Unconventional Wisdom

Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard's candid perspective on life and surf

| posted on February 27, 2012

Yvon Chouinard, loving life. Photo: Davis

Interview by Brad Melekian

You can’t be a happy person without using your body. That’s the reason you feel so good after surfing, even if you’ve had a shitty day.

I started surfing at 16. I made my own board out of balsa. Eventually I traded the board for a Model A Ford engine. I drove that Model A all over the place—Canada, Wyoming. It was a fair trade.

There were so few surfers. I’d drive from the Valley down to Malibu, and guys coming back from Malibu would give you the thumbs up or down. Now they give you the finger.

The surfing itself hasn’t changed at all. There’s still a wave and a board and a wetsuit. But the equipment has gotten a lot better. I used to surf Ventura overhead in February with no wetsuit, no leash, and when somebody lost their board, you’d have to follow him in and make sure he made it.

Personally, I try to lead a simple life. I don’t walk around with my hat on backward looking like a surfer. My Patagonia clothing, some of it is 20 years old. Just because I have a clothing company doesn’t mean I have closets and closets of brand new clothes.

Sure, it’s a consumer society, but you don’t have to be part of it. I hardly ever spend any money. Consumerism is just people trying to make themselves happy by consuming. And that’s wrong. Doesn’t work.

The secret to happiness is to be working at your passion. If you want to be miserable, lead a desperate life like everybody else where they drag their asses to work everyday because they hate their job.

My wife and I give 50 percent of our salaries away to charity. I don’t need the money. I don’t hang out with other businessmen. I’m a surfer for God’s sake. The only reason I hang on to this company is that I’m totally pessimistic about the fate of the planet. I feel like I couldn’t sleep at night unless I felt like I was part of the solution.

What’s wrong with just accepting the fact that there’s a beginning and an end to everything? I’m perfectly comfortable that I’m going to die.

I just live right now. You ask me about the past, you ask me about the future, the only way to be happy is to be living right now.

Everybody I know who’s studying the fate of the world is totally pessimistic. There’s no reason to be optimistic. We’re not going to get a handle on global warming, we’re way too late for that. It’s just a matter of knowing that you’re doing what you can, and so be it.

It’s not too late to start. I give talks to young people, and I can just see what’s going on in their heads. They’re thinking, “Oh yeah, when I get rich, I’m going to give a bunch of money away.” But it’s all relative. Ten dollars given away now is worth more than a hundred given away ten years from now. So you don’t have to be rich to be a philanthropist, or to do good.

I’m going to be in that seventh level of hell for using so much jet fuel. I don’t have the strength of character to say, okay, I’m going to quit traveling.

The whole history of America is you despoil your area and then you move west, right? Once you hit the bridge, you become multi-national and screw up the rest of the world. We’ve got to go back to absolute local living. You protect what you love, and how can you love something when you’re just looking for new loves all the time?

  • Jens Aggerbeck

    Great comments from an accomplished mind and unconventional wisdom!

    I have kept original Patagonia brochures for almost 20 years – I picked them up in Val D´Isere because of the strinking identity they represented right there in the shop. A surfer myself for too many years to think of – but still at an age where my memory of the road leading to the beach is intact – reading Yvon Chouinard´s comments – make all ends come together beautifully. Respect! Oh, la la!

    Brochures not only a treasured memory of supreme skiing/boarding – but I keep coming back to Patagonia brochures consistently as a professional, whenever corporate directors and mid level executive teams wish to “create a strong brand”.

    I usually show the Patagonia stuff among different – before entering the creative debate. Tell them it´s 20 years old material, and ask whether they are willing to commit to the same extent. All you need is personality and trustworthyness…!

    We could do with more companies like Patagonia – and more people like Yvon Chouinard.

  • Jeff B.

    “I’m going to be in that seventh level of hell for using so much jet fuel. I don’t have the strength of character to say, okay, I’m going to quit traveling. ”

    I have long admired Chouinard and Patagonia, and this comment- Yvon’s real brutal honesty- makes me admire him even more. And it certainly makes me think about my own consumption…

  • Duffy LaCoronilla

    “I’m going to be in that seventh level of hell for using so much jet fuel. I don’t have the strength of character to say, okay, I’m going to quit traveling.”

    “We’ve got to go back to absolute local living. You protect what you love, and how can you love something when you’re just looking for new loves all the time?”

    Umm, ok…

  • JR

    A lot of good insight and really, advice. Definitely a great to person to have as a role model.

  • a

    THANK u Surfer for sharing this!!! it is great to read things from real humans! thank u Yvon for the inspirational words…. Please keep up things like this!

  • Bojangles

    Just a slight smell of hypocrisy here and there, no?

  • Mike H.

    YC has been my hero for four decades. His wisdom is so uncluttered.

  • jorge

    You are a capatlaist – you should embrace it not shun it! What would have happened if you tried starting Patagonia in Cuba? Be a little ore patriotic you jack ass.

