and esthetics. [singlepic id=4 w=200 h=150 float=left] During the nine years that Frost and Chouinard were partners, they redesigned and improved almost every climbing tool, to make them stronger, lighter, simpler, and more functional. They would return from every trip to the mountains with new ideas for improving existing tools.
By 1970, Chouinard Equipment had become the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the U.S. It had also become an environmental villain because its gear was damaging the rock. Climbing had become more popular, but remained concentrated on the same well-tried routes in areas like El Dorado Canyon, the Shawangunks, and Yosemite Valley. The same fragile cracks had to endure repeated hammering of pitons, during both placement and removal and the disfiguring was severe. [singlepic id=25 w=150 h=200 float=right] After an ascent of the degraded Nose route on El Capitan, which had been pristine a few summers earlier, Chouinard and Frost decided to phase out of the piton business. This was to be the first big environmental step we would take over the years. It was a huge business risk – pitons were then still the mainstay of the business – but it had to be done.
Fortunately, there was an alternative: aluminum chocks that could be wedged by hand rather than hammered in and out of cracks. Chouinard introduced them in the first Chouinard Equipment catalog in 1972. The catalog opened with an editorial from the owners on the environmental hazards of pitons. A 14-page essay by Sierra climber Doug Robinson on how to use chocks began with a powerful paragraph:
“There is a word for it, and the word is clean. Climbing with only nuts and runners for protection is clean climbing. Clean because the rock is left unaltered by the passing climber. Clean because nothing is hammered into the rock and then hammered back out, leaving the rock scarred and the next climber’s experience less natural. Clean because the climber’s protection leaves little trace of his ascension. Clean is climbing the rock without changing it; a step closer to organic climbing for the natural man”
The lessons Chouinard learned from clean climbing would go on to inspire his vision of all the products he makes. Today, Patagonia’s Mission Statement is: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.“
On a winter climbing trip to Scotland in 1970, Chouinard bought a regulation team rugby shirt to wear rock climbing. [singlepic id=3 w=200 h=120 float=right] Overbuilt to withstand the rigors of rugby, it had a collar that would keep the hardware slings from cutting into the neck. It was blue, with two red and one yellow center stripe across the chest. Back in the States, Chouinard wore it around his climbing friends, who asked where they could get one. He began to import rugby shirts and began a clothing company.
As Chouinard began to make more and more clothes, he needed to find a name for his clothing line. To most people, especially then, Patagonia was a name like Timbuktu or Shangri-La, far-off, interesting, not quite on the map. [singlepic id=27 w=240 h=120 float=left] Patagonia brought to mind, as once noted in a catalog introduction, “romantic visions of glaciers tumbling into fjords, jagged windswept peaks, gauchos and condors.” Chouinard chose it as the name of his clothing business. He liked it because of the romantic images it conjured but also because it could be pronounced in every language.
Today Patagonia, Inc., is a leading designer of core outdoor, surf and sport-related apparel, equipment, footwear and accessories. With sales reaching $540M in 2012, the company is noted internationally for its commitment to authentic product quality and environmental activism, contributing over $47.5M in cash and in-kind donations to date. Committed to making its products landfill-free, the company’s entire product line is recyclable thorough its Common Threads Initiative. The company also advocates corporate transparency through its interactive website, The Footprint Chronicles, which outlines the environmental and social footprint of individual products. Patagonia was featured as The Coolest Company on the Planet on Fortune Magazine’s April 2007 cover.
Almost 25 years after Yvon Chouinard began hammering pitons, Fletcher, Yvon’s son, started Point Blanks (now FCD Surfboards) to build better surfboards in a shack next door to the original Iron Works. [singlepic id=48 w=240 h=120 float=right] Like father like son: Fletcher and Point Blanks proceeded to lay-up and destroy hundreds of fiberglass/ foam panels until they found a better, stronger and lighter way to build boards. And, with a group of freethinking surfers and shapers, designed higher-performance boards using the new technology.
When Fletcher decided to make surfboards in 1996, he wanted stronger boards with no decrease in performance. [singlepic id=38 w=240 h=120 float=left] “Causing no unnecessary harm” has always been a business goal of Patagonia’s, so these boards also had to minimize the use of toxic and nonrenewable materials. Fletcher was committed to not building “pop-out” boards, because to do so destroys the relationship between surfer and shaper, and because pop-outs keep board design from progressing. The goal was not to revolutionize the surf industry; rather, invent new materials and change paradigms.
Since 1999 FCD has used extruded polystyrene, which is similar to the foam used in beverage and fast-food containers (Styrofoam®). This foam contains no VOCs (volatile organic compounds), a source of air pollution. Extruded means the material is forced through a small opening, like toothpaste is extruded from a tube. This gives the foam directional properties similar to wood or a honeycomb. As such, the foam has a constant density throughout. It does not absorb water and is extremely light. The foam has enabled surfers to ride lighter boards that have improved performance and durability.
Yvon chose the present site of Patagonia’s Ventura headquarters for its proximity to one of California’s most consistent point breaks. [singlepic id=51 w=240 h=120 float=right] He and employees could run out on their lunch breaks and catch a few waves. The number of surfers working for Patagonia grew steadily.
In 2005 Yvon and Fletcher decided that the wetsuits they were using were not lasting long enough and set out to build one. [singlepic id=52 w=240 h=120 float=left] They recruited Dan, Keith, and Chris Malloy as well as Gerry Lopez and other surfers to help them develop a wetsuit that was warmer, more durable, and more environmentally conscious. The result was wetsuits that integrate chlorine-free wool into a recycled polyester mesh. They were, and still are, the most environmentally conscious wetsuits on the market.
Patagonia Surf has taken the same vision that helped develop the wetsuit into it’s boardshorts and sportswear. Simple, environmentally conscious, and built for purpose.
Today’s Company Culture
Patagonia maintains all the values that Chouinard Equipment taught Yvon and his crew. Employees can dress however they want, even barefooted. They run or surf at lunch, or play volleyball in the sandpit at the back of the building. Since 1984 Patagonia has had no private offices, an architectural arrangement that sometimes creates distractions but also helps keep communication open. In the same year Patagonia opened a cafeteria where employees can gather throughout the day that to this day serves healthy, mostly vegetarian food.
At Malinda Chouinard’s insistence, Patagonia opened an on-site child care center, at the time one of only 150 in the country (today there are more than 3,000). The presence of children playing in the yard, or having lunch with their parents in the cafeteria helps keep the company atmosphere more familial than corporate. Patagonia also continues to offer – mostly for the benefit of working parents but also for others – flexible working hours and job sharing. Patagonia has never had to make a “break” from the traditional corporate culture that makes businesses hidebound and inhibits creativity. For the most part, we simply made the effort to hold to our own values and traditions.