A model wearing a Patagonia jacket. Vanni BassettiGetty Images
In a rare and surprisingly good piece of news for the sustainable fashion movement, outdoor clothing brand Patagonia announced a precedent-setting decision this week. The brand’s founder, 83-year-old Yvon Chouinard, is donating the $3 billion company to two environmental organizations. “The land is now our sole shareholder,” Chouinard began in one declaration released this week.
This means that 98 percent of Patagonia’s shares will go to the Holdfast Collective, a newly formed non-profit organization that will invest in the protection of nature, biodiversity and communities. All shares will be non-voting, meaning the collective will have no input into how Patagonia is run. The remaining 2 percent will go to the Patagonia Purpose Trust, which will be led by members of the Chouinard family to ensure that the brand continues to operate with the mission and values established almost 50 years ago. The family, which previously earned about $100 million in profits each year, will no longer receive that money.
Patagonia has long been a philanthropic business; was an early adopter of the B-Corp movement and its founder helped found it 1% for the planet in 2002, but a move on this scale has never been made by a clothing business before. Chouinard says that instead of going public or selling the business and donating the profits — which would have left the family unable to control Patagonia’s future — they came up with an entirely new solution. “Instead of ‘going public,’ you could say we are ‘going on purpose,'” he said in the statement. “Instead of extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth for investors, we will use the wealth that Patagonia creates to protect the source of all wealth.”
Undoubtedly, Chouinard’s decision makes perfect sense for Patagonia, because protecting nature has always been part of the brand’s DNA. Chouinard is also a self-described “existential dirtbag” who never wanted to be a businessman, let alone a billionaire, in the first place. He drives an old Subaru and has no phone or computer, according to the report New York Times. He is, by all accounts, an outlier as far as billionaires go.
Yet his decision feels significant because it is an unusual display of radical commitment to a cause. In an industry filled with greenwashing, performance sustainability and climate targets that are neither achievable nor ambitious, his rejection of the status quo is strengthening. In the same week, Kourtney Kardashian Barker released her “sustainable” collection with fast fashion brand Boohoo (yes, the same Boohoo that was caught paying garment workers in Leicester £3.50 an hour throughout the pandemic). Encouragingly, criticism of this problematic collaboration (in more ways than one) has been loud and clear. The public has had enough.
There is no shortage of billionaires who have made their fortunes in fashion. According to Forbes Billionaires List 2022, the global industry has produced some 250 billionaires, and Chouinard’s bold commitment to the environment will no doubt capture their attention. The question is, will they follow suit?