  • GBD

    This is it. He’s on to it. A true example of business that can help, not hurt the planet – ie. one not fueled by greed and short-sighted blindness. I truly admire this man (and am jealous of his life 🙂

  • charliep

    why not just hold onto your charity/pr money and make stuff in america yvon?

    quit exploiting chinese labor and wasting that jetfuel

    the way you used to make stuff

    then you might make good stuff again

    i would gladly pay more for a product i could feel good about

    here’s a nice video

    just in case that doesn’t work

  • hood

    there is nothing illegal with what he is doing.
    thanks for trying to be a policeman, you sound like a pretentious liberal asshole.

  • k

    easy to put down industry when you get clothes manufactured in china and indo. THIS is the problem with all US business. the bottum line: sell sell sell for pennies on the dollar and you arent any different yvon.
    you said it right there in the interview— local living.
    i went to buy a jacket at the patagonia store and the cheapest was 80 bucks. i thought: how much did yvon pay for this in china? exploitation of the very thing you are trying to hold dear my dear. take another look inside my freind.

  • Chris

    Best thing about YC is he knows he’s flawed but is at least cognizant of it. What’s worse, hypocrisy or ignorance? At least he is doing something about it (1% for the planet) In the great words of Ian MacKaye, “What the f*** have you done?” Go read “Let My People Go Surfing”, that has some great insight.

  • hugo hubro

    easy there, i think its a mellow dude participating in a calm refined lifestyle, a man can dream cant e? Any business has to think of the bottom line, unfortunately most of the surf industry is owned by everyone who isnt really in our best interests. Big business. Patagonia? I hate marketing, but I appreciate character. Life is a big punchline sometimes.

  • charliep

    hey yvon

    watch this Slavoj Zizek by RSA piece

    then i’ll read your book

  • Bill Bookout

    Well Said!

  • chris

    Weird to see Yvon here with a smile on his face… Must have been quite the effort. I’m surprised his face didn’t crack. Usually, he’s a scowling grumpy old man when he infrequently visits the line-up and attempts to surf.

    Yvon, thanks for nothing, Ventura salutes you with the middle finger extended..

  • Dudaclue

    “The whole history of America is you despoil your area and then you move west, right? Once you hit the bridge, you become multi-national and screw up the rest of the world.”
    Completely, deliberately false. Ever been outside the castle walls in Shanghai? Ever been to Honduras, Mexico City, India? Take a trip and then come on back to the USA – you’ll think that you could eat off the roads, they’re so clean. Poverty and despotism are what lead to the ‘despoiling’ of the environment we live in. The whole history of America is an idea that we are all inborn with the gift of freedom…freedom within the law to pursue a life of our own choosing. The whole history of America is the story of the greatest experiment in the history of the world. Chouinard should move his condescending ass to the cardboard shantytowns in Peru and gain a little appreciation for the America he chooses to criticize.

  • Mik

    thanks for sharing your clarity Yvon. i worked for Sierra Designs as an Art School dropout, traveled to Europe & India, worked in the surf industry as a graphic artist, taught Yoga, and came to many of the same conclusions. my life has been rad, but for sure, we have missed the turning point for Global Warming. People are going to suffer because we didn’t try hard enough, and because too many people have chosen to be ignorant, by not reading and listening and watching.

    Hood: calling someone out for being a Liberal is idiotic. Are you completely unaware of the destruction wreaked globally by the so-called “Conservatives”? Our massive debt to China, our illegal invasion of Iraq, our pollution of the Gulf through oil spills, our sell out to the military industrial complex instead of spending for education, schools, teachers, roads, infrastructures etc. Read War Talk by Arudhati Roy, and then open your mouth. You have no idea how ridiculous it is to attack people by calling them Liberal, as if that is bad. The Conservatives will take away every freedom you have if you keep listening to their fascist drivel.


    What’s with these attacks on Yvon Chouinard. Before you go criticizing him and dissecting his every word, what have you done lately? One he’s business man just like everyone else in the world trying to keep his business running. Fine his not exactly local-vore, but in retrospect his business keeps thousand employed nation wide. And god damn people it’s the American dream he made it this far he can do what he wants with his spare change even if its travel. On top of that at least his give his profits to charity and try to conserve land to keep it away from other corporate giants. What the hell have you guys done? His not perfect, but at least his making a change even if it is a little one. Change is change take it for what it is.

    Yvon thanks for what your doing.

  • Sector

    Didn’t realize how many wankers read Surfer, just the fact that there is debate is an outcome for YC, well done Patagonia on keeping the conversation in the media

  • Free Holllister Ranch

    To live and surf in the beautiful environs of Hollister Ranch has been a fortunate existence for Mr. Chouinard. But his company invests in foreign manufacturing, sells its clothes for a large price and then uses the profits to help continue the rich territorialist mentality that keeps the surf Hollister Ranch off limits to those that it belongs to. Hypocrite or hero, we are who we are.

    Just perhaps that newly formed B-Corp stand for bull—- sir?

  • Free Hollister

    One small point of contention.

    Patagonia manufactures its products overseas, sells it all around the world, and then uses the profits to keep the waves of Hollister Ranch off-limits to you and I.

    While I applaud that California now has B-Corporations, that Patagonia seeks the publicity of the first such corporation, begs the question: who you trying to fool, Yvon? Perhaps yourself.

  • kelly

    that picture is funny of him standing next to those machines
    he’s a parody of the man he once was
    those machines haven’t seen use in years
    its all MADE IN CHINA now
    a true poseur

  • scott anderson

    The hypocrisy has me spinning. 20 years from now, we’ll all be able to look back and have a good laugh at this article and commentary.

  • steven threndyle

    I don’t expect the surfers or surf companies who practice ‘disposable clothing’ to agree with YC’s business ethic, but he IS a hero to a lot of us because he makes gear that stands the test of time and that won’t be out of date next year. Yeah, he can be a bit grumpy but his retail stores are a truly awesome environment for getting stoked on whatever sport you want to practice. I was at Patagonia Haleiwa today and dropped $90 – the clothing is super high quality and yes, it’s made offshore but what clothing isn’t these days? There might not even be the sewing expertise in North America to make stuff to Patagonia’s rigorous standards. I love the fact that he sponsors the Malloys and Gerry Lopez and other surfers who are doing interesting stuff. Many thanks to ‘er for this interview. And I don’t even hate on the haters – everyone is entitled to their opinion – except of course if you’re a climate change denier.

  • Rick

    Yvon, I’m totally pessimistic as well. But I do my two cents so I can sleep at night. Don’t have a car, no kids, rarely fly. I try to set an example. People come up to me and say, Rick, I really envy you. But does anyone do as I do? No.

    The main problem is overpopulation. If there were only one, two billion people on the planet, we’d have a lot more leeway in living out our guilty pleasures.

    Most people don’t think twice about their high energy lifestyles.

    Oh yeah, I too remember when we used to folllow each other to the beach. No, we wait and see where everyone is going, and head the other way.

    Surfers are assholes.

  • Gerrie

    I like the whole idea behind Patagonia. Where in South Africa can I buy any of its products?

  • chris

    I find it to be pretty ironic that Great Pacific Iron Works, the flagship store of the Patagonia empire, is located in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Ventura. Primarily Hispanic, and working class, the Ventura Avenue has been a long suffering poverty stricken zone for as long as I can remember. Just makes me wonder about Yvon’s “giving.” Wouldn’t it be nice to improve some of the area where his store sits? Wouldn’t the residents of Ventura Ave be grateful for some sort of neighborhood improvements and/or services? I wonder what Apple would do if located in such a neighborhood?

    Oh right, sorry, they’re poor Hispanics, not rich Yuppies buying $800 wetsuits and giving to fashionable causes……..

  • Christophe Robet

    I had the wonderful experience of taking 70 plus articles of donated Patagonia wear to an impoverished orphanage outside of Moscow a couple years ago. You’d have thought I’d brought them Chanel and Gucci gowns. Even the downtrodden recognized quality, earm clothing that was built to last. Props to Yvon’s pursuit.

  • Whamo

    I’m glad the Ranch is off limits to most serfs. It’s good that we preserve the pristine nature of that area. Chouinard and Patagonia get too much hate considering the quality product they make and the good they do.

  • max

    I don´t believe you Dear Yvon, after reading your beautiful, simple and wise thoughts, it’s pretty clear you are amazingly optimistic, if not? why to bother on been conscious, responsible and ethical? any way, it’s great to have people like you in our planet!

  • dudaclue

    what we have, here, is failure to communicate…Collectivist thought processes are completely irrational and constantly turn in on themselves. The reason this interview has sparked any uproar at all is due to the very real contradictions that are revealed every time a collectivist/environmentalist/humanist opens his mouth. This kind of contortionist mindset is glaring even to the simplest among us. Folks, the Emperor has no clothes.

    (just ask them…they will never concede absolute truth – everything relative, no true right or wrong. How else can you explain the pretzels Chouinard’s logic?)

  • John

    That reeks of hypocrisy. Absolute bull. I honestly don’t think Patagonia makes anything locally. I mean, his ideals are great, but his company’s actions speak otherwise.

  • Kyle

    It’s unfortunate that the questions were not posted with the answers.

  • Mark

    I love how people are digging on YC for producing clothes overseas. You DO realize that it is virtually impossible for a company the size of patagonia to viably produce its product locally, right?

    I think the company is doing its best to stay profitable, keep its employees employed, and make an impact where it can.

  • Mike H.

    Shaka to that, Uncle Yvon.